This Week In MLS History: The Hockey-Style Shootout

Posted In Features - By Chris Ballard On Thursday, May 12th, 2011 With 0 Comments

In the early days of MLS the league experimented with changes to the rules that were outside those specified by IFAB (the body that decides what the rules of soccer will be). Some of these were hangovers from the old NASL days, mostly in attempt to make the sport seem less European, and to appeal to an American market.

By 2003 MLS had ditched ‘their’ rules and come into line with IFAB - meaning that all of the rules were consistent across the world - but maybe now is a good time to examine the merits of one of those changes.

I hate penalty shoot-outs. Detest them. It seems such an arbitrary way to decide the winner of a tie or a competition. Aside from the fact that it appears inconceivable to me that any professional player could ever miss a penalty, it places the emphasis on the individual; soccer has always been about the team, and expression of the collective, rather than a non-stop highlight reel of one guy doing it all himself. Even players like Lionel Messi need a team around them - put him in Chivas USA’s team and they would probably still not be very good (and that’s assuming he didn’t have his leg broken in training!).

Penalty shoot-outs are the antithesis to this team ethic; instead of concentrating on the ability of a team to work together, they crystallize the match by focusing on one player at a time, either revelling in his ability to place the ball beyond the goalkeeper from the massive distance of 12 yards (and the goalkeeper can never lose a shoot-out because there’s never any pressure on him to save) or enjoying a touch of schadenfreude as his shot is saved or - just as likely - blasted over the bar.

MLS (and before them, NASL) made the decision to use shoot-outs to ensure that every match had a ‘winner’. One of the accusations levelled at soccer by American audiences was (and continues to be) that ”there are too many ties”. Although this entirely ignores the possibility that a team valiantly battling to earn a point is just as interesting as a 5-0 shellacking, MLS/NASL made the decision anyway. However, for some reason it wasn’t enough to use an actual penalty shoot-out. Instead, it was changed to something akin to a hockey shoot-out; players were given the ball on the 35-yard line, and had 5 seconds in which to take a shot. In practice, that mean either taking the ball 10-15 yards and attempting a longer range shot, or trying to get towards the goal quickly and shooting from nearer.

Or, if you’re Peter Vermes, you’ll do a Poborsky-esque ‘scoop’.

For regular season matches that had finished in a draw, shoot-outs were used to find a ‘winner’, but instead of the regular three points for a win, a team was awarded just one point; that is the same as they would have had if draws were allowed. This way - so MLS reasoned - the American sports fan could look at soccer and love it!

Yeah. That didn’t go so well. Instead, declining attendances worried the League so much that in November 1999 new Commissioner Don Garber (what happened to him?) announced that instead, a drawn game would go into two 5-minute ‘golden goal’ extra time periods. If still no winner had been found, then both teams were awarded a draw. The reason, according to the ‘comish’ was that “There was a negativity buzzing among the hardest core fans. We do know in our research that there are approximately 60 million people in this country that consider themselves soccer fans. We don’t have 60 million people going to our games.”

Plus ca change, you might say.

In 2003 the rule was changed again to match what happened everywhere; regular season games could be drawn and traditional shoot-outs are used to decided tied play-off games.

Speaking personally, I would prefer this style of shoot-outs. Clearly no better way has been found to decide a drawn game (especially in knock-out tournaments) but I feel that the 35 yard shoot out would make for a more interesting spectacle. The drama would still be there - you’d have heroes and fall guys - but perhaps you’d be able to get more a feel for a player’s “style” if he’s allowed more than one whack of the ball.

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