Farcical finals prove we need rule changes: How about a foul-count bonus?

By Mike Woitalla

What a weekend for American soccer! The Seattle Sounders won MLS Cup without a shot on goal. Stanford prevailed in the college final four without scoring a goal. But this isn't just an American problem, such goal-barren finals.

If you watched both MLS Cup on Saturday and the NCAA College Cup on Sunday, you sat through nearly four hours of scoreless soccer. (Before defeating Wake Forest with a penalty-kick tiebreaker, Stanford beat North Carolina on Friday in the same manner after 110 minutes of scoreless play.)

If you watched the big international finals last summer, you witnessed a scoreless Copa Centenario battle between Argentina and Chile for 120 minutes. The Portugal-France Euro 2016 final delivered one goal in two hours. Throw in the men’s Olympic gold-medal game and the UEFA Champions League final and you have four finals with an average of one goal every 96 minutes.

The 2015 Copa America final, in which Chile also prevailed over Argentina on PKs, was a 120-minute scoreless affair and Germany’s 2014 World Cup final win over Argentina gave us one goal, in the 113th minute.

If you want someone to discover the joys of soccer, don’t recommend they watch a final. That is, of course, a major indictment of the sport. These championship games, they’re showcasing the best of the best. The most talented players and most clever coaches. Yet we’re lucky to see a goal about once every two hours.

Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner addressed the issue of before (“Will fear of goalscoring affect MLS Cup 2016?”) and after the MLS Cup final (“Toronto 0 Seattle 0 -- Another Forgettable Final”). And back in September he wrote in World Soccer that, “Soccer needs an independent panel of ‘experts’ to keep the sport under constant surveillance, to issue regular reports on what it sees as negative trends, and to recommend corrective action.”

On MLS Cup 2016, Gardner pointed out the leniency of referee Alan Kelly, who in a game with 40 fouls showed only three yellow cards, the first not till stoppage of the first half. This in game in which Toronto’s most creative attacker Sebastian Giovinco was fouled twice in the first two and half minutes, knocked down from behind by Roman Torres and forearmed to the face by Joevin Jones. (The scoreless College Cup featured 43 fouls and only three yellow cards.)

The formula for teams entering a high-stakes game becomes obvious, and perhaps irresistible because the rules and the refs allow for it: When under threat, foul. Do so in a way that’s not deemed “reckless” and you won’t get cautioned. You just give up a free kick but you’ve stopped the opponent in its tracks. And be sure to foul the team’s top attackers a lot. (Giovinco was fouled six times in MLS Cup as was Seattle’s Cristian Roldan.)

The FIFA rules do address persistent infringement -- granting the referee the right to caution for fouls not deemed “reckless.” Persistent infringement is supposed to address a sophisticated form of cheating, taking turns at fouling the other team’s best players, or committing fouls in the midfield that don’t result in dangerous free kicks.

But FIFA’s rulebook offers this vague (to say the least) guideline: “no specific number or pattern of infringements constitutes ‘persistent.’”

By now, after all these awful finals that should be showcasing the best of the sport, you’d think that some rule changes to promote goalscoring would be seriously considered. And it’s not just the finals. Goalscoring rates have decreased over the decades across the board. The last World Cup that averaged three goals per game was in 1970. MLS hasn’t hit that mark since 2002. Euro 2016 averaged 2.12 goals per game -- one goal every 44 minutes.

MLS can’t change the rules, but it could give much more specific instructions to referees on cautions for persistent infringement than it did when it told refs to focus on it in 2015 -- without giving specific guidelines.

Better yet, the rule-makers at FIFA should wake up to the fact that the sport of soccer favors the defenders and that its rules and its referees enable a negative approach to the game.

Fouling has become so much a part of soccer tactics that it is time to consider some radical action. Basketball, a sport in which fouls aren’t nearly as brutal as what the Giovincos or Messis are subjected to, has an excellent solution by punishing individuals with a foul count that leads to ejection and a team with a foul count that leads to bonus free throws.

