Chicago law professor Richard Epstein has some ideas to improve the laws of the game. Permit me to quote him out of order. First, he hates draws:
it is only a matter of time before disappointed fans will start grousing about…frequent draws…
Soccer officials took one step in the right direction by making a win worth three points and a draw only one in a conscious effort to open up the game. That sensible change, however, did not go far enough….
…that extra point spread reduces the likelihood of ties…
Wait, what’s wrong with a draw? Two of the most exciting matches in the tournament, USA 2-2 Slovenia and Italy 1-1 New Zealand, have ended in draws. Games are interesting while their outcomes are in doubt; it honestly doesn’t matter so much what the actual outcome is.
He also misses the point of the three-point change. It was successful not because it reduced the actual number of games ending in a draw, but because it discouraged teams from playing for a draw. Two teams gunning to break a tie is thrilling to watch whether or not they achieve their goal.
Next, he takes on penalty kicks:
Soccer instantly becomes a much better game when it awards two points for a goal and one point for a penalty shot.
Think like an economist. What happens when you decrease the cost of something? You get more of it! If penalty kicks are half as bad, defenders are gonna get awfully grabby. In a follow-up, Epstein acknowledges this problem. His solution is to allow the ref to award two penalty kicks, each worth half a goal, so that committing the foul is worse than allowing the shot. Hey, wait a minute, where have I heard of a system like that before?
The same problem applies to his prescription for the yellow/red card system. Yes, the current system is harsh and granular, but the point is not to balance the cost of the infraction against the strategic value of the foul. The point is to deter chippy play.
There is another issue with improving the game by fiddling with penalty kicks. Penalties are rare. In the 2009 MLS season, there were 63 penalties awarded in 225 games, 0.28 attempts per game. In 2008, there were 48 penalties in 210 games, 0.23 per game. In the 2005/06 Premier League, there were 78 penalties in 380 games, 0.21 per game. (I didn’t cherry-pick that season to make my point; it’s surprisingly hard to find PK stats for the Prem.) It’s tough to see how you’ll save the sport by changing a rule that affects maybe a quarter of games.
Is soccer perfect? Hell no. The flaws Epstein points out are real. But rule changes tend to have unintended consequences. The last thing I’d want is for soccer to become more like pointy football, where the NFL tries to micromanage gameplay by tweaking the rulebook every season.