Does The Ends Justify The End?

During the month of December the MLS and the NCAA soccer championships were decided. But the circumstances surrounding both the victories have invited a torrent of commentary.

The MLS season championship was won by the Seattle Sounders, this is the Sounders first MLS title.They defeated Toronto F.C. on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw. Congratulations to the Sounders on winning the championship and rewarding the amazing support they get in Seattle.The NCAA Division 1 mens championship was won by Stanford, for the second year in a row. The Cardinal defeated Wake Forest, also on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw. Congratulations to Stanford , especially for becoming the first NCAA team to win consecutive titles since 2007.


Roman Torres scores the winning PK for Seattle

Both of these teams play fine soccer, but the similar circumstances of their victories brings up a controversial topic for soccer fans, one that is debated world-wide. The Sounders did win but not only did they fail to score during 120 minutes of regular soccer, they didn’t even manage a shot on goal during the entire game. They only took 3 shots of any type, the worst such performance in a final in MLS history. In the NCAA final, Stanford did take a number of shots and 5 of them were actually on goal. But their offensive futility was highlighted even more than Seattle’s was, amazingly enough. This is because Stanford qualified for the final by beating North Carolina in their semifinal match after – you guessed it- a scoreless draw. Yep, the 2016 NCAA Div 1 champions didn’t score a single goal from the field during 2 full games and 4 overtime periods in their final games of the tournament. These outcomes beg the question,” how does soccer manage to reward offensive inefficiency by bestowing championships on teams that can’t score in title games?”. And the answer is – by providing a means to win that has little to do with playing the game according to FIFA rules – penalty kicks.

There are a few topics in the soccer world which prompt a very wide variety of opinions and the taking of penalty kicks to decide winners ranks among the most divisive. On one hand, there are those who think it is ingrained in the sport. Millions of fans love the game as it is and look poorly on any real changes. Gary Richards , a Los Angeles soccer radio personality, vocalizes this thought when he says,” Nothing wrong for a hundred years”. But, while it is true that major changes to the game are few and far between, the taking of penalty kicks as a means of deciding match winners is a relatively recent  innovation. Written rules of the game have been around since 1815 but end of match PKs weren’t introduced until 1970. Before 1970 if a tournament game ended in a draw FIFA did ….well……literally nothing. The most typical result if the score of an elimination match was even after regulation and overtime was to come back another day and try again. Match replays were used to get a winner when possible. Even today the English FA Cup uses replays if matches are drawn in the early rounds although if the second game is also a tie then penalties come into play. If it was not feasible to play a drawn match over again, coins were flipped or lots drawn to decide winners. In 1970 FIFA decided that drawing lots just wasn’t a very good way to determine winners and penalty kicks became the standard method of ending ties.

Of course, there were many who didn’t like penalty kicks and the NCAA (which is not governed by FIFA) was among them. College soccer had a play-until-somebody-scores rule and in 1982 the championship went to Indiana who beat Duke after 8…..yes…..8…..overtime periods. In 1985 UCLA and American U. did it again. Eight overtimes and even more time played in the eighth extra period than in 1982 before UCLA finally scored. After those exhausting experiences the NCAA joined the rest of the world and penalty kicks became the norm.

Those who advocate penalty kicks like its drama, even if they recognize it is not the ideal solution. Gary Richards says,” …The anticipation. The fear and nerves. The exhilaration and the crush of defeat is what makes the suspense of penalties great.” Scott French, ESPN soccer writer agrees,”….brings great drama. Some PK shootouts are extraordinary- there was one in the African nations championship a few years ago that was better than most games.” This excitement and the typical quick conclusion that the PK contest brings has many fans.


Seattle celebrates the exciting finish to the MLS title game

But what bothers so many in the soccer world is the disconnect between the game as played on the field and the action of taking penalty kicks. Being the declared the victor in a soccer match should, in the minds of many, be reflective of the better team in those attributes that make the sport a desirable activity in the first place. Soccer is a game of fine physical skills, aerobic conditioning, quick decisions taken in the context of many moving parts, and great courage to face the opponent and the ball while all are moving at speed. The taking or defending of a penalty kick involves few of these factors. The penalty kick itself is only in the game at all to act as a deterrent to purposeful fouling near the goal. Many fans of the game feel that there should be a closer relationship between any means of deciding a winning team and the action on the field during regulation time. Those who are dissatisfied with pk’s claim it is akin to taking free throws to decide basketball games or kicking field goals to end American football games.

But, if not the PK shootout, then what? Richard Broad , former head coach at George Mason U. and frequent TV soccer commentator, broached the subject on Facebook recently and initiated a lengthy discussion with lots of input from a number of notable soccer people. There were both those in favor of the present method of ending games and those opposed to it with the objectors having a slim majority. The most commonly mentioned alternative to penalties was to remove players from the field during extra periods until goals were scored that produced a victor. The added space and time afforded the players should result in additional chances to score and therefore some goals to decide a winner. There were many different suggestions as to the number of players to be removed and the timing of the removals, but overall the reduction of the number of players was by far the most popular suggestion made by those who don’t like the penalty kick method.


Liverpool players endure 15 penalties in cup game vs Middlesbrough in 2014

So, what does the Soccer Yoda think of PKs for ending games? Those who know me are very familiar with my passion for the “good game”. My ideal score is one that has come about through a number of players working the ball from the defensive third by using quick touch passes to teammates who have sprung free through movement to the goal which has been left poorly defended by the aforementioned passing , movement and team-based thinking. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I don’t like penalties. Rather than change the mechanics of the game at all, I would change the method of scoring. Once a game has gone into overtime I would count corner kicks earned when the defender who last touched the ball is completely inside the penalty area ( in order to reward attacking the goal and not the corner flag). At the end of extra periods if no goals have been scored the team with the most of these “conditional corner kicks” would win. This would bring about an offensive mindset throughout the additional game time because even if a team has scored a corner they would be foolish to “park the bus” when the likelihood of giving up a corner is so high when playing all defense.

And perhaps it is that – the all defense strategy – which represents the biggest danger of a game-deciding method which discounts the ability to actually play the game. How many teams enter games hoping to get to PKs? How many teams decide during regulation to play for penalties? We don’t really know. But if more and more elimination matches end up in penalty kicks after scoreless draws, it must be considered that the end-of-game process is affecting the whole game in a negative way and that must be dealt with no matter how much drama is produced at the end. Is it worth it to endure 120 minutes of boredom to get to 5 minutes of excitement?

One Comment on “Does The Ends Justify The End?”

  1. julianfriend3 says:

    Good stuff, Al. I’ve always hated PKs (as we say on this side of the pond) as a way to determine a winner. I tend not to think of PK champions as ‘real’ champions. Italy beats France in PKs for the 2006 World Cup? Not legit, in my mind, especially given France’s superiority through most of the match. Same for Brazil 1994. It’s a WC with an asterisk. A World Cup final might be the one contest that still merits a replay. However, I really like the corner kick idea. It would certainly reward displays of attacking spirit and would introduce a new dynamic into the game.


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