How about, after every 10th direct-kick foul a team commits, the opponent is awarded a penalty kick?

36 comments about "Farcical finals prove we need rule changes: How about a foul-count bonus?".
  1. Robert Smith, December 12, 2016 at 11:22 p.m.

    Agreed! Far too many finals end scoreless. I would go a step further. The goal size should be enlarged and the offsides rule should be modified. It is far too difficult to score a goal. Fans want to see the beautiful game which entails creativity and offense. The current rules favor defensive and boring soccer.

  2. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, December 13, 2016 at 9:43 a.m.

    Drastic rule changes like this are not needed.

  3. Jim Ngo, December 12, 2016 at 11:33 p.m.

    Referees are worried that they will decide the match if they issue a soft red and put a team into a disadvantage. This holds them back from issuing cautions early. I think everyone sees this a lot.

    I believe a team should be allowed to use one of their substitutions to replace a player ejected on a soft red, if they have one to use. I believe this will make it more palatable for referees to use their yellow card for its intended purpose.

  4. R2 Dad, December 13, 2016 at 12:41 a.m.

    We've been down this path before, circled back when we realized properly implementing the LOTG is the best way to go. Best for the clubs, players, referees, fans. If we had more world-class officials this wouldn't be as much of a problem. We're tracking MLS salaries--what about officials salaries? Are we expecting world class referees but only paying bush-league wages?

  5. :: SilverRey :: replied, December 13, 2016 at 9:54 a.m.

    Where are these 'world class' refs you speak of. Every single league in the world wishes they had 'world class' refs - including the 'world class' leagues.

  6. R2 Dad replied, December 13, 2016 at 12:07 p.m.

    When El Salavador can manage more WC referees/assistants that we can, you know there is a problem:
    .....the question is What do we do about it?

  7. Joseph Pratt, December 13, 2016 at 12:45 a.m.

    Goals are so scarce that their value is extremely high. This referees are reluctant to act in a way that may lead directly to a goal, such as calling a penalty, or indirectly, such as showing a player a red card. IFAB should look at ways to find middle ground punishments that would limit the fouling without being as extreme as red cards or penalties. A foul just outside the area is a free kick, and a low probability of scoring, but move the foul one foot and put it in the box and you have a penalty kick and a near 100% chance of scoring. That difference is so huge, and the value of a goal so high, that refs are loath to call fouls in the box. As Woitalla suggests, let's have some incremental measures that apply between these types of extremes to discourage fouling and open up the game.

  8. Joey Tremone replied, December 13, 2016 at 9:36 a.m.

    I think the comments here are right on--the basic problem in soccer is that the crime and punishment system goes from straight the trivial to the catastrophic with too little 'meaningful but not a game-decider' punishments (the equivalent of a 15 yard penalty in football or three foul shots in basketball) in between. We need to *both* relax the worst punishments a bit *and* beef up the enforcement of the tactical infractions you see every game. Perhaps for a red, the offending team is only short-handed for a time, say 20 minutes, and then can use a substitution if they have one. (I suggested above 2-5 minutes for a yellow.)

    For common fouls, I have a few ideas: 1) 'automatic advantage' (idea borrowed from ice hockey): advantage is basically played out every single time, and the whistle is not blown until the team that committed the foul recovers the ball, at which point the FK is given where the foul had occurred, giving suffering teams both the advantage and the free kick. 2) change the free kick 'wall' distance from 10 yards to 12 so that they are easier to bend around. It is weird that free kicks from 25 yards are more dangerous than ones from 19.

    I am not a fan of basketball-style automatic foul counts--I think the article itself undercuts the case when it points out that players can simply rotate who fouls the attacker, and they can effectively shut down the opposition's primary attack options without having any one player foul him more than a couple of times. The punishment is not severe enough to make sure basketball games don't end in a morass of (tactical) fouls and free throws.

