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Soccer Terms Used by American Football

The World Cup is in full swing, so let’s look at how many terms in soccer relate to pro football.

Brazil v Costa Rica: Group E - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The World Cup is earth’s most famous sports tournament. Just as the Olympics, it is played every four years and pits countries against countries. It also features the world’s most popular sport: football.

The game of “football” began with the Romans and has since evolved into the sport it is today. In 1863, a set of standard rules was formed in England and called “Association Football.” The term “soccer” came out of the slang use of “Association” with younger players adding an “er” to most things. If you surfed you were a surf-er, or if you played golf you were a golf-er. If you played Association Football you were an assoc-er. That later became shortened to “socc-er.”

Everywhere in the world, this game is called “football.” In North America, the same game is called “soccer.”

In the 1800s, every American college played soccer as most students were European immigrants and football was the sport they grew up with. Harvard University predominately played rugby as a large percentage of their athletes were schooled in England. Other universities were intrigued with the sport and enjoyed that this game had more contact. Eventually, more and more colleges began to switch over to rugby as their main sport.

Rugby came from soccer. The official name of this sport is called “Rugby Football.” Rugby started at the Rugby School in England, a boy’s school. While playing soccer, a kid named Webb Ellis picked up the soccer ball and ran with it. Another kid tackled him. The boys liked this and began playing a version of their new sport. A set of rules was developed in 1845.

In 1869, a game between Rutgers University and Princeton University was played that used soccer rules, rugby rules and some new rules. It is considered to be the very first American Football game, even if those playing rules do not resemble anything of today’s game.

Enter Walter Camp

Eventually, Yale University head coach Walter Camp tinkered with the rugby game and developed a new game. He called it “football.”

Walter Camp - Father of American Football

So, football (soccer) was first, then rugby football came from football, then American football came from rugby football. Therefore, soccer is the grandfather to American Football.

The main differences that Camp installed was possession. In basketball, polo, soccer, hockey, lacrosse and water polo, all of these sports have one thing in common: they have possession as long as they retain the ball. But in American Football, if you fail on a play, you still keep possession.

Another thing Camp changed was he installed a system of downs, and yardage that must be accomplished to continue possession. At first, it was 5-yards with three downs. Later, that was changed to 10-yards with three downs. This is why the Canadian Football League still plays 10-yards with three downs.

Camp also reduced the size of the rugby field down, which was longer and wider, to the standard size the game is today.

American Football Uses Soccer Terminology

When the game of rugby was slowly begin developed in the new American Football version, a lot of things that were used in soccer and rugby were simply copied and duplicated in the new game. This is not unusual. If you go into any American restaurant you can order an omelet or a hamburger. The omelette was a standard French breakfast item whereas the hamburger was a sandwich featured in Germany; yet both of these are considered American dishes.

Here is a list of terms that American Football (AF) uses that are derived from its soccer roots:


At first, the game of American Football was two halves with 45-minutes per half. Soccer is still this way in the college, professional and international levels and vary with the lower levels. Later, AF changed to four quarters.


The English began this trend during soccer games at the conclusion of the first half. Made sense for AF.

Changing Ends

In 1863, soccer rules were changed to allow teams to change ends after halftime. This was done in the flavor of fair play which did not give one team an advantage over the other in terms of adverse field conditions. So, if you have ever wondered why AF teams change ends after quarters and after halftime, now you know.

Old American Football game ball that resembles its rugby roots


Both sports have a ball, and both call it a football. In North America, it is called a soccer ball.


The penalty box is an area where certain fouls count towards a penalty kick instead of a direct kick, and is a place where the defense usually crowds during an offensive attack. AF uses the term box to describe a defense that crowds the line of scrimmage.


In soccer, a one-on-one with the goalkeeper is a major advantage to the attacking team, so the rules state that the offense must have two players between themselves and the goal and when an attacker jumps over this imaginary line it is called offside. AF uses the same principal of jumping over the imaginary line.

Red & Yellow

Soccer uses red cards and yellow cards for fouls, AF uses red flags and yellow flags for fouls.


In soccer, when a defender swipes away a ball and stops an attack it is called a tackle. In American Football, when a defender knocks a player down and stops an attack it is called a tackle.


When one player kicks the ball to another this is a pass. When one player tosses the ball to another, this is an AF pass.


When one player kicks the ball to another but a defender jumps in front to collect the ball this is an interception. When one player tosses the ball to another but a defender jumps in front to collect the ball this is an AF interception.


After each interception, this is classified as a turnover in both sports.


The crossbar is the horizontal part of the goal in both sports.


The uprights are the vertical part of the goal in both sports.


In soccer, a goal is scored when the ball goes into the net. In rugby, a goal is scored when the ball is kicked between the uprights, In AF a field goal is scored when the ball goes between the uprights and over the crossbar.

Referee & Linesman

In soccer, the center official is called the referee. The linesman look down the parallel line with the second to last defender to determine whether players are onsides or offsides when the pass is kicked. The head official in AF is the referee, whereas the linesman look down the parallel line of scrimmage.


When a new player comes into the game, this is called a substitution in soccer. In the college, professional and international levels, teams are allowed three substitutes per game and the player coming off the field cannot re-enter the game. Up until 1946 in AF, any amount of players could be substituted, but once they left the field they could not re-enter.


Except in playoff situations or the knockoff rounds of any soccer tournament, when two teams have the same score at the conclusion of the game this is called a tie. AF simply called theirs the same thing.


In most levels of soccer, when a winner is necessary, extra periods of play are necessary and called overtime. In international games, this is called “extra time.” In overtime, any amount of goals can be scored but the entire period must be played out. AF has always called their added periods of play overtime. All levels of AF have their own rules regarding this extra period and how a winner is determined.

Sudden Death

In soccer, at many levels after the game is concluded and a tie game is the result but a winner must be proclaimed, the teams will go into several periods of overtime. If a winner is still not named, then usually two 5-minute sudden death periods are played with the winner the first team to score no matter how much time is left on the clock.


Soccer plays 11 players per side while rugby plays 15. AF stayed with soccer’s roster size.

Goalkeeper punts the ball


When the goalkeeper kicks the ball downfield it is called a punt and a player from either team can gain possession. When an AF player kicks the ball downfield it is called a punt. Originally, in AF it was the same as in soccer whereas either team could gain possession of the punt, but was later changed.


Both sports have penalties for various infractions.

Offense & Defense

In soccer, the team who is doing the attacking is called the offense, while the players who attempt to stop the other team from scoring is referred to as the defense. AF uses the same terms.


In both sports, when one player grabs another player and does not let go, it is called holding.


These outdoor sports shoes were invented in 1526 for Henry VIII, the king of England so that he had a traction advantage when he would “play football.”

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.