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Personal Foul Offense: Fútbol or Football? (Part 1)

Matching college football games to their soccer equivalents. Bear with us.

Auburn’s Chris Davis returns a missed field goal for the winning touchdown against Alabama.
Auburn’s Chris Davis returns a missed field goal for the winning touchdown against Alabama.
Todd J. Van Emst

We told you we wouldn’t always publish Georgia Tech-related material. This is one of those times. Enjoy.

The almost-tribal nature of college football fans — their strict adherence to tradition, their unique chants and songs, their effervescent distaste for non-team colors — rivals only the rich tradition of soccer fandom for most historically chaotic. Both sports have found themselves the cause of actual armed conflict (see: Soccer War; Toledo War; Clemson’s invasion of Columbia, SC), both have rich histories that make fans of today’s paupers bellow like kings, and both have been pumped full of enough money to purchase multiple large chunks of eastern Europe.

Bottom line: soccer and college football are more similar than many in the college football fandom may want to believe. Not convinced? We’ve sampled (mostly recent) soccer history to find equivalents to popular and historic (but mostly recent) CFB games. Let’s dive in.

Oklahoma @ West Virginia, 2018

Soccer equivalent: Los Angeles FC vs Philadelphia Union (Major League Soccer, 2020)

Reasoning: The sheer entertainment value

We’re starting with a match played just this past weekend because 1) I make the rules here and 2) this has to be one of the most fascinating sporting events I have ever witnessed.

Let’s set the mood on the soccer side here, since MLS is a little more esoteric than your usual European fare:

LA has just completed the most successful regular season for a MLS team ever, boasting talented foreign stars like Mexico’s Carlos Vela, Uruguay’s Diego Rossi, and (again) Uruguay’s Brian Rodriguez. It has also just engineered a massive comeback from three goals down versus Liga MX (the Mexican first-division soccer league) powerhouse Club León in CONCACAF Champions League (the North American version of the European Champions League you might know). This is a very, very, very talented team — and they like to play a high energy, high pressure brand of soccer.

On the other side of the field, the Union posted their best season in club history in 2019, leading the Eastern Conference for much of the season but finishing third behind New York City and Atlanta United. Unlike LAFC, Philadelphia operates on a bit of a shoestring budget and has pivoted to produce homegrown talent rather than spend the big bucks on foreign stars — in this match alone, four players that appeared in a Union kit were from its youth academy. Philadelphia plays a bit more pragmatic style of soccer: they still look to pressure opposing players, but where LA is more frenetic and free-flowing in their attack, the Union are more methodical with their passing and build-up play.

What does this all mean how the game unfolded? Absolute chaos. The teams played an intensely competitive match that featured not one — but two free kick goals; four Philadelphia players injured at various points during the match, including one twice; EIGHT whole minutes of first half stoppage time; and, through it all, a twisting and turning thread of oneupmanship. Every time the Union scored — each goal absurd in its own way — LA responded almost immediately in a similarly absurd fashion.

Does this sound familiar to you? Why, yes; of course it does — because you, dear reader, (probably) held on for dear life as Oklahoma and West Virginia traded blow after blow in Morgantown two years ago, as both teams discarded any pretense of defense.

Take special note of:

  • the similar offensive styles, but with different methods of application
  • the high-pressure back-and-forth between the two sides
  • the increasingly absurd scoreline due to lapses in defending and moments of athletic magic

Yeah, this one was fun. The only difference between the two games: LAFC and Philly played to a draw (yes, I know how un-American that is), while OU pulled away late to escape the Mountaineers.

UCLA at Washington State, 2019

Soccer equivalent: Paris Saint Germain vs FC Barcelona (UEFA Champions League, 2016-17)

Reasoning: The deficit (and comeback)

Despite having Argentine superstar Lionel Messi and surrounding him with a cadre of other absurdly talented players, Spanish powerhouse Barcelona found themselves on the wrong side of a 4-0 scoreline after the first leg of their two-game playoff against French champion Paris Saint Germain in Paris. Usually attacking and high-pressing Barcelona had only mustered one shot on target in the first leg, and their chances of advancing to the Champions League quarterfinals seemed slim to none.

But in the second leg, Uruguayan international Luis Suarez put Barcelona up 1-0 with a glancing header off a misplayed PSG pass just three minutes into the match. A PSG own-goal forced by Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta doubled the scoreline five minutes before halftime. Messi added a third five minutes after the break, but PSG’s Cavani countered with an vital away goal twelve minutes later. The Blaugrana needed three goals to advance, and they waited until extremely late in the match to grab them: Neymar brought home a goal and controversial penalty of his own in the 88th and 91st minutes, and then at the death (and I really mean final seconds here), Sergi Roberto capped off the Barcelona comeback by flicking a Neymar cross into the back of the net. A written description does not do this match justice; just watch the chaos unfold:

Something about that match had a very #PAC12AfterDark vibe, didn’t it? In fact, you’ve watched this exact story unfold in the other type of football before — and more incredibly, you watched it just this past fall (well, if you stay up to watch the late games, that is).

