One of the strangest endings in sports

By | December 10, 2013

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.

5 thoughts on “One of the strangest endings in sports

  1. Christopher Nam

    I think another issue with having no set limit of extra times is the rarity of goals in soccer. The reason baseball games don’t have a set limit is that it is pretty common for a team to score a run or two per inning and thus breaking a tie. You will rarely see games go more than 12 or 13 innings because runs are easier to come by and thus ties every inning are more rare. An average team will score 5 or 6 runs a game while most soccer teams manage one or two. Therefore, it will be much more common for soccer games to go on for way more than two extra times, which I don’t necessarily believe is good for the game, which is pointed out in several of the comments already given.

    I believe that penalty kicks are an exciting and essential part of the game, and taking it away would be changing the nature of the game. Teams that play defense in order to take the game into pk’s is all part of different strategies that make soccer more exciting and give teams of different levels a chance to win. So what if one team has played better and “deserves” to win? That is what makes soccer so exciting and unpredictable. Having personally played in many tournaments where the championship is determined by pk’s, I know that they are more than just a 50-50 shot at scoring. They require a certain level of skill and composure, especially with everyone focused on just you. I have never felt cheated or more disappointed by winning or losing in pks versus regular or extra time. Furthermore, I have often found myself wanting games to end in a tie so that I could watch a pk shootout, as it is arguably the most nerve-wracking and thus exciting part of the game.

  2. Jordan Pearson

    A lot of very interesting points here. I agree that TV companies would oppose the ruling, but should that matter? I mean, I’m sure it does and will, but I feel like the broadcasting should work around the sport, not the other way around (though many American sports and their TV timeouts would say otherwise).
    I think to solve the substitution problem, you could adapt the rule to say that once an entire team’s bench has entered the game, players who played and then left the came can be brought back on. You could mandate that they have to go back on in the order they came off or that they work just like a new bench, any of them able to go in. Sure they will be tired, but having just rested, they will be in better condition than the players on the field. This would be interesting, as it would probably force some players to play different positions than they are used to. I’m sure there is probably a better way, but that is just a quick idea I had in response to that problem.

  3. Vishnu Kadiyala

    I agree with Austin here. Another problem with unlimited periods is that it interrupts TV programming; with extra time and penalties, you can anticipate when a game ends, but with unlimited periods of extra time, there is no way for a broadcaster to predict when a game ends. I’d think TV companies would be opposed to this rule

  4. Austin Ness

    Daniel and Tuck, you make great points about penalties. I also felt that Bayern played better than Chelsea, and that maybe penalties weren’t representative of how well either team played. The problem with using an NHL-style solution of repeated 20 minute periods until a golden goal is scored is that the players are often exhausted of 120 minutes of running on the field. Additional extra time would lead to numerous injuries. Even this form of extra time wouldn’t be very representative of the soccer skill a team possesses – the players with the best endurance would be the only ones to have an impact into the second period of extra time and beyond, so other players that specialize in technique or power or extreme pace wouldn’t be nearly as useful.

    The question then becomes one of allowing extra substitutions. Top flight soccer games are played 11 v 11 with each team carrying 7 subs. If a team uses all three of their subs through the first 120 minutes, then only 4 subs are left for the other 8 players. Assuming the extra goalkeeper typically carried on the bench replaces the one on the field, that’s 3 replacements for 7 outfield players. You proposed allowing 1 substitution per 15 minutes after 120, but realistically, this plan wouldn’t work at all. Almost every single outfield player would be dead tired after 120 minutes, and continuing on past this mark would cause these players to drop left and right with pulled hamstrings and calves.

    If everyone should be replaced after 120 minutes, then, and at that point, the game is completely different. The teams would then be playing their complete second teams, which I don’t think should determine who wins the game.

    I don’t necessarily love penalties, but they seem like the best solution based on how soccer is played. American sports can be designed to allow repeated extra periods because of constant substitutions and deep teams, and soccer doesn’t have that luxury.

  5. Tuck Stapor

    Although I wouldn’t call myself a huge die-hard soccer fan, I just wanted to comment that I completely agree with your point. Although exciting for the fans, ending soccer games with penalty kicks sometimes reward the team that did not deserve to win with the victory. From the second I started reading your post, I immediately thought back to the 2012 Champions League Final match between Bayern Munich and Chelsea. Throughout the entire game, it was clear that Bayern Munich was the much more talented and dominant team. However, as soon as the game was netted at 1-1, Chelsea decided to play straight defense and refused to take risks while they waited for the full 120 minutes to run its course. Chelsea pretty much figured that they had a better probability of winning through the 50/50 chances that are penalty kicks rather than play to win the game. Personally, I don’t blame Chelsea for this strategy since it was a very smart tactic considering they won the game on penalty kicks. I find nothing wrong with what Chelsea did. What seems to affect me is that soccer matches with huge implications tend to come down to penalty shots. I’d rather the sport and its final moments be decided by teams that play to win the game rather than play not to lose it.

    A possible solution for soccer matches could be obtained by looking at the NHL. During the regular season games, if there exists a tie, teams play one short overtime followed by penalty shootouts to decide the winner. However, once playoffs start, there are no shootouts. Both teams continue to play 20-minute periods until one team scores the golden goal. The idea that at an moment one player/team can make a sudden move and win the game is what makes the NHL playoffs extremely exciting for the fans to watch. As I said before in this post, I really feel as if it comes down to wanting to watch teams play to win rather than play to lose. Most American sports are designed that way, which could exemplify a reason as why the average American sports fan is indifferent about soccer.


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