At 5:38 p.m., San Diego State and Utah State – knotted at a goal apiece – began a decisive penalty shootout in a Mountain West Tournament quarterfinal contest.
25 minutes and 44 penalty kicks later, junior goalkeeper Alexa Madueno came up with the match and shootout-winning save for the Aztecs at 6:03 p.m.
Yup… 44 penalty kicks – 37 of which found the back of the net.
That Mountain West showdown was just one of 10 different games across the country on Sunday decided on penalty kicks, and another seven needed overtime to determine a winner.
But on a day with bonus soccer in one-third of the games, the Pac-12 provided none of them. The Conference of Champions is the only major conference without a tournament to determine one.
In front of a sold out crowd last season, USC and UCLA met in Westwood in a winner-take-all contest for the Pac-12 title on the final day. The match delivered on the nearly week-long buildup, and the Bruins campaign to repeat was cemented as successful.
But it doesn’t always work like that.
Take this year as an example. No. 1 UCLA and No. 7 Stanford enter the final week of the season tied at the top on 27 points. The Bruins will travel across town to face No. 14 USC on Friday, and the Cardinal will – more or less – do the same to face a Cal team that’s still receiving votes.
The four best teams in the Pac-12 meeting in two of the most storied rivalries in all of college sports. But, other than playing a little spoiler and marginal differences in tournament seeding, there’s nothing in it for the Trojans or the Golden Bears.
Not only does it significantly diminish the entertainment value, it’s also hurting the conference on “selection Monday.”
Let’s go back to last year. Rutgers cruised through the Big Ten a perfect 10-0 to take home the regular season crown, but in the conference title game, they were bested 1-0 by a Michigan side that dropped points on four separate occasions in Big Ten play.
As a result, the Scarlet Knights and the Wolverines both ended up earning No. 1 seeds alongside the legacy programs of Florida State and Duke. That sent UCLA down to the two line, despite having lost ZERO games all season – the only team in the nation to do so.
It also has ramifications further down the bracket, as the Pac-12 only put four teams in the field of 64 in 2021. That’s up against nine from the ACC, seven from the SEC, six from the Big Ten and another five from the Big East.
By not giving its bubble teams a chance to rack up quality wins at the end of the season, the Pac-12 is failing its member schools.
The same story is unfolding before our eyes again this season. As Arizona and Arizona State – fifth and sixth in the Pac-12 respectively – cling to the bubble, they’re only hope hinges on one last game against the other.
In a six-team tournament format, the Wildcats could theoretically close the season with wins against Cal, UCLA and Stanford/USC/ASU, all but locking them into the NCAA tournament. The Sun Devils could do the same with USC, Stanford and UCLA/Cal/Arizona.
Sure, it seems far fetched, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Columbus, Ohio. Fifth-seeded Nebraska sits at 53rd in the RPI, likely still on the wrong side of the bubble, but they’ve found themselves in a semifinal against regular season champs and No. 6 Michigan State.
Sixth-seeded Penn State is still a top-15 RPI squad, but they’re out to right the wrongs of a disappointing conference season in their semifinal against No. 12 Northwestern.
And even if the glass slipper does prove too small for the Cornhuskers or Nittany Lions, we’ll get a rematch between the Spartans at the Wildcats – the Big Ten’s two best regular season teams.
Oh, and it’s all happening under the lights in Lower.com Field in Columbus, one of the best soccer venues in the United States.
Now imagine, USC and UCLA facing off Friday night in a Pac-12 tournament semifinal under the lights at Banc of California Stadium. Or a UCLA vs. Stanford rematch in the Pac-12 title game at PayPal Park in San Jose. Arizona trying to save its season at Providence Park in Portland.
Regardless of who’s involved and where it’s happening, one thing’s for certain – knockout soccer in the Conference of Champions is long overdue.