50+ years of watching baseball have turned a lot of the game into shorthand for me. I know the Giants far more than I know any other team, since they’re the ones I watch most often. But if I see a close-up of a Giant, I usually recognize him. If I turn the game on and a Giant is at the plate, I can often tell who it is simply by the batting stance that he takes. And if the team is in the field, I know that when I look at the centerfielder, there are only a few guys who would be out there … I’m not working my way mentally through 25 players, but only Rowand (usually), Torres, Winn or Velez.
I’ve been watching soccer for a lot less than 50 years, so there’s little shorthand involved. I know the Earthquakes, for the same reason I know the Giants (more so if I attend a lot of matches in person, since soccer is particularly instructive when you can see the whole field). The difference with soccer is that I watch other teams besides my favorites. I watch the Giants more than I watch any other sports team, but I watch, say, Liverpool more than I watch the Atlanta Braves. And at times, I realize I’ve picked up more knowledge than I’d thought about soccer. For instance, I’m watching Liverpool play as I type this. It’s not in HD, so the screen is smaller and the picture is fuzzier, which is to say that I need to apply what I already know to help illuminate what I see … an HD telecast makes a big difference.
I often find myself wondering, who is that out there? It’s not as easy as wondering who the Giants CF is … positions are more fluid in soccer, and I don’t know Liverpool as well as I know the Giants. But more often than not, I DO know who that is out there, which is something people who were born into the sport take for granted, but which still surprises me.
So, for instance, Liverpool has two attacking players with blond hair who look similar, at least absent an HD picture. One, Dutchman Dirk Kuyt, has wavy-bordering-on-curly hair; the other, Spaniard Fernando Torres, has straight, stringy hair, so it’s not like you couldn’t tell them apart if they were standing right in front of you. But on TV, it’s not so easy. Except … I know that Torres is more of an out-and-out forward while Kuyt is nominally a winger, so all else being equal, the blondie in the center is Torres and the one on the wing is Kuyt. I also know that Torres tends to place himself where goals are likely to begin, while Kuyt, who has a tremendous workrate, will by the end of the match have covered pretty much every inch of the field (not that Torres is lazy, but he plays a different role and style from Kuyt, who is so active anyway that he’d make a speeding meth addict look lazy). If the blondie is back amongst the defenders, trying to prevent a goal from the opponents, that’s going to be Kuyt as well … again, it’s not that Torres is lazy, he’ll move back if necessary, but that’s not his job, whereas Kuyt’s job sometimes seems to be “go wherever the ball is” … he’s like a 6-year-old in a junior game.
None of this is of particular importance, and for a seasoned soccer fan, it’s painfully simple, rather like watching a baseball game and being proud that I know the difference between Pablo Sandoval and Pedro Feliz. But I probably won’t live long enough to be able to call myself a seasoned soccer fan, which means I’ll always surprise myself when I recognize Dirk Kuyt.