As we sit here at the end of another semester at Duke, it’s gotten me thinking about the way we draw things to a close in the sport of soccer. All tie-is-like-kissing-your-sister jokes aside, I’m talking about penalty kicks.
Last week as I was sitting in the press box anxiously awaiting the kickoff of the ACC championship game, I got an ESPN ScoreCenter alert on my phone. Expecting to see something related to college football or the NFL, I looked down and learned that Sporting Kansas City had just beaten Real Salt Lake for the MLS Cup in a marathon, 10-round penalty kick shootout. My first reaction was ‘wow, that must have been exciting,’ but my second thought was, ‘why do we end the most important matches on the world’s biggest stages in a shootout?’
There’s no question that a shootout of any kind—whether in soccer or hockey—is one of the most exciting situations in sports. It’s the ultimate showdown. It’s the attacker against the goalkeeper, and one shot could make the difference between winning and losing. But on a championship setting, ending a grueling 120-minute match in penalty kicks has always struck me as being a bit anticlimactic. I’ll never once pretend to be a soccer die-hard, but I think the players deserve more than the cruel ending of a penalty shootout.
Just weeks before the MLS Cup, I watched anxiously as Duke’s women’s soccer team won not one, but two NCAA tournament matches by way of a shootout. Each time was full of tension and excitement, but even as I celebrated my team’s victory I walked away feeling slightly empty. Do matches that are played so well that they end in ties deserve to end in penalties? By nature, penalty kicks are decided by the choice of the kicker versus the choice of the keeper. Each of them have a 50-50 shot of guessing the right way, so should we be ending soccer matches on what can be boiled down to an immensely skillful coin flip?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore everyone with the argument that a penalty kick shootout in soccer is like ending a baseball game that’s tied after nine innings with a Home Run Derby between the two teams. I’ve never enjoyed that argument—unlike a Home Run Derby, penalty kicks are still a part of the game of soccer, although they occur rarely in the run of play. Rather, I advocate against penalty kicks because I would much rather see a marathon soccer match end in a golden goal—no matter how long it takes.
Opposition would argue that if a soccer match goes on too long, players will tire until scoring a goal becomes nearly impossible due to exhaustion. I understand that 120 minutes of a soccer match is grueling enough for the players as it is. But in a sport where conditioning is essential, does it not make sense that the best-conditioned team should be in a position to win the match? Since we’re getting hypothetical with the whole golden goal thing here, let’s propose that to combat fatigue, the substitution rules in extra time will change. Just like NFL and NBA teams receive additional timeouts in overtime, soccer teams that play past the 120th minute would each receive one additional substitution per 15 minutes of play. This would allow teams to stay fresh and add an interesting new element into the sport of soccer—depth is going to matter a whole lot more as the game goes on.
Now I understand that soccer games are already long enough as is, and matches already aren’t built for television because there are no commercials, but as someone who really enjoys baseball I can tell you that I love staying up late into the night watching a 17- or 18-inning game. As the contest wears on, the tension continues to mount and little-known players have the chance to become heroes. Teams have to go deeper into their bullpens and depth becomes an issue. Just like soccer, there is no re-entry into a game, so sometimes if the game goes long enough people will be forced to play out of position and adapt. All of these contribute to the notion that the stronger team—not the luckier team—wins the game.
I’m really interested to see what more traditional soccer fans think about this idea. Maybe it’s something that is much better in theory than it ever would be in practice, but although penalty shootouts are exciting, I’m just not sure it does a great game justice to end that way. If there’s one thing that learning to follow soccer more closely has taught me, it’s that there doesn’t need to be scoring to drive the tension of a match—ending a match in a penalty shootout seems counterintuitive to me for that reason. All it should take is one goal, one moment, and it should happen with all 22 players on the field.