An Ode To The Shootout

person in blue soccer jersey standing in front of ball

Photo by Mica Asato on Pexels.com

The 2018 World Cup is in the process of winding down. By this time next week, either England, France, Belgium, or Croatia will be in seventh heaven as the winning nation.

I’ve always liked soccer, growing up in the Tampa Bay area and being so close to the Rowdies, the local pro team. As I’ve probably mentioned before, they were part of the NASL that attempted to gain national prominence in the 1970’s by signing Pele, who is considered to be one of the great players of all time in the sport. But once he left, the popularity of the sport has waned in our country.

Interest hasn’t been too high in this year’s World Cup because, for the first time since 1986 – the United States didn’t make the final batch of teams playing for the championship. Germany was booted after the round-robin stage. Brazil lost in the second knockout (single elimination) round to Belgium. In a way, it’s been a good tournament to watch – so many teams that haven’t had the chance at to be at this level for a long time (or ever) are close to making history for their respective countries.

The one thing that drives me crazy about soccer, and not in a good way, is the penalty kick shootout at the end when the 30 minutes of extra time is completed and a winner is needed. It always seemed to me to be a stupid way to decide a winner, because penalty kicks have very little to do with soccer in a general sense. It would be like deciding a baseball game by a home run derby, or a basketball game by free throws.

Other sports (with the exception of hockey to some extent) – they decided games that need a winner by continuing to play the game some more. The problem with soccer deciding outcomes the way they do is that a penalty kick doesn’t happen every game. In fact, you could go and watch a handful of games and not see a PK being taken.

No, I’m not “soccer savvy” enough to tell you what I’d replace it with. I always thought the Florida high school soccer playoffs had a fairer system when I was of that age. First, they played an “extra time” format, but instead of going right to a shootout – they played up to two five-minute “sudden death” periods. I always liked that – that way, teams couldn’t play passively in extra time and hope to get lucky in the shootout. And yes, I once saw a playoff game get decided in the “sudden death” portion on, you guessed it, a penalty kick.

I’m pretty sure FIFA can’t get rid of penalty kicks entirely, but I’d love them to add a “sudden death” element to their tiebreaking format. They experimented with it back in the turn of the century, but then went back to the “extra time, then a shootout” format. Hopefully, they might revisit this soon – pretty please?

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The Justified

The Golden State Warriors won another NBA title. The Washington Capitals captured their first ever Stanley Cup. But with apologies to the great athletes on both of those teams, it was a horse that stole the sporting show this weekend.

I didn’t get the sense that Justify was a Triple Crown horse seeing him barely win the Preakness three weeks earlier, and I said as such on Facebook and Twitter. I had already seen American Pharoah win the Triple Crown and the euphoric cheering that resulted afterward with a 37-year drought ending. I couldn’t wrap my head around it happening again so soon.

But it did, and now Justify has earned his spot on the mantle of the all-time greats. As I said three years, I’d still love to see a computer or video game where the Triple Crown winners race against each other in hypothetical Kentucky Derbies, Preakness or Belmont Stakes.

Anybody working on that?

In Praise Of The Golden Knights

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As many of you know by now, the local hockey team here – the Tampa Bay Lightning, made the semifinal round of the Stanley Cup. They’re playing the very able Washington Capitals to see who represents the East in the finals.

Another team that’s made it this far – the Vegas Golden Knights. What’s unusual about the Knights is this is their very first season, yet they could make the finals as well.

It should be noted that the NHL has had an odd history with expansion. In 1967, they expanded from their long-standing lineup of six teams – Toronto, Montreal, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Detroit – to twelve teams, they put all of the expansion teams in the same division, which assured an expansion squad would make the Stanley Cup. The St. Louis Blues made the finals three straight years in 1968, 1969, and 1970 – but were swept each year, by Montreal the first two seasons, and by Boston in 1970 with Bobby Orr scoring a famous goal to clinch the Cup for the Bruins.

What Vegas has been able to do all season as a first-year club has been nothing short of phenomenal. First-year clubs in major North American sports usually get the scraps of other teams, and thus usually don’t contend. Most teams don’t think about winning games fresh out of the box – instead, they focus on being contenders in subsequent seasons. For example, in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost 26 straight regular-season games in 1976 and 1977. In 1979, they made the playoffs and missed the Super Bowl that year by a mere nine points.

As I type this, the Winnipeg Jets won the first game of their series with Vegas. I’m sure all of Canada, the home of hockey, will root for the Jets to advance so they can take on either Washington or Tampa Bay. For selfish reasons, I’m pulling for a Tampa Bay-Vegas final, because they are my two favorite teams – and either way, it’d be a good story.

Two Minutes For High Licking?

I wasn’t aware of it when it happened Friday night. The Boston Bruins and the local hockey team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, were playing the fourth game in their best-of-seven quarterfinal playoff series to determine who moves on to the next round in the Stanley Cup. (I know the NHL has some fancy name for this round of the series – but it’s basically that, a round-of-eight series. The series before the series before the Stanley Cup series.)

With the game tied 2-2 a little more than midway through the second period, a robust hit on the boards on the upper part of the screen from the camera angle shown. This set off a normal series of skirmishes, with the common development of play having to be halted as one Bruin and one Lightning player squared off in some pushing and shoving. In one of the proceeding scrums, Brad Marchand of Boston gets in the face of Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan and licks him.

