The goalkeeper places the ball at the goal area (known to non-referees as the 6-yard box). Twenty players cluster at midfield, usually veering toward one wing or the other.
“Thud” goes the keeper’s foot on the ball.
“Grunt” go a couple of players who lost the lottery and must now jump against each other in a futile bid to win or maintain possession.
It’s the goal kick. It’s not just a good way to get a concussion in a tangle of arms and heads. It’s also a poor way to maintain possession -- data from American Soccer Analysis shows that the kicking team wins possession far less than 50 percent of the time and gives the defense about as much of a chance of scoring as it does the team whose keeper just blasted the ball as if auditioning to be the next Josh Lambo.
But let’s say for sake of argument that goal kicks offer an advantage. For a team with a size advantage, they might. They’re also helpful for teams with little to offer besides parking the bus.
Either way, the goal kick unfairly punishes good attacking.
Think of it this way: An attacking team takes a shot from a wide angle. If the shooter shanks it badly and sends it out over the touch line, a truly atrocious miss, the defending team has a risky throw-in under heavy pressure. If the shooter misses the post by a millimeter, the ball goes as far away from goal as the keeper’s leg will allow.
Punts are similarly unfair to the attacking team. Why punish a team for shooting on goal by allowing the opposing keeper to send the ball far into the opposing half with one swing of the leg?
Youth soccer has taken steps to encourage defenders to play out of the back. Goalkeepers can no longer punt the ball at U-9 or U-10; in exchange, the attacking team must retreat to a designated “buildout line.” But goal kicks still encourage coaches in search of that all-important parent-pleasing U-9 win to shove the big kid to the back and send the ball bounding to the other side of the field, and by U-11, punting is back in the game. As the game is currently constructed, goalkeepers need to start working on that “distribution” to midfield anyway, so you might as well get U-11s and U-12s to kick for distance rather than accuracy.
Would anyone be offended if we simply took the NFL-style kicks out of the game and forced goalkeepers to play the ball to defenders with a more reasonable kick or throw?
The youth soccer buildout lines might not work. We all love the simple layout of a soccer field, waiting for players to retreat adds an unwarranted delay in the game, and assistant refs have better things to do than watch a bunch of players trying to get a head start on each other to swarm the defender who takes the short pass from the keeper.
Here’s a better idea: Goalkeepers may no longer send the ball beyond midfield on the fly from a punt or a goal kick.
Without the option to send a ball sailing into the attacking half, goalkeepers will be encouraged to try something that isn’t quite as random. Punting the ball into a mass of players and risking an immediate loss of the ball in the goalkeeper’s half wouldn’t be a good idea. A goalkeeper would need to think and then play the ball with some sort of accuracy.
Back-passes wouldn’t change. If a keeper gets a ball from a defender, fine -- blast away. That’s within the run of play. If the defending team has possession already, the option to play the ball long seems fair.
But when the attacking team shoots or forces the defense to shepherd the ball across its own end line, the attacking team still gains the advantage of forcing the defending team to complete at least one pass to get the ball out of its own half. That change will reward attacking play. No more coaches screaming that the ball has been surrendered to a goal kick when someone has the audacity to shoot from distance.
As a fringe benefit, we’ll put fewer craniums in harm’s way. Fewer contested headers. Fewer balls dropping from the heavens onto someone’s skull.
And if the defense is incapable of playing the ball in the back, well, that’s soccer.
(Beau Dure is the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad.” He coaches and refs youth soccer in Northern Virginia.)