At 6:52 left in the third quarter, the Washington State Cougars sat atop a comfortable 32-point lead versus visiting UCLA. Wazzu quarterback Anthony Gordon had thrown a touchdown pass on each of his team’s seven scoring drives, and the Cougar Air Raid looked nigh unstoppable versus a Bruin defense that was smothered, covered, and chunked in the first two-thirds of this game.

And then, the other foot dropped.

UCLA, led by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and helped out by a few Wazzu turnovers, put together three touchdowns before the end of the third quarter to cut their deficit to 11, then opened the fourth quarter with a touchdown and two-point conversion to bring themselves within three points of the Cougars and silence a previously-raucous crowd on the Palouse.

Here’s where things got very interesting: for the first half of the fourth quarter, UCLA and Wazzu went tit-for-tat, each matching the other’s quick touchdown drive with one of their own. But around the eight-minute mark, Wazzu bailed on its end of that bargain and must punt. The Bruins took full advantage of the Cougar mistake, returning said punt for a touchdown and taking the lead at 60-56 with 7:31 left to play. Wazzu wrested back a three-point lead with a Max Borghi touchdown a minute later, and on the ensuing drive, with 2:43 remaining and with the Bruins facing a fourth-and-five from the Wazzu 17, the Cougars forced a turnover-on-downs and clinch the game. That was all she wrote, right? Right?

Wrong. Wazzu found itself on the wrong end of a controversial fumble just 16 seconds later, and UCLA scored on the ensuing drive to take a 67-63 lead. Wazzu quarterback Anthony Gordon, who by this point had thrown nine touchdown passes in the game, had a chance to drive his team downfield for the win with the ball at his own 25 and 67 seconds left. Throwing for ten touchdowns should be enough to win, right? Right?

Well, it would have been, had not Keyshon Lucier strip-sacked Gordon eight game-seconds later to seal the Bruins’ comeback victory. #PAC12AfterDark, and apparently #UCLAfterDark along with it, never ceases to disappoint.

Alabama @ LSU, 2011

Soccer equivalent: United States vs the Netherlands (FIFA Women’s World Cup, 2019)

Reasoning: The defense

As a fan of extraordinary offensive play (especially to an absurd extreme), I am disgusted by the lack of any sort of offensive movement in 2011’s “Game of the Century” between Alabama and LSU. We don’t need to rehash all of the details (I can already taste yesterday’s dinner churning back up), but here’s the short version: the entire nation bore witness to a tightly-contested defensive battle that saw only 15 total points, no touchdowns, and 534 combined yards of offense. Thanks, I hate it.

I hated the US women’s national team’s 2019 World Cup final performance versus the Dutch in a much different, more panicked way. The Americans had blown by their group stage competition by a combined scoreline of 18-0, but squeaked out 2-1 victories in their round of 16, quarterfinal, and semifinal matches versus Spain, France, and England, respectively. The US had its work cut out for it versus the Dutch — Holland’s quick and technically gifted attackers, like Lieke Martens and Vivianne Miedema, gave way to physical defenders in Stefanie van der Gragt, Anouk Dekker, and Dominique Bloodworth.

Both teams traded scoring chances throughout the first half of the match, but the American and Dutch defenses were able to keep their shapes and hold firm into halftime...mostly. Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal had parried away threatening shots from American midfielder Sam Mewis and Alex Morgan, and her defensive line (technically backline, but I’m trying to relate to the CFB common man here) had done well to absorb the Americans’ high pressure and long passes that drifted into the penalty area. On the other end of the field, the Americans held their lines well, but had been sliced and diced by a few Dutch counterattacks, led by the aforementioned Miedema and her partner-in-crime, Lineth Beerensteyn. One such attack got far enough out of hand from the Americans that US defender Abby Dahlkemper was forced to commit a tactical foul (think committing defensive pass interference to only allow a 15-yard gain instead of a long touchdown pass) and take a yellow card to snuff it out.

But in the end, like LSU did, the United States won this match on the slimmest of margins (but in a much different way than a field goal in overtime): in the 60th minute, video review found that van der Gragt’s foot had swiped Morgan’s shoulder while both were making a play on an incoming pass into the penalty area, gifting the Americans a crucial penalty. American forward Megan Rapinoe buried said PK, and nine minutes later, midfielder Rose Lavelle followed Rapinoe’s lead by drilling a shot from the top of the penalty area into the bottom corner of the net to double the US lead. Despite two late Dutch substitutions to turn up their offensive intensity to find a way back into the match, American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and her backline went full Bama/LSU for the final twenty minutes, sweeping away anything that looked remotely like offense (including a late shot by Dutch forward Shanice van de Sanden that forced a Naeher save) and eventually securing a fourth world title for the United States. Add the [Foreigner]ing star, boys and girls.

