A soccer match is structured a little differently than many other sports. This is especially true compared to sports that have traditionally been more popular in the USA. When a game needs a winner, an overtime system relatively unique to soccer is used: extra time.
But before we can get to that, we have to take a step back and understand the more basic way time is kept in a soccer match.
Soccer clocks: get your stopwatch ready
In most soccer leagues, except for American high school and college competitions, the game clock counts up. Instead of starting at the designated length of a game or period and going down to zero, soccer starts at zero and counts upward, without stopping for any reason, for the entire match.
The standard game is divided into two 45-minute halves, with the game beginning at 0:00, and halftime taking place at 45:00. When the second half kicks off, the clock restarts at 45:00 and ends at 90:00. But it’s not quite as simple as all that.
There is another wrinkle: added time.
90(ish) minutes of constant action
Because the clock doesn’t stop in soccer when the ball goes out of play or a player is injured, that means when the clock hits 45:00, 45 minutes of time with the ball in play have not actually happened.
To account for this, soccer uses what is known as added, stoppage, or injury time. During a match, the referees keep track of the rough amount of time that the ball is not in play. At the end of a half, this time is then added to the game. The fourth official will signal this amount of added time to the teams and fans with a special board, which is usually also used to denote substitutes.
Further stoppages during this period can be added on top of that as well. Depending on circumstances, halves can end almost exactly on time, or go on for as many as five, ten, or even fifteen extra minutes.
Eventually, the half or game will end. Even if the score is tied, in most competitions this will mean the conclusion of the game and everyone goes home. But sometimes, the circumstances demand a winner. What then?
Extra time: overtime for soccer
In an elimination game where one team must lose and one team must advance, extra time is usually used. This could be the knockout stages of a tournament like the World Cup. Or playoffs at the end of a league season.
Traditionally extra time consists of two additional 15-minute halves that are played in their entirety, bringing the total game time to 120 minutes. 120 minutes plus whatever stoppage time is added to each half of extra time, of course.
At the end of these two halves of play, whoever has scored more goals wins. A scoreline from a game that went to extra time is often reported as “2-1 (A.E.T)”, or “after extra time”. Should a match remain tied after 120 minutes of play, the game will go to a penalty shootout to decide the winner.
There are two variations of extra time that have been tried, but neither is common today. These are known as “golden goal” and “silver goal”.
In golden goal extra time, it truly is “next goal wins”. If a team scores, the game immediately ends with the scoring team declared as the winner.
In the silver goal variant, if a team scores, the half continues until its conclusion as normal. If that team retains the lead, or the opposition scores enough to take a lead, the game is over. If not, the play continues with the second half. Similarly, in the second half of extra time, a goal does not end the game. Play continues until 120 minutes, with either one team winning, or the game goes to PKs.
Extra time: part of the history of soccer
Some major games have gone to extra time over the years. Three FIFA Women’s World Cup finals have gone to extra time, including the famous 1999 USA win in penalty kicks. Eight men’s World Cup finals have gone the distance, including Argentina’s win in the most recent tournament. England won their only World Cup title at home in 1966, beating West Germany AET but without needing PKs.
But it’s not just the international game. Sixteen UEFA Champions League finals have played extra time. Closer to home, twelve MLS Cup finals, and eighteen US Open Cup finals, needed an additional 30 minutes or more to settle things.
And hundreds of other big knockout games have utilized extra time as well.
While different ways to end games have been tried, including skipping extra time entirely and going right to penalties, soccer’s overtime period is likely here to stay.
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