To a sports fans raised on traditional American sports like football and basketball, many things about soccer seem strange. The game doesn't fit nicely into the expectations of many American fans. As I have grown into being a soccer fan I have come to terms with most of these oddities. It doesn't bother me that the time limit is arbitrary and up to the official. I don’t stare in confusion when a player standing out of bounds touches a ball that is in bounds and play continues. However, one thing about the beautiful game still frustrates me, the disproportionately game changing power of a penalty kick.
Goals in soccer are hard to come by. When a team does score the strategy of the game changes immensely. The leading team often stops attacking and drops back into defense making it even harder for the opponent to put one in the net. Their counter attacks and offensive positions become about time wasting. If a team manages to get up 2-0 the lead becomes almost insurmountable. At 3-0 forget about it. The training team isn't coming back. In their current form, penalty kicks are essentially free goals. Which is to say massively powerful game changing events.
If an offensive player is fouled inside the other teams penalty area the offensive team is awarded a penalty kick in front of the goal. The placement of the ball is only 12 yards away and the offensive team is allowed to have any of their eleven players on the field when the foul was committed take the shot. This means they can pick their best shooter, regardless of their involvement in the play to attempt the shot. This would be like the Clippers getting to let Chris Paul shoot free throws every time DeAndre Jordan is fouled. Additionally the goal keeper must remain on their goal line until the ball is touched. All of the players not involved in the penalty kick have to remain outside the penalty box and behind the shooter. (FIFA rules)
All these rules add up to making it exceedingly hard for a goal keeper to stop a penalty kick. As of 8/27/15, in MLS the penalty kick save percentage of keepers that have played in at least 10 games is a measly 25% (55/73). Keepers are forced to just guess a side and dive. When a penalty kick is stopped it is essentially luck. This results in some funny looking attempt to stop the penalty kick as keeper dive hard to the opposite side the ball is shot to. As mentioned before a penalty kick is essentially a free goal.
The goals scored on penalty kicks are game changers. They can propel a team that is being thoroughly out played into a lead. The value of goals and the difficultly of stopping penalty kicks has led to an epidemic of players flopping in the box. Attacking players in the penalty box will go down at the slightly touch hoping to trick a referee into award a penalty kick. They know the potential reward of a goal far outweighs the risk of a yellow card for embellishment. This incessant flopping is another annoy part of the game. Nobody wants to watch professional athletes rolling around on the ground faking injury.
There is a simple change that soccer could make to the way penalty kicks are taken that would reduce the effectiveness of the shooter and make the punishment more fairly meet the crime. The player who is fouled in the box should be required to take the penalty kick. If the Earthquake foul Lamar Neagle and the Sounders are award a penalty kick Neagle should have to take the kick. The Sounders shouldn't be allowed to let Brad Evans or Clint Dempsey shoot.
Some might complain that a truly hurt player may be required to take a shot. Well there are very seldom actual hurt players in soccer. However, if someone actually did get hurt they should be allow a few minutes to try and walk it off. If they can't than they should have to sub off. If your team doesn't have any subs left, or doesn't want to use one, then the player should have to sit for a minimum of 3 minutes.
The idea of making the fouled player take the shot is a very American solution, so FIFA and the European leagues will never go for it. Additionally changing anything about the way soccer is played is essentially a cardinal sin in many fans eyes. They will scream about Americans not understanding and the beauty of tradition. MLS is probably also not going to adopt a rule change that brings them away from the international norm. The American league wants so dearly to earn the respect of its older and richer cousins in Europe. The potential mocking from the Old World is too great of a risk. Sadly this means the change will probably never happen, but a fan can still dream.