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The New Yorker Suggests Doing Away With Soccer Penalty Kicks, Doesn't Bother With the Practical Details

Nicolas Thompson wrote about ties for the New Yorker’s Sporting Scene blog, connecting the weekend’s two notable draws, England vs. Italy and the U.S. Women’s 100m Olympic Trials, and contrasting the sports’ responses. He asserts that soccer should follow track and field’s lead. His argument, perhaps predictably, was a dumpster fire.

What makes you good at the sport is what makes you good at overtime. Regular-season hockey is a mishmash of competition and theatre; playoff hockey, with its first-goal-wins system, is exhilarating. Soccer’s solution is pathetic and unworthy of the sport. Players pass, run, head, dodge, sprint off balance, and dive for a hundred and twenty minutes. If the game is still tied, they try to kick the ball in from twelve yards away. The best you can say is that the skill required to win is not entirely irrelevant. It’s like settling a basketball game with a game of H.O.R.S.E., and it’s only a touch better than resolving the Tour de France by seeing who can change a flat tire faster.

Moreover, how is kicking a soccer ball only a partially relevant skill? That’s the entire sport. What differentiates penalty taking is not a “skill” but mental fortitude under withering pressure. It is little different from free throws.

Thompson then brings up the 100 meters tie between Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix. He believes this should “show” soccer something about the “purest way of solving a tie.”

Now Felix and Tarmoh have been given a choice: they can flip a coin or they can race again. Most likely, they’ll wait until they’ve both raced in the two hundred metres. And then they’ll surely choose to run. And that will provide the purest way of solving a tie that any sport has devised.

It’s pure. That’s wonderful. Now, what, precisely, is soccer supposed to learn from that?

Importing that exact solution, replaying the match, is not logistically feasible. Italy and England cannot delay the entire tournament to replay their quarterfinal match with a sensible refractory period. With other matches dependent upon the outcome, they cannot let the tournament proceed before replaying the match. This “pure solution” could cause interminable delays and tens if not hundreds of millions in damages. It’s completely impractical.

Perhaps, Thompson wants soccer merely to absorb the spirit of track and field’s resolution to the crisis to determine a “purer” way to settle a draw. Fine, but that notion is vapid unless it comes packaged with a corresponding solution better than the one in place.

Both NHL and NBA playoff overtimes can be exhilarating. Those sports can do that. They play shorter periods, have constant stoppages and substitute players in and out well. If need be they have enough bench players to bring on in reserve.

Soccer players play two 45 minutes half plus stoppage times, followed by two additional 15 minute overtime periods. Teams have exhausted substitutes. Those periods cannot proceed interminably until someone scores, without endangering players’ health. Even if the bench is cleared, that’s still half the original team out on the field. One could devise a five-a-side game, but that would be gimmicky and even less “pure.”

No one would claim the penalty shootout is ideal. Most would recognize it as a reasonable compromise that provides, at the very least, compelling human drama.

[Photo via Getty]

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