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It’s time for MLS, all of soccer to adopt the breakaway penalty shootouts

Remember the ‘90s MLS penalty shootout that was dramatic, entertaining and fun?

Today’s Major League Soccer looks much like soccer played around the world, but that was not always the case. When MLS began in 1996, the league used a number of different rules in an attempt to appeal to the average American sports fan.

One of those differences was the penalty kick shootout, which occurred to prevent ties. And for the first few years of operation, these shootout looked like hockey, with players beginning with the ball 35 yards from goal and going one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

Those 35-yard breakaway penalty shootouts need to come back to MLS and then expanded beyond our soccer borders, ultimately including the sport’s biggest tournament, with slight modifications.

Given that we are in a long, isolated holding pattern due to the coronavirus, this is the perfect time to embrace soccer nostalgia. And there are few things from the early days of MLS that spark excitement, debate and division in equal measure than the league’s unorthodox penalty shootout used from 1996-1999 (and in the NASL before that).

Here’s a video of Columbus Crew SC taking part in one of these penalty shootouts against the San Jose Clash on April 19, 1997, at Ohio Stadium:

In the 2014 World Cup semifinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands, a winner could not be determined after 120 minutes of play. So, the time had arrived for a traditional penalty kick shootout. However, in retrospect, this penalty-taking format reduced the world-class mobility, creativity and talents of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder – to name just a few of the penalty takers – into a limiting goal-attempt exercise to determine which team would advance to the World Cup Final’s championship game.

Imagine what world-class players could and would do in an amended MLS-style penalty shootout from the ‘90s.

Let’s also not forget that it’s very frustrating watching goalkeeper after goalkeeper jump way off of his goalline before a penalty kick is taken for a clear unfair advantage. It’s ridiculous and it’s rarely called. Although, Crew keeper Eloy Room was surprisingly called out for this violation against the Seattle Sounders on March 7 of this year in the last game Columbus played before the league’s current delay. Room was not as bad as some keepers have been, but it was still the right call.

There was a report a few years ago that suggested FIFA was considering the former MLS penalty shootout for use in the 2026 World Cup. While we’ve been waiting patiently to see if any more substantial changes will happen two World Cups from now (let alone one month from now), this aforementioned report from 2017 does bring a legitimate level of optimism to this issue. Hopefully, 2026 will be the triumphant return of the old-school penalty shootout for the sport’s biggest stage.

So why do I want this soccer blast from the past to be brought back to life in modern day like Brendan Fraser’s caveman character Link from the 1992 movie Encino Man? For starters, what current forward or winger wouldn’t want to do this? Or what player doesn’t have a failed breakaway moment in their career that they desperately want back? Plus, there are many practical applications for those players directly involved.

The potential and frequency of this specific penalty shootout for club and/or country would force players and coaches alike to seriously prepare for this game inside the game. Except it’s not merely just a game inside a game, but instead a particular set of skills that would help improve players in a variety of ways in terms of dribbling with pace, breakaway moves, making quick decisions and, yes, scoring goals. For goalkeepers, it would help improve awareness of the space around them, positioning, making the right move and, yes, preventing goals in critical situations.

My suggested rules and conditions for the adjusted penalty shootout in the event of a tie after regulation or extra time are similar to the old ones, but with a few modifications:

  • The same best-of-five framework for traditional penalty kicks should be used.
  • Starting 35 yards from the goal line, the offensive player would have seven and a half seconds to dribble, possibly do a quick move and then shoot. Five seconds was too rushed.
  • The offensive player can start dribbling the ball from 35 yards away in which the ball is lined up anywhere straight in-line along the top of the 18-yard box. This is if wingers, for example, want to run at goal from a more familiar angle like in a game.
  • The goalkeeper has to have a foot behind the six-yard line. This would bring the goalie and offensive player closer in proximity faster than the original structure, allowing and even encouraging a clever skill move on the part of the penalty taker. Once the player starts dribbling towards him, the keeper can move out as he wishes.
  • If the goalkeeper fouls a player, then it’s up to the referee for giving a yellow card or even a red card. In the event a player is fouled, the player would be given a redo.
  • If the starting keeper is given a red card at any point during the shootout, a new goalkeeper has to be chosen from that team’s lineup when the penalty shootout began.
  • No cards given in the penalty shootout carry over to the next game. These cards are isolated to the specific penalty shootout.
  • Quick points rundown for going to the new penalty shootout in league play: Each team would earn one point for the tie. The winning team in the penalty shootout would earn an additional point. Three points would remain for a win in regulation.

Given the opportunity, I think the relevant powerbrokers in MLS and abroad would return to and change to the new and exciting penalty shootout format for trial periods in various tournaments and leagues with the strong possibility for implementation at the highest levels. If this exciting penalty shootout had originated from a top European league with active participation from its bevy of global superstars, it wouldn’t even be a question as to whether MLS and FIFA would adopt it.

Just think of it as reciprocation for the Euro Step. It’s a popular move from basketball leagues across the pond that appeared out of step from what had been done for so long in the higher-level NBA, yet it fits and makes the game more dramatic, entertaining and fun.