All considered, I fibbed a little — there was some offensive movement in this World Cup final, especially from the US, which spent the better part of the match barreling forward possession after possession trying to MacGvyer its way through the Dutch defense. However, much to the chagrin of said defense, the same was true on the other end of the field: the Dutch attack struggled to generate a lot of quality scoring opportunities against quite literally the best defensive line in the world. Much in the way of 2011’s Game of the Century, the world’s best defenses collided and put on their best performances in this match, both tangling to teach a masterclass in defending both high-pressing and counterattacking soccer.

Alabama @ Auburn, 2013

Soccer equivalent: Watford vs Leicester City (English Championship, 2012-13)

Reasoning: The ending

Promotion to the English Premier League — the first division of English soccer (yes, there are multiple divisions and no, you don’t have to pay the NCAA to move between them) — is a very, very big deal for teams in the lower levels. Entry to the EPL guarantees teams a massive payday for their TV rights, access to better players, and the chance to play the best of the best in Europe if they finish in the top five positions the following year (an opportunity which could shower a club in even more cash).

It comes then as no surprise that the semifinal stage of the English Championship (the second division) promotion playoff is one of the most hotly-contested competitions on the continent — there are a lot of dollar signs (err, pound signs?) riding on the result of the series for each club. Seven seasons ago, said stage ended “in the most unbelievable fashion you will ever see”. Nick Miller at The Guardian sets the mood:

A few twists of fate – or, if you prefer, results in football matches – meant Watford and Leicester very nearly didn’t meet at all in the 2013 Championship play-offs. On the final day of the “regular” season Watford faced Leeds United, knowing that if they won and Hull did not then they would claim automatic promotion. Hull did their bit, drawing 2-2 at home to a Cardiff City side who had already sauntered away with the league title, but Watford could not manage the win in a game that was nearly as frantic as the play-offs. In the first half, the keeper Jonathan Bond (only in the team because Manuel Almunia had hurt himself in the warm-up) collided with Ikechi Anya and was taken off on a stretcher, brace around neck and oxygen administered. His replacement, 19-year-old Jack Bonham, was at least partly at fault for both Leeds goals, the second of which was a Ross McCormack lob that condemned Watford to a 2-1 defeat. Meanwhile Leicester, who suffered a spring collapse having been in the top six for most of the season, started the day in eighth place with only a vague chance of even making the play-offs. Needing to win at Nottingham Forest and for Bolton not to beat Blackpool, Leicester’s 90th-minute strike at the City Ground and the Trotters’ 2-2 draw allowed them to scrape into sixth.

Despite this dramatic end to the regular season, the first leg of the ensuing semifinal series was mostly uneventful, and with Leicester securing a 1-0 home win, all it had to do in the second leg at Watford to advance to the final was tie.

To its credit, Watford made Leicester work for it. After 90 minutes, the score stood 2-1 Watford, and in stoppage time, after Watford defender Marco Cassetti shoved down Leicester winger Anthony Knockaert in the penalty area to gift the Foxes a penalty with only seconds left, Leicester seemed to have secured its place in the final. Even if Knockaert missed his penalty kick, Leicester would still advance — it had nabbed a crucial away goal (the first tiebreaker for aggregate scoring) in the first half.

Oh my, how the tables turned from there.

Knockaert’s penalty and follow-up shot were saved by Watford goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, whose second save fell to the feet of now-former Watford scapegoat Cassetti. The defender slipped a pass to midfielder Ikechi Anya as he glided down the right side of the field, then Anya, in turn, slotted a pass forward to a streaking Fernando Forestieri. Forestieri then turned and fired the ball over the heads of a scrambling Leicester backline to midfielder Jonathan Hogg, who headed Forestieri’s pass down into the path of forward Troy Deeney, who promptly punched the ball into the back of the Leicester net, jumped into the stands to celebrate with his family, and found himself swarmed by the Watford faithful who then flooded the field. All considered, Watford ran it back 126 yards to score and win the match and literal semifinal.

On the other side of our comparison, Alabama and Auburn met on the plains in 2013 to play what was effectively a SEC Championship semifinal. You know what happened: Auburn RPO’d all over Alabama, bringing the game to a deadlock in its final stages. When time seemed to expire as Alabama’s field goal unit rushed onto the field for a 56-yard field goal attempt, head coach Nick Saban implored the referees to review the previous play to get any sort of time back. His request was granted — the officials gifted him one second to set up for the game-winning field goal. Smugly satisfied with his victory on clock technicalities and confident in his kicker’s abilities, Saban looked forward to clinching another Iron Bowl victory and SEC Championship game berth in short order.

Well, Auburn’s Chris Davis had something to say about that.

Same year, similar implications, and similarly [B-52’s]-insane endings.

Any other games and matches come to mind? Let us know in the comments below!