The original North American Soccer League was a glorious, goofy experiment in American sports history. It burned white-hot during its brief 17 season existence; mostly thanks to the high-profile singings of legitimate soccer legends like Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, and Pelé, but also because of the numerous insane rule changes the NASL made to the sport in order to make it more “palatable” to Americans. Among these changes were a clock that counted down instead of up, a hockey-style offside line, and a scoring system that awarded extra points in the league table for goals. And indeed, most of these ideas were as offensive to soccer purists as they sound. However, the one innovation that the NASL came up with that I believe still has merit today is the hockey-style shootout to decide tie games. The attacker would start 35 yards out from goal, the goalkeeper would start on the goal line, and at the referee’s whistle the attacker would have 5 seconds to put the ball into the net.
In my opinion, this idea was unfairly dismissed before its time purely because Americans came up with it. This big game of chicken between the attacker and the goalkeeper solves a lot of the problems that I have with penalty shootouts—namely that they are an unfair way of deciding a tight game, requiring skills that are only tangentially related to those needed in the rest of the sport—while retaining, even heightening, all the drama of a sudden-death, do-or-die shootout.
It’s a shame that the only footage we have of these shootouts features ‘70s NASL players and late ‘90s MLSers. Imagine how much fun it would be to see modern, elite attackers go up against the large, lanky, catlike goalkeepers playing today. Imagine a world in which World Cup knockout games were decided like this! It would be thrilling. But don’t just take my word for it: take it from Johan.