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?