  9. Paul Cox replied, December 13, 2016 at 1:14 p.m.

    "players can simply rotate who fouls the attacker"---bear in mind that referees are allowed to issue cautions for persistent infringement if this happens. They just don't do it often enough.

  10. Scott Johnson, December 13, 2016 at 1:41 a.m.

    No need to go to basketball for inspiration--futsal does this. The "excessive fouls" penalty is taken from a spot further back than a penalty for a direct foul in the box, and scores are much higher in futsal (so giving up one goal on a penalty is a far less severe punishment), but it still imposes a consequence for excessive physicality. Another possibility--use foul counts as a tiebreaker if the fixture is still knotted after time expires. My main concern with both is excessive diving, but better than then soccer turning into WWE.

  11. James e Chandler, December 13, 2016 at 7:42 a.m.

    Here's an idea.
    Adopt the indoor soccer method of the time penalty, the blue card making a team play shorthanded, but not for the entire game unless a true send-off offense is committed.
    Take them all the way down to 7 players if they're a bunch of knuckleheads.
    That should clean up play, or provide some interesting power play situations.
    How much fun would that be to see a team holding off 11 on 7 for 5 minutes?

  12. Joey Tremone replied, December 13, 2016 at 8:48 a.m.

    James e Chandler, it's always the third card that kills this concept. I think it might go over better if a yellow card simply forced a team to play short-handed for a time, say somewhere between 2 and 5 minutes. That's hardly a 'match decider,' but it would tend to accumulate to a real disadvantage for a team that gets carded a lot.

  13. :: SilverRey :: replied, December 13, 2016 at 10 a.m.

    Time out is the best answer to this. Throw them in the box! It works well in indoor, hockey and rugby. Make both the cynical foul and the 'professional' foul have bigger consequences. Do we need to add a third card? It could probably be done just with the yellow.

  14. James e Chandler, December 13, 2016 at 7:58 a.m.

    Another way to handle the "soft" red card is to merely force a team to substitute the offending player.
    They'd lose that player's services for the day, and have burned one of their allowed substitutions, and if they'd already used them, then they go down a player.
    That would loosen the flap on the referee's pocket.
    On the other hand, high school tried this "soft red card" method, and abandoned it in favor of the traditional send-off rule. High school allowing unlimited substitutions penalized a team less than if subs were limited.

  15. David Trapp, December 13, 2016 at 8:12 a.m.

    One method for ensuring that there are more scoring opportunities is to add two lines to the field at the 1/3 mark on each side; a player cannot be offside if he is not past that line when attacking. I believe the benefits are obvious.

  16. Mark Zylker, December 13, 2016 at 8:37 a.m.

    Yes, the referees are also too lenient on defenders in the MLS and elsewhere in free kick situations. When there is a corner kick or free kick outside the box and there is much jostling for position, how often does the offensive player get called for a foul, and how often does the defensive player get called for a foul. My guess it is probably 100 to 1 if not more. The referee is afraid to call it on the defender because he may feel he is affecting the game by calling a penalty. But he is quick to call a foul on the offensive player. Call it both ways, give the penalties and soon you will see many more goals. The penalties will be eventually cut down as the jostling will lessen and more skill will be exhibited showing more goals

  17. :: SilverRey :: replied, December 13, 2016 at 10:02 a.m.

    Bring back indirect fouls in the box! When was the last time you saw one of those called. I am very much in favor of this.

  18. Quarterback TD, December 13, 2016 at 9:27 a.m.

    Honestly I can deal with a scoreless game provided that I am seeing good shots and amazing saves. I also don't like to watch a game that is one sided where a team is up 3-0 in 15 mins. The problem we are seeing started over the last 8 years where weaker teams focus on compact defense resulting in far superior teams being shut out. We need coaches that can build offense around that so his players can score. It's a chess game you must draw the opponent King out or lose.

