Imagine if at the end of a tied basketball game, each team went to the foul line. Each team chose five players to shoot free throws. The team with the higher percentage of made shots won the game. There would be a huge uproar over this, and not because otherwise-worthless shooters would suddenly become invaluable. One team shooting free throws better than another does not necessarily indicate that one team is better or worse than the other. It is a gimmicky way to decide which team is better. Now imagine if at the end of a tied football (American football, of course) game, each team decided five players to kick field goals. I know, crazy, right? Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson would probably be on the bench. And just imagine Peyton or Brady trying to kick a field goal. The analogy doesn’t fit quite as well with football, as it does with basketball. The point stands though, that both ways of deciding a game are pointless. They don’t show that one team is better than another.
So, why does soccer use penalty shootouts to decide a game that is still tied at the end of regulation and the extra thirty minutes, split up into two fifteen minute halves? Many Americans trying to persuade themselves into liking soccer can’t get over the penalty shootout. And plenty of hardcore fans despise the shootout. In fact, I don’t think anyone actually likes the penalty shootout. Win one and you love it. Lose one and you hate it. Penalties are only stopped worldwide, 22% of the time. The goalie is often left guessing, having to jump right or left, and hoping that’s the same direction the ball heads. Why decide a game on how lucky a keeper gets? Because, like it or not, any stop a keeper makes, is going to amount to luck. The keeper simply does not have time to do anything, but guess.
Penalty shootouts have an allure. Kind of. They are guaranteed to bring a thrill, whether your team is involved in them or not. It’s like watching a car crash. You know something bad is about to happen, but it’s impossible not to look. Sure, they’re dramatic. And I’ll admit: they are really fun to watch. But after the game is over, there is no sense of fulfillment, that the game has been decided adequately.
There have been several alternatives proposed by fans and experts alike. Here are some the popular fixes:
1. Play until someone scores.
Because, these aren’t real humans anyway. They’ve just played 120+ minutes of soccer, and damn it if they have to play 120 more for a goal to be scored, then that’s what needs to be done! It’s a silly idea really. Ideally, both sides would continue playing a Golden Goal format (the first team that scores, wins), but after how many minutes does such an exercise become futile?
2. Arbitrarily decide the winner on some stats.
Maybe the worst idea. Okay, whichever team had more corners wins! Wait, no. The team with more shots. But what if one team was just shots from forty yards out that had no chance of going in? Okay fine. What about the team with more possession wins? See, these have all been brought up, and deciding the outcome of a game on stats like these is just as unfulfilling as it is dumb. I’d rather have a shootout.
3. One on one: Attacker vs. Defender (and goalie).
This could be the most exciting way to determine the game. It may be just as exciting watching Messi take on a defender one on one, as it would be watching Messi try to defend anyone. Who wouldn’t want to see the best players in the world go one on one? The only (obvious) point to add in is that there would have to be some sort of time limit. Maybe 15-20 seconds, as the attacking player starts a few yards outside of the box.
4. Move the penalty box back a few yards.
It’s difficult to say exactly how far the mark should be moved, but the spot it’s at right now is too easy. Dropping the percentage from 81% to something a little over 50% would make things a lot more interesting.
5. Coin toss.
Because, why not? Just kidding.
The only legitimate option out out of the four is the third one, the one on one situation. But wait, there’s one more possible solution. This is another popular, but often forgot about, fix to the penalty shootout. Here’s how it works, briefly:
Every five minutes, each team takes one player off the field. There would have to be a cap on this. If and when the game gets to 5 v. 5 (not including the goalie), there would be no more pulling players off. Any more players, and the game could begin to look gimmicky. Chances are, or at least ideally, the game would never get down to 5 v. 5. A variety of factors would affect the coach’s decisions. Would you leave a forward on, who isn’t used to defending for an extended period of time? What about a defender who is a horrible finisher? Could you even leave a player with a yellow card on the field? What about formations with limited numbers?
With fewer players on the field, the game would certainly open up. Ideally, it would look like fast-break basketball, with quick changes of possession and more room for runs to be made, and creative passes. The fix may not be perfect, but it’d be much more fulfilling and exciting than a penalty shootout. And it would be very feasible.