Sunday, December 4, 2011

Penalty Shootouts

Soccer is a team sport in which the most important games
are settled with 10/11 of the team watching what happens from midfield.

Before I was old enough to form independent opinions, I thought penalty shootouts were the best part of the World Cup. As much as I loved watching actual soccer, there was something irresistible about letting five minutes trump the previous 120. Clean slates. New rules. Same outcomes. Since then, I have added "fair" and "manufactured excitement" to my vocabulary. Shootouts have a time and a place, but they have no place in important sporting events such as the World Cup, Champions League, the Olympics, and the MLS Cup Playoffs because the importance of determining a deserving winner and the need to do this by continuing the original sport outweigh the benefits of saving time and the excitement of this premature and abrupt finish.

Big time sporting events value the ability to schedule events for known time intervals to allow for multiple use of the same facilities and the simplification of television coverage. The Olympics would likely have difficulty in implementing sudden death overtime for these reasons. The honorable and respectable soccer governing board, FIFA, on the other hand, is largely unaffected by this concerns. Scheduling matches with the potential for overtime in a manner to avoid conflicting with later events that require the same facility and utilizing online streaming and the increasing number of channels would avoid these concerns.

The immediacy of a shootout is pretty sexy, but it lacks the suspense and emotional connection only seen in sudden death overtime. In a shootout, the outcome unfolds over its course, granted quickly, instead of appearing spontaneously; in sudden death, any shot can win it. Further, the highlight goals from a soccer penalty shot are few and far between, although the same can't be said for hockey. Unexpected is exciting, and soccer shootouts fail in this category as well (with the exception of the the three possible kick directions: left, right, or center): the closer the probability of the two potential outcomes is to 50%, the more unexpected the outcome is. Hockey has been able to gain a large national following because of the excitement created by a nearly 50-50 shootout situation. If only there were a way to make this the case for soccer...

Despite the difficulty of scheduling for sudden death matches, and regardless of your opinion on the entertainment value of a shootout, ending a match in one sport with a completely different competition featuring a fraction of the original players and a mild overlap of skills is ridiculous. Beer league kickball allows for chug-offs if a play is challenged--a different contest, beer chugging, is used to decide the outcome of the original game, kickball. This is ok because it is beer league kickball. This is not ok in the belle of world sports. It would be excusable to end soccer with something logical that utilized more relevant skills and included the full team, like mayan deathball, roller derby, or tagteam MMA, but a contest of kicking a ball into a net that is 192 square feet from 12 yards away doesn't cut it. Of all the skills required in soccer, shooting is the one that has the least overlap across all positions, and it isn't even used that much in a game--compare the number of dribbles, passes, or tackles to the number of shots; penalty shot ability is not a good predictor of the quality of a soccer player.

Shootouts are a marginally better method of deciding a match than flipping a coin; they make away goals seem like a good idea. Because soccer and hockey are low scoring, they can't add an additional period to decide a winner immediately like basketball or tennis (depending on where it is played). However, this is not an excuse for not continuing the game until there is a winner. If overtime is too long, people don't have to watch it, and if more people watch overtime than would watch whatever it would be running over, the station should be able to make more money from advertisements. Spectators tend to enjoy the excitement and emotional connection that develops throughout overtime, rather than complain about it taking too long. If they were interested in watching the game when it was less exciting in regulation, they're probably interested in watching overtime. If for whatever reason overtime can not be played, a subjective scoring by judges, like in boxing, or a formula from a regression that weighted the importance of various game statistics, such as possession and shots on goal, in winning a game could get the job done. Shootouts are fine when they have no effect on the course of an 82 game season and are actually entertaining to watch, but elimination games should not be decided by a shootout. Deciding a deserving winner should take precedence over brevity.

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