My last column about the possibility of bringing back the ridiculous NASL-style shootout certainly drew heated responses from my soccer media colleagues. But, I stand by my assertions that the shootout is a tiebreaker that has nothing to do with the run of play in soccer and should be left on the scrapheap of US soccer history, along with the 35-yard offsides line and awarding standings points for number of goals scored in a match.
So, what should be done about breaking ties in the playoffs and Cup matches where there has to be a winner? Despite the drama and intensity of the penalty kick tiebreaker that has been in place for decades, it is truly little more than a lottery where the odds are even. This fact often causes teams to sit back and do very little offensively in overtime (and sometimes even late in the regulation 90 minutes) and take their chances with penalties to decide a winner, rather than make a critical mistake and give up a goal. Not surprisingly, the traditional US sports media has not taken kindly to the PK “shootout” and often ridicules our sport for such a seemingly inane way to decide the victor of a playoff or Cup contest.
I, for one, would like to see the PK “shootout” eliminated in favor of some other way to determine the winner of a knockout-level match, after the 30 minutes of extra time is played. But, what can you do instead of PK’s? For starters, I won’t even consider the NASL-style shootout as an option here for the same reason I gave in my last column. Truly, the truly best way to settle ties is to replay the match, which is done in the English FA Cup and was even done in the early World Cups. However, this is not a practical option this day and age because of TV scheduling, so we’ll drop that as well.
The first response many non-soccer fans will say is, “Just play until someone scores!” Well, exactly that was done in the early days of the NASL. Many Rochester soccer fans will remember the epic playoff matches between the Lancers and the Dallas Tornado in 1971 in their 2-out-of-3 semi-final series. The first match at Holleder Stadium on August 31 was the longest match in US soccer history, clocking in at 176 minutes, with NASL MVP Carlos Meditieri’s goal giving the Lancers a 2-1 win. The third and deciding contest went 148 minutes and ended with host Rochester losing 2-1 to the Tornado.
One of my prized souvenirs from the Lancer days is the Kick Magazine - 1977 Playoff Edition, which includes an article written by Temple Pouncey of the Dallas Morning News about that longest ever match. In the article, Pouncey states that players were cramping up and limping after about 120 minutes and that each time a 15 minute period ended, the players slumped over motionless and sweatsoaked to the turf. At the 165 minute mark, the two coaches, the Lancers’ Sal DeRosa and Ron Newman of Dallas appealed to NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam to stop the madness and decide the contest with penalties or anything. Some of the comments from the Dallas players who competed in the match from the article include:
“There was just emptiness, a void.” – captain John Best
“That game was mental cruelty” – goalkeeper Ken Cooper
“Criminal…diabolical…ridiculous” – Other Dallas players
The obvious conclusion here is that it is simply not fair to the players to have a match continue until a goal is scored. This is not hockey, where a skater is on the ice for 2-3 minutes, including faceoff breaks, and then rests for 5-10 more. In a regulation match, players run an average of 10-12 miles, so anything more than the current 30 minutes of extra time would be too taxing and turn the contest into a war of attrition, not the beautiful game we love. And, for those who say, “Allow unlimited substitutions in overtime” or “Take one player from each team off the field every 5 minutes”, that would fundamentally change the rules that govern play. Why not just eliminate offsides in overtime or bar the goalkeepers from using their hands (don’t laugh, that has also been suggested)? Changing the basic game is not the answer!
Another suggestion put forth by veteran US soccer broadcaster Seamus Malin is to declare the winner of a tie match to be the team that has taken the most corner kicks. Theoretically, this would be the team that has had the better of play during the match. However, sometimes the number of corner kicks a team earns is not reflective of the flow of the match or the final score. But even more of a problem will be the intelligent coaches who, late in a tie match, will order their team to take the ball to the corner of the field and try to win corner kicks, rather than playing for the winning goal. Can you imagine what the pundits would say about such a crazy spectacle?
So, where does that leave us? Well, Seamus was on the right track with his idea, in that there needs to be some criteria that will decide the winner of a tie match after 120 minutes. My suggestion would be this – if a match is tied after 90 minutes, the tiebreaking criteria should be known before extra time starts. In this way, the team on the short end of the tiebreaker will know they have to win the match in the extra 30 minutes, which will encourage attacking play. This revelation came to me when I was watching the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final between South Africa and New Zealand. The match ended regulation tied 9-9 and the announcers stated that if the match finished tied after extra time, New Zealand would be declared the winner because they were given fewer red cards throughout the tournament. This fact forced South Africa to press the action and they ended up winning 15-12.
If we follow this line of thinking, there are two cases in which to find that “magic criteria”: playoffs and Cup matches. For the former, the answer is simple – the team with the better regular season record is declared the winner of a tie match or 2 game series. This is actually the format used in Mexico to decide ties in their playoffs and is a fair way to go, especially given the tradition around the world of the play throughout the regular season deciding the champions.
For the Cup, it is a bit more difficult, but I wouldn’t be averse to using the rugby formula of having the tiebreaker be based on fewer red/yellow cards or even fouls. If we believe in FIFA’s edict of fair play, the team that commits the fewest infractions should be rewarded. This may not be the best way to decide ties in Cup matches and there may be a better criteria, but the basic premise of one team knowing they have to win outright in extra time is the way to go.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Joe Sirianni, Dick Howard or WYSL 1040-AM Radio. Feel free to send any questions or comments email@example.com.