Soccer won't wait for the pandemic this time. The games go on, watched by empty seats. And as it turns out, the joy and the agony of fans in the stands is what's most obviously missing from the experience.

Calling soccer the "beautiful game" is a cliché, these days likely to be used ironically on social media and accompanied by a clip of some unfortunate player running full speed into a goalpost. But it gets at the combination of precision and power and grace and endurance that soccer celebrates. And it's why the game finds an audience in every end of the earth, many of whom declare they'll watch any game, anywhere, any time. As the months have worn on, though, it's become clear that the crowd is a big part of what makes the game beautiful.

The best game I've seen during the pandemic was from the German second division, Hamburg vs. St. Pauli, a crosstown rivalry. There were 500 fans; the teams played to an ugly 2-2 draw. It was better than the Champions League final, just to hear the fans living and dying with every kick. Soccer will be televised without fans, it will make money without fans, but without fans, the game can't hope to be truly beautiful.

Short takes

• The NWSL so enjoyed its Challenge Cup tournament this summer that it's planning a season-opening tournament for next year. The league will kick off with the 2021 Challenge Cup in April, then transition to a full regular season in May.

• In a sign of the times, Norway's UEFA Nations League schedule was derailed when Norwegian authorities banned the team from traveling after a member of the national team tested positive for COVID-19. The team had to forfeit one game, then call in a makeshift squad of players from outside Norway for a second — and still almost beat Austria. The results, though, kept the team from being promoted to the top division.

Watch guide

Premier League: Leicester City at Liverpool, 1:15 p.m. Sunday, NBCSN. In this disjointed season, can Leicester challenge for a title again? The Foxes are in first place, but Liverpool — and nine other teams — is within six points of the top spot. Three successive wins have Leicester believing it has a chance, even against the champions.

Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. E-mail: