The Sporting Iconoclast
Challenging the conventional wisdom, sowing new ideas, sending some old ones to the compost heap

Way better ways to break ties in soccer, hockey and college football

Imagine if a baseball game were tied after nine innings and instead of playing extra innings the contest was decided by … a home run derby.

Each team would send its five strongest sluggers up to the plate. Each hitter would get three swings at balls lobbed in by his own team’s pitching coach. Whichever team hit the most balls over the fence would win.

Silly? Of course. But this is essentially how soccer and hockey break ties, and college football is not much better. All three decide tied games by holding radically different kinds of competitions in overtime.

It’s as if in a spelling bee the two contestants who remained after a hundred rounds were ordered over to a table for a pie-eating contest.

In regular-season NHL games the teams play an actual five-minute overtime, and everything is the same as during regulation, except it’s sudden death. One team scores, and the game is over.

But if neither team scores, each team then has three shooters go one-on-one against the opposing team’s goalie, as with a penalty shot. If the score remains tied after those three shooters, the teams alternate taking shots on goal until one team scores and the other doesn’t.The winning team gets two points in the standings, but the team that loses in overtime or a shootout goes home with the consolation prize of one point. I don’t know why.

In soccer, there are still plenty of regular-season ties. Soccer fans don’t seem to have the blood-lust for a clear winner that fans of sports more popular in the United States have.But in a tournament, you need a clear winner; one team has to advance. Soccer’s poor solution is the shootout, which is similar to hockey’s shootout.

Each team sends five players to kick a stationary ball from the penalty mark in front of the goal. The goalie has to stand on the goal line until the ball is kicked. He, or she, has little hope of stopping these shots because there’s so much ground to to defend. (A soccer goal is 24 feet wide.)

If the score is still tied after the five kicks, sudden-death kicking commences, with teams alternating shots until one scores and one doesn’t.

Instead of shootouts, hockey and soccer should continue playing until someone scores — with one difference. Every five minutes of elapsed time, each team must take a player off the field. After 10 or 15 minutes in hockey, a little longer in soccer, there would be so few players that someone would get behind the defense and score. This scenario would not only be exciting but it would preserve the integrity of the contest.

Thankfully, college football doesn’t settle ties with a field-goal kicking contest, but its present tie-breaking solution is almost as bad.

Teams alternate offensive possessions, as in regulation, except that the starting point of each drive is arbitrary. The ball is placed on the opponent’s 25-yard-line, already in field-goal range. If the offensive team scores a touchdown and extra point, the opponent must at least match that total or lose. If the second team exceeds that total — by scoring a two-point conversion on top of the touchdown — that team wins. There are various other rules that make it increasingly difficult for teams to remain tied after successive possessions.

This is not how football was meant to be played.

For one thing, many of the players on a roster have no role in overtime games. I speak of the punter, the punt- and kickoff-returners, and all the other special-teams players who don’t start on offense or defense or participate in field-goal or extra-point tries.

Punts and kickoff returns are some of the most exciting plays in football, but they are eliminated in college overtime. The same goes for fumble and interception returns. They count merely as defensive stops.

The college football overtime system was adopted as an alternative tie-breaker to the NFL’s sudden-death system, which some idiots believe to be unfair.  They think it’s not right that the team that goes on offense first can win without the other team ever touching the ball.

This argument falls flat because, according to one study, the team that gets the ball first scores and wins only 29 percent of the time! A team with a dominating defense often benefits by kicking off because it can pin the receiving team deep in its own territory, force a punt, and start with better field position than the team that won the coin toss and got first possession.

The beauty of the NFL sudden-death system is that the winner is determined by the team that played the best football, the same football that was played in the first 60 minutes. It’s the same with baseball’s extra innings. The game continues.

It makes no sense to determine which team won a game by having them play a different game.

Ed Cohen


4 Responses to “Way better ways to break ties in soccer, hockey and college football”

  1. I absolutely cringe whenever I see a game end in a tie. I think one of the reasons why I dislike soccer, aside from not being exposed to it in my youth, is because the game can end in a tie; you mean to tell me I have to sit through (read: endure) 90 minutes of a game that can end with no real winner?

    I don’t like “American” football either but at least it has lower chances of ending in a tie because of different scoring configurations (i.e. touchbacks, field goals, touchdowns with or without conversion, etc.).

    Anyway, I got sidetracked, I think the solution would be sudden death overtime for all sports (eventually a team will get tired and scoring will happen). In football, have them flip a coin to see who gets possession and then kick off (just like in the beginning of the game). Football players get a whole week of rest between games so any extra 10 minutes of playing time will not kill them. In Soccer and Hockey, “Golden Goal” should be the norm as well. You get a real winner and the “integrity” of the sport is not damaged in any way.

    • Agreed. College football and soccer are the worst at changing the rules in OT. I’ve had a college soccer coach agree with my idea for taking players off the field.

  2. snorkeling…

    […]Way better ways to break ties in soccer, hockey and college football « The Sporting Iconoclast[…]…

  3. I actually like the NFL way (kind of), but looove your idea for soccer shootouts. That’s how it should be, honestly.

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