By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 26, 2012) US Soccer Players — Just before the start of the penalty phase of last night's Champions League semifinal, one of the announcers decided it was worth reminding the viewing audience that penalties might not be the best way to decide a soccer game. Nothing new here of course.
Criticizing penalties has been the norm since replaying tied games went out of fashion for most knockout competitions. So there we were, watching a collection of some of the best players in the game lining up shots while goalkeepers hoped they chose the correct side to make a save. And it's worth asking if anybody watching this found it bizarre. Was anyone really looking at it a game going to penalties like something they'd never seen before?
Let's flashback to Chicago, 1998. The city had an expansion Major League Soccer club, and I was watching my first full season of MLS action. I'd seen games here and there before, but I had to rely on the old national ABC games since I lived out of market in the era before streaming video and season passes on cable television. As such, imagine my surprise when the clock counted down to end a tied game and an eager employee wheeled out the shootout clock as we entered the old MLS version of a tiebreaker. I actually said out loud 'what is that?' Without leaning on creative license or revisionist history, the guy beside me really said 'oh, that's how MLS ruins soccer games.'
He had a point. For those of you that weren't around during the shootout era, a lot of words were used to try and describe exactly how it ruined soccer games. Trust me, the 40-yard dash towards goal while the shootout clock counted down removed any seriousness from what happened over the earlier 90 minutes. It looked, felt, and worked like a gimmick.
Regular penalties? At least they're deciding the game by using something that occurs during the game. Whether or not a team practices penalties before a game that could end in them is irrelevant. Everyone in the squad is aware that they could be in a position to take one. We've seen goalkeepers forced into taking penalties. We've seen the world's elite players miss them. We've seen strategies like the now ill-advised hesitation step. We've seen goalkeepers diving to the same side for every penalty and players still try their luck by shooting to that side.
As the recent FA Cup semifinal approached, Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard was asked about the penalty stage of a knockout game. He talked about the mental approach and the problem of over-preparing. For him, penalties are about choices. That these choices are the same ones made during games when the referee points to the spot go without saying. Sure, no goalkeeper normally faces five in a row but it's the same decisions being made.
That's what makes treating penalties like they're abhorrent to the spirit of the game so silly. No UEFA official was rolling out the countdown clock. There was no artificial scenario being setup to create a 1v1 with the goalkeeper five times in a row. The coin flip decided which team shot first, rather than the old method of a coin toss deciding a tied game. Part of the game was used to decide the game. It's as simple and appropriate as that.
We now have a back-to-back CONCACAF club champion with mighty Monterrey showing the rest of the Confederation how it's done. Just like last time, Monterrey qualified as Apertura champions. And just like last time, Monterrey isn't a dominate team in the Clausura. When they won the Champions League last year, they were on their way to finishing 7th in the Clausura. Good enough for a playoff spot, but they exited in the opening round. This season, they're currently 5th with the regular season ending this weekend. Monterrey will make the playoffs, but it's doubtful that they'll be one of the favorites when the playoffs start.
Maybe they're onto something here. That's probably not exactly what CONCACAF had in mind when they designed the Champions League calendar, but the schedule certainly creates a potential scenario for the leagues that play separate Apertura and Clausura seasons. Focus on league place in the Fall while doing enough in the Champions League group phase to make the knockout stage, and play for the Champions League title in the Spring while doing enough in the league to make the playoffs.
As strategies go, it's a good one. There are enough titles to go around in Mexico, and enough points of entry from both seasons to advance to the Champions League. As if Mexico needed another advantage in a tournament they dominate.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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