Thursday, May 29, 2008

Test of Stremf or More MTA Madness?

A graffitti-bombed train rumbles over the tracks...."There aint nothin out here for you!" "Oh yes there is; this..."

Mets fans citywide rejoiced last summer, when, after only 43 years of Shea Stadium's existence, the MTA began running #7 express trains back towards Manhattan. This was particularly momentous for (b)east-siders, like myself, who could now clock back into Grand Central within 15 minutes, rivaling the time west-siders make it back to the glazed-popcorn scented cavern of Penn Station on the LIRR.

Word to the Wize, tho, they only run express trains at the end of the game. And by end of the game, they mean end of the game. Wait all you'd like, train personnel will hold that 7 express on the middle platform until, using advanced walkie-talkie technology, they receive word that the game is 'in the books.' Should the game go to extras then the 7 express will wait. So either the MTA is rewarding the hardcore fan who sits it out, sending a big Fukudome to fans who leave early, which is a nice thought in the abstract world of fandom, or completely oblivious to its role as efficient people-mover. Because, like it or not, many fans leave after the 7th or so and many more fans don't stick it out for extras.

Those hoping for a change in this policy shouldn't hold their breath. Took only 43 years to figure out that they should run the express in the first place. Somewhat relatedly, straphangers shouldn't hold their breath for the 7 express stopping at 74th-Broadway, a major hub where they could transfer to the E,V, F, R, G and numerous bus lines. That would require inserting a middle platform. Considering it took only took five (5) years and at least $150 million (originally budgeted amount, you'll have to use your imagination for what the actual final cost was) just to add new tiles, 7 train platform overhands and some new staircases to that station and you start to catch the drift...but not the train. Get it? Catch the drift/train? Sorry about that.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Pondering Penalties aka PK-47

Roberto Baggio Missing during the Penalty Shootout won By Brazil to decide the 1994 World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl.
David Batty missing during the penalty shootout won by Argentina in the 1998 World Cup round of 16 in Saint-Etienne, France.

As suggested in the comments of this excellent discussion of penalty alternatives here; the most realistic adjustment to the way soccer games are decided may well be moving the spot back from which penalties are taken.

Currently, penalties are taken from 12 yards out. The goalkeeper, technically, must remain standing on the goal line until the shot is taken. In reality, it should be next to impossible for a world-class player, particularly the strikers and midfielders who primarily comprise the first 5 chosen for a shootout, to miss; which, by a wide margin, they do not.

One study, summarized here, revealed that 82.7% and 84.6% of all penalty kicks during shootouts were converted at the Copa America and European Championships, respectively.
Mostly, one can imagine, the only reasons for missing such easy shots are intertwined: nerves and mistakes. Tellingly, the same study reveals that on the biggest stage, the World Cup, the conversion rate is only 71.2%. Adding further support for nerves being the biggest determining factor, the conversion of sudden-death kicks-those taken after the first five have been shot-is 64.3%, as opposed to an average rate of 80% for the first five kicks.

If kicks were taken from farther away, such as 18 yards away at the edge of the box or further, goalkeepers would have more time to make a save, fewer shots would be converted and more skill would be required. This method might have the added benefit of encouraging more attacking play during extra-time as teams might be more prone to go for goal if they knew that penalties were not so easy to convert.

While there is some merit to the method Major League Soccer used at its infancy, namely allowing players to run at the goal from 35 yards out, simply moving the spot of the penalty farther away should be sufficient to bring some balance to the battle between goalkeeper and striker while still maintaining the insane drama and quick resolution that the current format provides.

What's most important is that alternatives to the current penalty shootout are being discussed more frequently. Sepp Blatter himself is on the record as wanting a better solution to World Cup games. As shootouts determine more and more big events, the clamor for change will only increase.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Fickle Foot of Fate

The rain now fell in great torrents over the Luzhniki Stadium's pathetically poor pitch. John Terry's normally spiked hair hung flat against his head as he approached the spot for his penalty kick. He fiddled with his captain's armband as he readied himself to deliver the first European Cup in Chelski's less-than-proud history. Earlier, a cocky Cristiano Ronaldo has paused twice in the run up to his P.K., handing Petr Cech the easy save and allowing Terry to capture eternal glory with the fifth and final shot of the first round of penalties.

As he struck the ball Man.U.'s Edwin Van der Sar dove to his right, leaving an almost entirely empty goal for Terry, who then sadly slipped on the shoddy surface and slotted it to his own right where it banged off the left goalpost, harmlessly. Now it was on to sudden death kicks. Anderson and Kalou banged their home safe. Ryan Giggs came on and successfully converted his kick in a game in which he broke Sir Bobby Charlton's club appearance record, in this, the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster of which Charlton himself was a survivor. The crowd behind the goal, fortuitously enough the Man.U. end, roared with new life. On came Nicholas Anelka, the mercurial mercenary brought on to Chelsea this past January from Bolton Wanderers. His shot, to his left, was a decent one, but it rose no higher than waist level, allowing van der Sar to stretch every inch of his 6'6'' frame to and punch the ball away to safety.

