Commentary: Time for soccer to ditch the PK shootouts

Camp Verde boys soccer players pray before their shootout against Show Low. Camp Verde tied Show Low 1-1 but lost to the Cougars in the penalty kick shootout. VVN/James Kelley

Camp Verde boys soccer players pray before their shootout against Show Low. Camp Verde tied Show Low 1-1 but lost to the Cougars in the penalty kick shootout. VVN/James Kelley

A few days ago the seemingly impossible happened at the World Cup: England won a penalty kick shootout.

Up to that point, the Three Lions had been knocked out of the World Cup in all of their previous shootouts: 1990 in the semifinals to West Germany, 1998 in the round of 16 to Argentina and in 2006 to Portugal in the semifinals.

Their .000 record was obviously the worst and they had suffered the most shootout losses of any nation. They also lost on penalties in Euro 2004 and Euro 2012.

English were so excited by the result that “Football’s coming home” became a meme. “Football’s Coming Home” was the theme song for Euro ’96, which England hosted after missing out on the USA ’94 World Cup.

The modern game of soccer (association football) was developed in England. The Three Lions made to it to the semifinals in Euro ‘96, where they lost to Germany in penalty kicks, naturally.

Flash forward to July 2018 and when England beat Colombia in penalty kicks, suddenly there were videos of Putin playing the song on the piano. The song was put into Anchorman, the Matrix, Planet of the Apes, Friends, A Night at the Roxbury, The British Office, Shrek, Family Guy, Lilo & Stitch, Sixth Sense, ET and Saturday Night Fever.

Alexa in the UK even got in on the action, when a Brit asked “is football coming home?” she said “52 years of hurt hasn’t stopped me dreaming, I hope it doesn’t go to penalties again in the quarterfinal though, my circuits can’t take the stress.”

It was just a win over a depleted Colombia side but the power of winning a penalty kick shoot out has inspired hope for that the English can win their second World Cup. They won it at home in 1966.

The specter of the dreaded shoot out loomed over England for years. Kicks form the mark (as it is called in the rule book since there obviously was no penalty to cause the kick, other than ending the match in a draw) were introduced as a lesser of three evils.

Penalty kick shootouts first became part of the World Cup tournament in 1977 when Tunisia played Morocco in World Cup 1978 qualifying.

Before that, ties in knock out tournaments were broken by replaying the game or even a coin toss.

Yes, a penalty shoot out is better than a coin toss and replays at the World Cup aren’t very feasible but it’s still an awful way to decide the winner. They’re not literally coin tosses, but they are based on luck.

The penalty mark is 12 years away from the goal and the goalkeeper can’t move forward until the ball is kicked. According to ESPN Sports Science, it is physically impossible for the goalkeeper to react to where the ball is going unless he or she cheats, so he or she must guess or hope the kicker chokes.

You can make educated guesses like the England coaching staff did with Colombia, handing their goalkeeper Jordan Pickford a sheet that said where the Colombians usually kick towards but it’s still guesstimating.

Plus it is arbitrary, a couple months ago in the U-17 European championships, the Ireland goalkeeper was given a second yellow card for coming off his line early during a shoot out. Honestly it just looked like pretty much every other penalty kick (and I was a soccer referee), not more egregious than what typically happens.

Shootouts don’t reward good soccer, they encourage underdogs to play passively and wait for penalty kicks. They are entirely separate from what happened during the actual game.

In fact, one interesting alternative proposed is to take them before games that require a winner. That way both teams know how a tie would turn out.

But they’re still using a flawed system. Why not a better one?

When I was a kid we competed in a soccer tournament that was mostly rained out and they decided it with American shootouts, which are vastly superior – and more fun.

In American shootouts (which were made for the North American Soccer League and later used by the MLS) instead of a kick from the mark, the shooter started 35 yards away from the goal and had five seconds to score.

They’re way more thrilling than penalty kicks, actually give the goalkeeper a chance and are much more soccer than trying to kick the ball in the corner of a goal after walking from the center circle.

Although it’s better than penalties, it still has the same problem, since it’s separate from the game.

So why not continue the game? Follow hockey’s example and try to break the tie with less players.

Playing overtime after overtime like in the NHL playoffs is not feasible, players would get too tired, so why not gradually reduce the size of the field of play as well as the number of players?

Like for the first 10 minutes of extra time, have each side take off a couple outfield players Then keep reducing both until it’s five against five and from touchline to touchline instead of goal line to goal line.

That keeps the best part of the penalty kicks, the strategy, (who do you keep on), and is closer to true soccer than penalties, coin flips or even NASL shootouts.

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