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Complete archive of Robert Wagman's It Seems to Me.

It Seems To Me . . .

MLS oddities: Stillitano has a job, MLS the shootout.

By Robert Wagman
Special to SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Saturday, September 26, 1998) -- As the third Major League Soccer regular season winds down, it seems a good time to consider several aspects of the still young professional league. But before we get to that, I have to join every other soccer writer in this country commenting on the Metrostarsí Monday firing of Alfonso Mondelo and hiring of Bora Milutinovic.

The New Jersey clubís vice president and general manager Charlie Stillitano said that something had to be done in the wake of the teamís late season slide. He told reporters that drastic measures were needed.

As I see it, Stillitano actually had four choices. He could have petitioned the league to allow the Metrostars to have five captains and to be able to play with two balls; he could have fired most of the players; he could have fired himself; or he could fire Mondelo, who as recently as early August was being touted by the New York soccer media as the potential Coach of the Year in Major League Soccer.

When the league wouldnít go for the five captains, two ball idea, Stillitano took the easy way out and canned the coach. That he brought in Bora was something approaching a stroke of genius.

Columbus, having lost two of their last three does not look unbeatable, and Bora just might be able to get the Metrostars into the division final against (Washington) D.C. United (assuming United gets past Miami). If Bora does that, Stillitano might accomplish his main goal, saving his own job.

Regardless, something very major is going to have to happen in New York. What should be the leagueís showcase franchise, is this season drawing horrendous crowds. Since June, the MetroStars have averaged 12,343 over 12 matches. For the season, attendance is down almost 30 percent from MLSí inaugural season, even given the boost from the 56,404 who showed up for the pre-World Cup doubleheader with the Columbia-Scotland match. Attendance has averaged 16,519, in a market MLS says will easily support two MLS franchises.

Having gotten that out of the way, letís turn to my own personal number one -- what I hate most about MLS -- the dreaded shootout.

Yes, I know, I have heard MLS Commissioner Doug Loganís "why we should all love the shootout" speech so often I can now recite it with him in several languages. But what it comes down to is this: MLS believes to a moral certitude that the American sports audience is absolutely conditioned to have a final result, a winner and a loser. Thatís why, they argue, we have extra innings, overtime to a conclusion in basketball, overtime in the NFL that almost always produces a winner, etc. Americans just canít abide a sport that allows draws.

Besides they argue, the shootout is exciting. And to this I have to agree. But so too is a crash on the first turn at Indianapolis and some of the shootouts I have seen make you want to turn away like it was a car wreck.

My problem with the shootout as practiced in Major League Soccer is that it is at its heart, fundamentally unfair. I remember a match this summer when Tampa was down 2-0 to DC United, in Washington, with about 30 minutes to time. In an amazing display of guts the Mutiny came back to tie the match at 2-2.

Up came the shootout, and United won. So Tampa went home with nothing to show for a really inspiring effort. They could have mailed in the last half hour of play, lost 4-0, and gotten the same result. And that is simply, and fundamentally, wrong.

It seems to me there are very simple ways of solving this. The easiest is to do what the rest of the world does -- if a match ends in a draw, leave it that way and award each team one point. But if you are so absolutely convinced the U.S. soccer audience can not bring itself to accept this concept of drawn matches, ok, have the shootout, but give the losing team something to show for their effort in the match. One way would be to award one point to each team for a tie, and award the team winning the shootout a bonus point. If you believe that a one point difference between a shootout win and a regular time win is not enough (3 for a regular time win, 2 for a shootout win), give 4 points for a regular time win, 2 to the shootout winner, 1 to the shootout loser (4-2-1).

Needless to say, I noted with interest the announcement by Japanís premier J-League that they are eliminating the use of penalty kicks to decide the winner of regular league matches. Formally, like MLS, if a match ended in a draw, a winner was decided by kicks from the penalty spot. Now, if a match ends in a draw, as in most leagues around the world, each team will take home one point.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.