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Jerry's World

Itís time to dispose of tired MLS shootouts.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, April 12, 1999) -- Enough is enough.

We've tolerated the shootout in Major League Soccer for three years. We don't like teams settling for draws in the last 10 minutes, and we were told that forcing every game to a decision -- with the loser of a shootout getting nothing -- would help resolve this situation. We would have late-game excitement, both teams going all out for a regulation-time victory.

This simply hasn't happened. Especially this year, where there have been more shootouts than regulation-time verdicts. Major League Soccer has experienced 11 shootouts in 21 matches.

How many ties have been broken in the last 10 minutes? One, by Brian McBride of Columbus in the 83rd minute in the Crew's 3-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Thus, the basic premise for the shootout doesn't exist -- or at least not this year.

There were a reasonable number of late, decisive goals the first couple of MLS seasons, but teams are getting stronger on defense -- and weaker offensive teams aren't going to expose themselves to a late counterattack and blow the chance of at least getting a point from the shootout, where they even may be the stronger side.

We've in the past advocated that losing shootout teams get something - one point, compared with two (not one) for the winner, and four (not three) for the regulation-time victor. Major League Soccer, however, hasn't budged. It defends the shootout by saying non-purist fans like it.

Officials also point to the skills involved in the shootout -- dribbling from 35 yards out, against a charging goalkeeper, with five seconds to shoot -- contrasted with the dreadful FIFA tie-breaker use of penalty kicks. However, these one-on-one skills have rarely been in evidence the past couple of seasons.

Who knows whether that's an indication of terrific goalkeeping, disinterest on the past of offensive players, or plain lack of polish. The fact of the matter is that not only is the shootout unfair to the losing team, it's not worth watching anymore. And if it's not worth watching, why have it.

What to do in playoffs? Go to a 30-minute sudden-death, then penalty kicks. The 52.4 percent shootout-to-games ratio projects to 100 shootouts for the 192-game season, though historically the rate has decreased as the season progressed.

Last year the figure was 17.19 percent, with 33 of 192 games so decided. In 1997, it was 20.63 percent, with 33 of 160 games. And in 1996, the debut season, the figure was 21.25 percent, 34 of 160 games.

The glow started by the U.S. national men's team under new coach Bruce Arena is spreading.

First, it was the under-17 boys team, which is playing MLS teams even in exhibitions and winning international matches overseas, including in Argentina. This is a team loaded with talent, especially on attack, though it still needs to dispose of El Salvador next month to qualify for the FIFA World Championship.

But now the spotlight is on the under-20 team, which has magnificently advanced to the second round of the FIFA World Championship in Nigeria. First, it downed England, then lost to Japan, before bouncing back to whip Cameroon.

Kudos are deserved by this unsung, college-oriented team, and to the coach, Sigi Schmid, finally given a chance by U.S. Soccer to display his talents on the international level.

He wasn't afraid to make mid-tournament changes in the lineup -- moving central defender Steve Cherundolo to midfield, and midfielder John Thorrington to forward -- in the showdown against Cameroon. Both sparkled in their new roles.

The United States already has done better than the 1997 team, which was badly outplayed in three straight matches in Malaysia after winning the opener against China. The explanation then offered: it was pros against amateurs.

It's still basically the same, though there are five pros on the U.S. roster -- two overseas (Cherundolo, Germany, and Thorrington, England) and three in MLS development roles (goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielder Francisco Gomez, and forward Jamar Beasley).

The bulk of the lineup remains college. Barring a blowout loss to Spain, the tournament already is a success for the American side.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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