Soccer — covering matches

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Scott French always brings four things to any soccer game he covers – binoculars, a stopwatch, tape recorder and a Mead flexible composition notebook. That way, French, who has covered two women’s World Cups, two men’s World Cups and Major League Soccer, can follow the games more precisely.

The binoculars enable him to gather details about plays across the field (or from high in a press box). A stopwatch enables him to accurately record the time of key plays at stadiums and fields where scoreboard clocks are not used (or available.) After games, French tapes players and coaches. During the game, he uses the Mead notebook to record key plays, comments and scoring (team-player-minute), red cards and yellow cards, starting lineups and substitutions.

French, a former senior editor for Soccer America magazine who has covered soccer for more than 40 newspapers, diagrams scoring plays to show which defenders were beaten, to record the passes leading to the goal, and to note where the shot was placed.

“In the World Cup, we’ve got TV monitors in front of us, and the replays are excellent,” French says. “As I look at my diagram of Mexico’s first goal against Iran, I’ve got three Mexicans (6-Torrado, 3-Salcido and 4-Marquez) running to the near post just before a free kick from the right wing. In doing so, they pull three defenders with them. Franco, initially behind the trio, pulls out, and Pardo’s free kick goes to him. Franco then heads the ball toward the far post, and Bravo has slipped into open space to finish. The detail is in my notes, and I wrote about it in my story. Rarely do I have this much detail.”

Steve Goff, who covers soccer for the Washington Post, says sports reporters should not focus so much on play-by-play and game stats. The fewer the numbers that appear in the story, the better. Sometimes, this cannot be avoided. Too often, reporters rely on stats when they do not understand the game.

Instead, Goff recommends telling the story that unfolds. “This is critically important in our new world of communication in which many readers have already watched the game on TV, and/or read the wire services story on the Internet; and/or scoured the box score,” he says.

Goff likes to lead with a snapshot of an important event that might illuminate a turning point in the game or that might focus on a key player – perhaps, a last-second shot or a significant penalty. But, mostly, Goff wants to explain the “big picture.”

“What does it [the game] mean?” Goff says. “How does it affect a team or a league? Are there any particular trends, or the disruption of a trend?”

Afterwards, Goff and French say to let the players and coaches explain things in their own words. “Often, the simplest question is best,” says Goff. “‘What was the difference in the final five minutes?’ or ‘What did you like about what your team did tonight?’ or ‘What does this result mean for the long run?’”

French frequently asks players to describe key plays, tactics, or the difficulties opponents gave them. “You can ask players to describe key plays, but often it is better to talk to them about the emotion of scoring a goal, or how it changed the game,” he says. “I’ve found that most players can’t describe the plays in which they’re involved; some can’t even remember them when the game is finished. Others can provide great detail.”

“One of the best quotes on tactics I received was many years ago from Paul Caligiuri, who explained how difficult it was to deal with Russia’s ‘passing triangles.’ After Mexico dominated the U.S. in the 1993 CONCACAF Gold Cup final in Mexico City, Cobi Jones talked about how the elevation sapped the Americans as the game wore on, to the point where it seemed “there were four green (Mexico) shirts for every white (U.S.) shirt. It’s nice to have an array of quotes to use.”

“If you cover a team as a beat, you’ll quickly learn who is a good quote and who isn’t. After Galaxy games, all of us writers make sure to check in with Landon Donovan (outstanding quote), Chris Albright (very good) and Peter Vagenas (very good). Generally, we didn’t talk to Cobi Jones (below average) unless he did something big or we needed to talk to him about something specific. For Chivas USA, Jesse Marsch, a holding midfielder, is a must. On deadline, you might have time to talk to two people. Unless somebody did something so big that I need his voice, I’ll go to one of my ‘go-to players’ for quotes in this situation.”

Finally, make sure you prepare to cover a game. Do your homework before covering the game by reading stories on the sport by veteran writers (like Goff and French) to see how a game story is structured, to learn the terminology, and to learn background information about the teams involved.

“Sometimes, the best learning experience comes by reading stories you normally wouldn’t approach,” Goff says. “Read a horse racing column, read a fashion story, read a business feature — anything to broaden your horizons.”

Covering sports can be daunting at first — watching the action, keeping score, writing effective notes and then talking with coaches and athletes. Then, you must organize and understand these notes before writing a story under deadline pressure. This entry is the fifth in a series created to help reporters focus on key information and statistics, both before and during sporting events.

Soccer has a bad rap for being a game where nothing happens. Clearly, that is not the case, as French and Goff reveal. Read examples of other soccer stories, learn the rules of the game, and take many notes. Below are some additional points to consider.

