If it’s reasonable to presume the Oct. 29 playoff match between the Seattle Sounders FC and Houston Galaxy was merely the first half of a 180-minute game, then the aggregate-goal conclusion today in Houston must be seen as the second half.
Which is another way of saying: Since watching the home team vacate the Qwest Field pitch with the score 0-0, Sounders fans have endured the longest halftime since a centennial tribute to Hollywood at the 1987 Super Bowl featured such electrifying dynamos as George Burns and Mickey Rooney.
When play resumes today at noon, the lull between halves will have reached nine days, 12 hours and 30 minutes, not that anybody’s counting. In order to appreciate the sheer magnitude of a halftime that lasts nine days, 12 hours and 30 minutes, consider all that’s happened since the Sounders and Galaxy last collided:
• The Yankees, stunned by the Phillies in their World Series opener, won in six games. Although Series MVP Hideki Matsui surpassed Ichiro Suzuki as the most influential Japanese baseball player in the world, the Fall Classic turned on two bases Johnny Damon stole in 10 seconds.
• After a dismal Seahawks performance in Dallas that found Deion Branch talking smack to the end-zone TV camera and fellow receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh publicly berating quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, coach Jim Mora, following through on his threat to get tough on slackers, cut reserve running back Edgerrin James.
• San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum, a former star for the Huskies, was stopped for speeding in Clark County. What the police found in the console of his car prompted a reassessment of Lincecum’s career statistics: He’s 40-17 on grass.
• Retired tennis great Andre Agassi shared some sordid, behind-the-scenes details of his seemingly ideal life, and somebody named Doug Barron became the first pro golfer to have tested positive for performance-enhancers, and the Oakland Raiders became the least likely team on the planet to reprise the unification-rally motto of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, “We Are Family.”
The world has turned, for better or worse, since the Sounders and Galaxy concluded their 90-minute scrum without a goal on Oct. 29. Today, finally, their world turns: A winner will be designated to advance to the Western Conference finals.
If the 90-minute second half ends in a draw, the teams will be given 30 minutes to settle things in overtime. If the overtime ends in a draw, the stalemate will be broken by a shootout, five attempts apiece from the penalty line. If that ends in a draw, it’s down to a sudden-death exchange of penalty kicks.
For fans of Seattle’s first-year MLS franchise, the tension figures to be unprecedented if overtime ultimately evolves into a shootout. Regular-season shootouts haven’t been associated with MLS since 1999. Shootouts were used as postseason tiebreakers during the first three years of the league, then were essentially replaced, in 2000, by a “first-to-five” format that awarded three points for a victory and one point for a tie. (If neither team accumulated five points after three playoff games, a 20-minute “Golden Goal” tiebreaker was implemented, followed – when necessary – by penalty kicks.)
The “first-to-five” playoff system was scrapped, in 2003, for the first-round aggregate-goal format borrowed from such international competitions as Europe’s UEFA Champions League and the Copa Libertadores in South America.
Determining winners by aggregate goals seems to work for MLS, aside from an apparent philosophical contradiction: During the regular season, draws are seen as a subtle delight of the Beautiful Game, much preferable to the crass, cheap, somebody’s-gotta-win method of a shootout. But when the stakes matter the most, when the losers are faced with elimination from the playoffs, a shootout awaits if the 30-minute overtime ends in a draw.
Although a last resort, shootouts have occurred in the first round: In 2006, the Colorado Rapids won the Western Conference semifinals on penalty kicks that beat FC Dallas – on the same day the New England Revolution relied on penalty kicks to advance past the Chicago Fire in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Major League Soccer doesn’t need another overhaul of its postseason format – what the league needs is some rule book stability – but there’s a better way of settling the score, and it’s done in the National Hockey League. During the regular season, tie games are taken into a five-minute, sudden-death overtime period of four-on-four. If overtime fails to break the stalemate, there’s a shootout. The overtime winners pick up two points in the standings, the overtime losers pick up one, and either way, the fans go home knowing they watched a game with a verdict.
Playoff games in the NHL, on the other hand, are decided without shootouts. A 20-minute sudden-death is used, and if no goal is scored, it’s followed by another 20-minute sudden-death period. There’s no limit on how many overtime periods are required to produce a winner. To wit: Buffalo beat New Jersey, 1-0, in the fourth overtime of an epic first-round game in 1994. The Sabres and Devils played five more minutes in overtime that night than they did in regulation.
Shootouts in the regular season, fight until the first team scores the old-fashioned way in the playoffs. The best of both worlds, no? And while four overtimes might seem like an eternity to the exhausted competitors, it’s the blink of an eye compared to a nine-day, 12-hour, 30-minute halftime.