  19. Wooden Ships, December 13, 2016 at 10:49 a.m.

    The game is great the way it is. Did we expect the MLS final is to be awash with beautiful passing and amazing dribbling? Idealized versus actual in the States (Canada too) is a big divide. Another thing reflecting "our" soccer culture everyone should be aware of, is, there aren't any other countries complaining and having an incessant desire to tweak and change. Stay the course, we look silly whining and complaining.

  20. Kenneth Cabral, December 13, 2016 at 11:34 a.m.

    I agree that something needs to be done about foul enforcement, but the real issue is the lack of goal scoring. Could the offside rule be modified so that an offside can only occur within the penalty area or create another area half way from the center line to the start of the penalty area designated with a broken line. I realize that these ideas are hard sells, but more scoring is necessary to maintain fan interest.

  21. Chris Wirth, December 13, 2016 at 11:54 a.m.

    The refs obviously think they "aren't supposed to decide the game", at least in a Final. Having them call games according to the rules, or at least consistently with what we are used to would make a difference and no need to tweak anything.

    Well, maybe one thing: people need to get out of their heads that soccer is only interesting and entertaining when goals are being scored. Honestly, the intensity and excitement in these games is there, but not if you think the only good thing in soccer is a goal.

  22. Wooden Ships replied, December 13, 2016 at 1:54 p.m.

    Correct Chris, this is where we lack a history, a sophistication, a PATIENCE that the game requires at the international level. I've witnessed over 6 decades now, attempts to bring in more fans trying to be clever and change things, with marketing dog and pony efforts. The game is growing in support, but no matter what we do the game doesn't uniquely belong to the the US. And that's okay.

  23. R2 Dad, December 13, 2016 at 12:22 p.m.

    I can imagine over at PRO that fewer officials every year want to handle these playoff matches. Changing the "rules of engagement" for a referee for a couple of matches is a recipe for disaster. Foul selection, calibrated during the season, is supposed to be changed, on the fly? This is predictable madness, Don Garber & Peter Walton, and you own it. Lucky there weren't any serious injuries this time.

  24. William Wang, December 13, 2016 at 12:29 p.m.

    Mark Zylker makes a good observation. A recent controversial example is the foul called on Carli Lloyd (I think) in the Olympics. She scored, but the ref called a foul on her because the defender went down. Hard for the USA, but it seems to me that almost any referee would have called it the same way. When in doubt, favor the defender. "Correcting" this, may produce more PKs, but I dislike these almost as much as a 0-0 tie. Maybe the sending off for red cards could be re-assessed. If I am watching a game between evenly matched teams, and a player is sent off, I just quit watching--unless the team that lost the player is ahead and the game is late in the second half. The result is all too predictable.

  25. frank schoon, December 13, 2016 at 1:41 p.m.

    Very simple, DON'T CHANGE A THING but improve the quality of the players and the quality of the game which is so lacking in the MLS. There is nothing wrong with a scoreless 120 minute game as long as the soccer displayed is of a good QUALITY. The problem is compounded when there is no quality which makes it tough to endure a scoreless game

  26. Wooden Ships replied, December 13, 2016 at 2 p.m.

    Well said frank.

  27. K Michael replied, December 13, 2016 at 2:28 p.m.

    Except the last WC, Euro, and Copa Finals were almost as dreadful. Consider the NBA when in the nineties it was just a mugging every other play; they emphasized a few key rule changes, such as no more placing your forearm into the lower back of the opponent, and the game opened up. The NFL cracked down on the mugging of receivers and for brutal late hits on the QB; the game opened up. For footie, just call the bloody game the way it’s supposed to be called. Grab an attacker from behind, card him every time. Late challenge, card, every time…etc. It can be done if the various governing bodies emphasize it. There cannot be two separate sets of tolerance during less meaningful games and Finals

  28. humble 1 replied, December 13, 2016 at 3:13 p.m.