LEAD ELEMENTS
■ Team names
■ Score
■ Date
■ Location (specific name of fields, stadiums)
■ Game’s significance. Does the game clinch playoff berth or eliminate the team from the postseason? Is this a conference or district victory? Does this advance the team in a tournament?
■ What’s the “big picture?” What does this game mean to the teams involved? How does it affect them? Why is the game important?
■ Look for a story. Do not automatically focus on a scoring play or some key stat.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Team alignments. Most teams play defensively, using more fullbacks than forwards. A 4-4-2 alignment means the team uses four fullbacks, four midfielders and two forwards. A 4-3-3 is also a common alignment.
■ Did the teams play man-to-man or zone coverage for defense?
■ How teams scored. About 40 percent of all goals are scored on free kicks (corner kicks, penalty kicks).
■ Location of shots. Where were players when they scored – inside the box, mostly on the right side, 30 yards out. (Diagram key shots in your notebook.)
■ Possession. Which team held possession of the ball the most? If possible, get possession stats from official scorekeeper.
■ Assists. Who fed the scorers the most? Describe the types of passes (lengthy, off left foot, arching)
■ Number of headers
■ Did the flow of play go through the middle of the field, the flanks? See where the teams pushed the ball throughout the game.
■ Describe how each goal was scored, from pass to location of shooter to goalie’s reaction
■ Types of shots (angled, curled corner kicks, drilled 20-yarders)
■ Counterattacks, where the defense steals the ball and quickly goes in the other direction.
■ Trends in either team results or within the game. The team might have won or lost its last four games by a single goal or by three goals. Or, the team may have lost the ball countless times at midfield or been called for penalties near their own goal.
■ Focus on the play of the defense and midfielders. Do not automatically give credit for a shut out to the goalie, unless he/she made a key save or stopped many shots. If the goalie was not really challenged, mention that. You can even focus on a few plays where the defense stymied runs toward the goal.
■ Field conditions. Did rain or ice-hardened fields cause any changes in the way the teams, or individuals, played?
■ Injuries – were any key player hurt or did any player recently return from an injury. (Read stories on the teams and check with coaches to determine this.)

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Time progressively adds through the match, meaning a goal in the 88th minutes is a goal made with two minutes remaining in the regulation 90-minute match. You can refer to a goal being scored in the final two minutes, but, officially, the goal is scored in the 88th minutes. Says French: “In most soccer games (but not in college, which doesn’t follow FIFA rules), the referee keeps official time. He will stop his clock, theoretically, for goals, substitutions, yellow and red cards, injuries, time-wasting, etc. When the clock hits 45 or 90, subsequent time is called ‘stoppage time.’ Don’t use ‘injury time,’ which used to be popular, because injuries are merely one of several reasons time has been extended. Keep your stopwatch going. If a goal is scored two minutes into stoppage time, you can say so. (In the first half, it’s always best to say ‘two minutes into stoppage time’ or ‘two minutes into stoppage.’ In the second half, you could say the goal was scored ‘in the 92nd minute,’ although I usually mention ‘stoppage time’ to avoid confusion for less sophisticated readers.”
■ Off-sides. A player can never receive a pass from a teammate when he is behind the last line of defenders. A defender must always be between him and the goal when he first touches a pass.
■ Yellow cards. A player receives a yellow card for a penalty or for playing too roughly, such as a player who slide-tackles an opponent with cleats up high. Two yellow cards earn a player a red card, meaning that player is kicked out of the game. Plus, that player’s team has to compete a player short. Sometimes, a player also receives a further suspension.

SOME PHRASES
■ “the forward split two defenders”
■ “A sliding right-footed shot”
■ “goalie misplayed a crossing shot”
■ “the shot bent inside the goal post”

QUESTIONS TO ASK AFTER THE GAME
■ Focus (and interview) players more than coaches, especially at the high school level. “There is a tendency, especially in high school reporting, to rely almost exclusively on the coaches,” French says. “Sometimes, this is because high schoolers are shy and getting usable quotes can be very difficult. But some patience will pay off, and your story will be better for it.”
■ Ask players and coaches to describe scoring plays.
■ Ask a player to describe how she felt after she (or a teammate) scored.
■ What were you thinking (during as key point in the game)?
■ Describe your opponent (ask a sweeper about a forward or a forward about a goalie).
■ Ask players and coaches to react to key plays
■ How did you adapt to the other team’s play?
■ Ask coaches about their tactics
■ How has the team has progressed over the last several games or weeks?
■ How has the team been playing?
■ With which areas are you happy? Unhappy?
■ Who has been playing very well? Who would you like to see more from
■ What formation do you use? How does it best utilize the players you have?
■ Ask about specific players, about the on-field relationship between two forwards or between a forward and a playmaker or among the backline and defensive midfielder, etc.
■ What is your impression of your opponent? What do they do well that you must counter? With which of their players are you most impressed?

photo/courtesy of Jay Grabiec, Daily Eastern News

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2 Responses to “Soccer — covering matches”

  1. Joe Gisondi Says:

    Please, feel free to offer other points about covering soccer that I might have overlooked or to make any general comments. You can click on the anonymous button or offer your names. Thanks either way.

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