With penalty kicks, stuff happens

A long-time reader sends his thoughts about a wild weekend of soccer:

I’m sure many Power Line readers watched the agonizing defeat of the U.S. women at the hands of Japan, on penalty kicks, in the final of the Women’s World Cup on Sunday. Despite coming up a tiny bit short, the team did itself and the sport proud, combining the fierce competitive spirit of the top-level men’s game with a sportsmanship that the men too often lack. What a pleasure it is to watch high stakes soccer matches in which the players abstain from rolling around with pseudo-injuries and from constantly jawing at each other. Nor was it just the Americans who so abstained. With the occasional exception of Brazil, the competition played with similar intensity and sportsmanship.

From a footballing standpoint, my take on the U.S. women is that they were one of maybe five teams good enough to have won the Cup, but not good enough to have been likely to win it. However, up a goal with ten minutes to go in regulation against Japan, and again with less than five minutes remaining in overtime, they sure looked likely to win.

Casual fans will wonder how the same team that buried all five penalty kicks against Brazil could, with mostly the same players, convert only one of four against Japan. The answer is that penalty kicks are a crapshoot in which almost anything is possible.

One thing I thought was nearly impossible, though, was for Brazil men’s team to go 0-4 on penalty kicks. Yet that’s what happened on Sunday in its Copa America quarterfinal match against Paraguay. Three of the four Brazilians failed even to put their kick on target.

Co-favorite Argentina, playing at home, also crashed out of the competition on penalty kicks to Uruguay. But at least Argentina converted four of five kicks against Uruguay’s star goal-keeper Muslera, the hero of his country’s penalty kick victory over Ghana at last year’s World Cup.

To be sure, Brazil didn’t send out the likes of Pele, Romerio, Roberto Carlos, or Ronaldo to take those PKs against Paraguay. In fact, they didn’t even send out current stars Neymar, Ganso, and Pato, as they had been substituted. But some of us long-time soccer fans have always fancied that, on any beach in Rio, one could find four guys kicking a ball around who are capable of making a penalty kick at Copa America. In any event, Brazil’s coach will be lucky to keep his job after Sunday’s debacle.

My final observation is that, though long on drama, penalty kicks are a poor method of settling these matches. I favor two ways of minimizing the extent to which they do.

First, the overtime period should be “sudden death.” It may be arbitrary, in a sense, to settle a soccer match based on play over a period of time that is not predetermined. But it seems far more arbitrary to settle one based on the crapshoot of penalty kicks – a play that often does not even occur once in a match.

Second, final matches like the one between the U.S. and Japan should be replayed if they are tied after 120 minutes. Such replays were employed in the old days, and there’s no good reason why a final can’t be replayed (using replays in earlier knockout games would take an enormous toll on the victor, though arguably that toll would be a suitable penalty for failing to win in 120 minutes).

As a practical matter, replays at any stage impose logistical inconveniences that cannot be tolerated in this day and age. But from a sports perspective, replays of the final match make good sense.

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