You read that right. One hockey player licked another hockey player.

Obviously, this was some rather unsportsmanlike conduct, but when you’ve seen players spit on each other, a boxer biting part of a foe’s ear off, and basketball players kicking cameramen in the groin – this is rather mild in comparison.

The Lightning wasn’t wholly fazed nor grossed out, they won the game 4-3 in overtime to take what was then a 3-1 series lead. The two squads played a fifth game yesterday, only needing one win in the next three games to take the series. They would only need one chance, as the “Bolts” won 3-1 to move to the next round of the playoffs against either Washington’s Capitals or the Penguins of Pittsburgh, winners of the last two Stanley Cups.

Going to be an exciting next few weeks around here, for sure.

Making (North) American Soccer Great Again

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Growing up in the Tampa Bay area and remembering the popularity of the Rowdies, the NASL franchise, I get a little annoyed that our area with its deep soccer history doesn’t have a team in Major League Soccer. It seems to me that when you get past the popularity of the World Cup and English Premier League soccer here in the States, Major League Soccer seems at best to be an afterthought.

Monday night, I was looking at the structure of the MLS for the 2018 season and saw the first problem: it has an odd number of teams at 23, with plans to expand to 25. With an odd number of teams, every team can’t play in a given week.

There’s enough talent in the US for many more teams, so if anyone wanted my opinion, I’d use a version of the system used in Europe generally. Have two leagues of 16 teams each. I’d place every team that’s won the MLS Cup in the past five years in the top of the two leagues, then include the best teams over a five-year average excluding the cup winners. The remaining teams would go to the bottom league along with expansion franchises and maybe teams from the other current leagues. Like I said, there’s enough talent in American soccer for 32 teams, maybe more than that – I just use that figure as a starting point.

As they do in Europe, I’d have promotion and relegation, where the teams that finish the lowest get demoted to the bottom league, while the best teams in the lower tier subsequently get promoted to the top league. The MLS can still have their Americanized playoff system at the end of the season (I’d recommend having the best eight teams seeded into a two-game total goals playoff, again like done in Europe) and find a champion that way.

Will American soccer ever adopt the fall to spring calendar the other renown leagues use all over the world? I think that would be a tougher nut to crack with some teams sharing facilities with NFL teams. They would also have to have contingency plans in mind with teams in northern cities getting snow and winter storms with a bit more frequency as seems to be the case in Europe.

Anyway, that’s what I’d do with soccer if anyone gave me the ball, so to speak.

Giants Among Us

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I’ll let you figure out who the giant is…

Thanks to a YouTube user named Nigel John for uploading the recent HBO documentary about the life of Andre “The Giant” Roussimoff. It was one of the better pieces about Andre I’ve yet to see, and there’s been a lot of work in “pop culture” in the quarter of a century since the big man has passed on that’s out there.

(Footnote: the documentary, as many seem to do, seems to forget that Andre was the WWF champion in February of 1988 very briefly, ending Hulk Hogan’s four-year reign with the belt. When Andre gave the title up to a fellow wrestler who didn’t earn it, the title was “held up” – not awarded to anyone – until “Macho Man” Randy Savage won a subsequent tournament.)

I’ve never seen Andre personally, but I once met the world’s tallest woman, Sandy Allen. I met her a few weeks before my ninth birthday in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada in 1980 on a New York vacation. I had relatives in Geneva, New York at the time, so off we went one day westward for my first and only (to date) trip to another country.

My mother still kids me about what I said to Canadian customs as we crossed the border. Remember, this was 1980 – long before 9/11, long before any President thought of building border walls. As was customary, the border agents asked if we have anything to declare.

The eight-year-old version of me didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the question. My cousins and I had munched on some bananas and Cheerios (without milk, because that could get messy) on the way to the border, so that’s what came to my mind.

“Only these bananas,” I said, holding the yellow fruit up for the agents to see. Everyone in the car looked at me as if I had somehow pledged allegiance to Satan or something.

There was a Guinness Book of World Records exhibit in Niagara Falls at the time. Around that time, I had gotten the paperback version of one of their yearly editions at a book fair at my elementary school, and that piqued my interest. There was also a short-lived game show around that time called The Guinness Game where contestants were staked with money and wagered on whether or not attempts at various world records would be successful.

(Footnote: I once had the home version board game of the show. No kidding.)

Two things I remember: a very big pinball game on display with a ball the size of a baseball moving around the electronic board, and meeting Sandy Allen.

One of the photos that didn’t pass the test of time was of me, two of my cousins, and Sandy towering above all of us. In the photo, I’m the tallest of the three children, but Allen is towering over me with ease, and still would if I had met her having reached my full height of roughly six feet and an inch.

In the photo, she’s resting the right forearm on top of my head – that I remember. I’m pretty sure my mother and aunt got a chuckle out of that. Meanwhile, I’m holding as still as I can – I don’t want to get this mountain of a woman mad at me!

I wish I still had that pic. It always brought out amazement whenever I showed it to friends. I’d tell them, no – I’m not that tall. But this woman, she’s huge!