Ronaldo, saved from despair, buried his teary face into the grass. Terry, sobbing now in raw heaves, remained on the pitch, inconsolable. ESPN announcer Tommy Smyth incorrectly hung the blame on Terry and labeled it a 'terrible miss.' The fact was that the pitch was an utter embarrassment and wholly unfit to host a match of such magnitude as evidenced by the countless players treated for cramps throughout the match and the numerous slips and divots.

Terry had played magnificently throughout the match. In extra-time Patrice Evra had burst through Chelsea's penalty area and dropped the ball back for Giggs has he fell out past the goal line. Giggs, with Cech far to his right had sure victory in front of him. But Terry had raced back and stood on the goal line, and somehow, someway, twisted his neck to head away Giggs' sure winner. After the match Chelsea Chelsea assistant manager Henk ten Cate revealed that had Didier Drogba not been sent off in extra-time for a foolish slap to the face on Man.U. defender Nemanja Vidic, it would have been Drogba, and not Terry taking the final kick.

As scintillating as the shootout was, ultimately it remains unsatisfying. Man U. were undoubtedly the better team in the first half, with at least two quality chances on goal after Ronaldo's spectacular header in the 25th minute. Chelsea were undoubtedly the better team in the second half, relentlessly attacking, twice hitting the woodwork, but Man.U.'s rear guard of Ferdinand and Vidic repelled time and time again. Fantastic as it was to see Man.U. cap off a thoroughly entertaining season by defeating their current most bitter rivals, there has to be a better way to crown a champion.

Basketball games, particularly, big ones, often come down to nailing free throws on possession after possession for the team that's up late. In football, the efforts of the real team often come down to the foot of some random dude who doesn't practice with the team and who can just as easily be kicking for the other team the next week. It's funny that for all the ink that's spilled (hmm, that sure is one hell of an outdated phrase) in the NFL offseason on the skill positions of QB, WR, RB and DB, next to nothing is said about the weirdos whose feet will decide more than a fair amount of games. Does Thurman Thomas send Scott Norwood Christmas cards?

So at least soccer is decided by the stars on the field. And there is no doubt that a penalty shootout is one of the most nerverackingly entertaining experiences one can have watching sports. But it's a contrived excitement, sorta/kinda how the one-and-done nature of March Madness makes games that would ordinarily be uninteresting utterly captivating. Seeing as how everyone involved admits the shootout is a lottery the alternatives are worth looking at.

-Returning to the old method of replaying the game a few days later. This would certainly be epic, what if it took weeks to crown a winner? Logistically a nightmare, and these days difficult to pull off considering fixture congestion. For example, many of the players on the pitch last night will be pulling on their boots again in just two weeks for Euro '08. This remains, however, the fairest option, more fair than playing extra-time.

-Exchanging set pieces such as corners or free kicks 25 yards out. Under this format, teams would take turns taking corners and free kicks. The defending team would have its turn at a corner or free kick once it is able to clear the ball past the half-line following the offensive team's corner of free kick. This would be no more contrived than taking penalties and would have the advantage of least involving the entire team playing, you know, actual soccer as opposed to holding a test of nerves. Watching a player curl in a winner from 25 yards out would be a far more beautiful sight than watching a player ram one home from 12 yards out with only the goalkeeper in front of him.

-Removing a player from each team every five minutes during extra-time. Five minutes in it would be 10-on-10, ten minutes in it would be 9-on-9, etc. With the extra space someone is bound to score before it ever got to be 1-on-1, but even if it did get to 1-on-1 it would be worth the zaniness of two players running up and down the pitch exchanging howlers. At first blush, playing 8-on-8 seems silly, but, again, the odds are great that a goal would be scored and at least that goal would come from the free play of the actual game of soccer.

Of course all this hints at the real problem with soccer, the growing difficulty of scoring a goal, particularly during big matches, which is a topic for another post. Without going into the numbers too much, the average amount of goals scored at the World Cup has been falling steadily with every Cup, with the most recent Cup, in 2006 , averaging only 2.3 goals a game. The numbers fall dramatically for finals, with only 1.6 goals per game for every World Cup Final since 1990.

Some might brand this as an ignorant American rant trying to meddle with a game that they don't understand but again, penalties wouldn't be as big a problem if they rarely occurred, but 4 of the last 8 Champions League finals have ended in the shootout while 2 of the last 4 World Cup Finals have ended with PKs.