    Right, does the chicken come first or the egg? Could it be that when referees allow aggressive play against 'quality' players and quality play again and again in games, you get - no quality play? Tactical fouls were out of control in that game, seemed as if there was a one-touch-of-the-ball then foul rule for certain players. That takes the air out of the game for most people, yeah, a brave few enjoy this, but, emphasis on few. I believe Seattle's manager was indirectly quoted as stating he did not realize his players managed no shots on goal for the game. Did anyone bother to ask him, what, if he wasn't paying attention to shots, was he looking for from his players the entire game? What exactly was he was he managing? As the ultimate irony MLS has a former NFL exec as the commissioner.

  29. Bob Ashpole, December 13, 2016 at 4:04 p.m.

    Changing the Laws is not a solution when the problem is not enforcing the Laws we have now.

  30. R2 Dad replied, December 14, 2016 at 4:38 p.m.


  31. aka Football, December 13, 2016 at 5:59 p.m.

    Allowing persistent fouling to continue without penalizing the one doing the fouling is affecting the outcome of the match just as much, if not more, than pulling out an early yellow card. Or making a "controversial" call. The referee is going to affect the outcome of the match no matter what. That reality is baked into the sport itself. The real question is, in what way? By enforcing the laws of the game? By encouraging skilled play? By allowing persistent thuggery to devolve the match into an ill-humored foul-fest and a series of set pieces? I want to watch the skilled players do their thing. That's what makes the beautiful game beautiful. Finals are always going to be a unique experience, but it's up to MLS to decide what kind of sport they want to promote. If it continues down the current path, you can count me out. Just not interested.

  32. beautiful game, December 13, 2016 at 9:37 p.m.

    It's not all about goals; it's about the quality of the game. Technically poor players kill the game, the same way as the whistle-swallower. Technically gifted teams produce entertainment for the spectators even in low scoring contests as long as coaches play the game to the team's strengths and the whistle- swallower is absent. It is obvious that some LOTG are nebulous, but it's up to the referee to use common sense, especially when it comes to professional fouls, shirt pulling, or wanton mugging. The delinquencies of referees is a global epidemic and FIFA needs to take action sooner then later.

  33. Allan Lindh, December 13, 2016 at 11:15 p.m.

    Second foul on same player -- Yellow card, next one a Red. One player more than two fouls, a Yellow. Next one a Red. Will be a shock the first year, but by the second year the fans will love it, the game will flow. Only the Thugs will object, and the no-skill defenders and "holding" midfielders.

  34. Footballer Forever, December 13, 2016 at 11:56 p.m.

    I find it amusing how over-critical and delussional PG or any others out there tend to criticize football using their padded rugby nfl stick or using another American sports as comparison.

    As far the MLS football final goes, in my eyes Toronto Football Club attempted to be the attacking football side most of the time. SSFC had other ideas as to how they wanted to approach the game in which they failed to show any concrete offensive attack to the point they did not record a shot on goal for the entire game. If itwaz not for Frei heroics, SSFC would have lost it badly and PK's would not have been their lifesaver.

    A football final requires two football clubs that realize they are there not only to win at all costs, but they are there to entertain and hope to create a spectacle of the last game of the year. (example: TFC vs Montreal Impact).

    SSFC with Jordan Morris, Lodeiro, and the rest of the crew should not feel so proud at all as they failed miserably to duke it out offensively at all and were living on the PK prayers to win it.

  35. Margaret Manning replied, December 31, 2016 at 3:23 a.m.

    Sour grapes, Footballer Forever. Not sure whether you were there, but I was. No one plays "beautiful soccer" in 10 degree weather with ice on the pitch. Just rewatching the game and amazed at the idiot TFC fans throwing streamers, beer cans and god know what else at the Ivanschitz corner. I no longer feel at all bad for TFC.

  36. aaron dutch, December 15, 2016 at 3:46 p.m.

    Changing rules is not the solution, having a better attacking team is. More expansive approach etc...

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