I have a plan to fix soccer ("football," in the non-United States world). I'm uniquely qualified for this, because I know next to nothing about soccer, and until today I'd never watched an entire match on TV without fastforwarding through the boring parts.
Which for me, has been every part except for the thirty seconds before and after a goal was scored, which means I'd end up watching just a few minutes of a 90 minute match.
But this afternoon I got drawn into watching the entire Japan vs. USA 2011 Women's World Cup final, all 120 minutes of the regular and overtime period. The overtime ended with the match tied 2-2, at which point my DirecTV recording ended.
I'd forgotten to add on some extra recording time. So I didn't know the final outcome until I headed to New York Times online and learned that the United States lost 3-1 on penalty kicks.
I'm glad my DVR recording of the match didn't include the penalty kick portion. Through the first 12O minutes of what I consider the "real" match, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed watching the play, even though I didn't really understand the strategy and subtleties of what was going on.
However, the overall flow and rhythm of soccer, the ebb and flow of the different teams' attacking and defending styles -- that started to make a certain amount of sense to my neophyte soccer-watching brain.
So up to that point the soccer gods, and soccer-promoting associations, should have been pleased. I'm the sort of fan that soccer needs to attract if it's going to grow in the United States: someone who has been mildly interested in soccer, but never before to the extent of watching an entire match.
The penalty kick decider really turned me off, though. It just seems like the wrong way to choose a victor, in much the same fashion as deciding who won a basketball game by a free throw contest would be.
Except, even more so.
Watching the soccer match, I was struck by how wonderfully teamcentric this sport is. Yes, the star players were focused on by the announcers. But if I hadn't been told who they were, it would have been difficult for this nearly-blank slate soccer viewer to identify them.
In soccer it isn't possible for a player to make the equivalent of a 99 yard touchdown run, or a fast break dribbling sprint that ends in a slam dunk. (At least, seemingly this would be extremely rare.) Almost always it takes a team to score a goal, whereas in other sports individiual prowess is a much bigger factor in who wins a game.
Thus it seems horribly wrong to spoil 120 minutes of gripping talented teamwork by the United States and Japan by having the match decided with four freaking penalty kicks by single players facing a single goalkeeper.
Shannon Boxx, the first American shooter, was thwarted by a kick save from Ayumi Kaihori. That seemed to unnerve and deflate the United States. Carli Lloyd ballooned her kick. Kaihori made another save on Tobin Heath. Only Wambach had the poise to make her penalty kick for the Americans.
...With a chance to earn a victory that once seemed beyond reach, the Japanese midfielder Saki Kumagai put her hands on her hips, stretched her arms and put her shot into the top left corner.
It seems to me that who wins a sporting event should be decided by a method that meshes with the overall vibe or style of the sport. Team sports should be decided in a team fashion, not by individual players missing or making a shot by a matter of inches.
I heard one of the announcers speak of a "golden goal." This reminded me that, not very long ago, soccer matches which ended in a tie went to a sudden death overtime where whoever scored the first goal was the victor.
Sure, Wikipedia informed me that problems with the golden goal method led to it being replaced by the penalty kicks approach. From my admittedly soccer-uninformed newbie perspective, I find the whole penalty kick thing deeply unsatisfying and discordant.
How would fans of American football feel if games that were tied after the end of regulation and an overtime period came to be decided by field goal kickers trying to score from the forty-five yard line?
Fans would say, "Hey, let the teams play it out. Why should just a couple of players decide the outcome? That isn't right."
Well, that's how I feel about the victor of soccer matches being determined by whether a goalie guesses correctly to dive to his/her right or left. That's just a crappy way to end an otherwise entertaining, hard fought match.
Boot the penalty kicks, soccer. This potential fan would like you a lot more for it.