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Penalty Kicks: From a Goalkeeper's Point of View

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For a goalkeeper, the penalty kick is one of those moments where it's hard not to feel a bit helpless. However, there are some tactics to help a keeper make the save.

You Shall Not Pass!!
You Shall Not Pass!!
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

For a goalkeeper, it's the worst feeling in the world. The ref has blown his whistle and points to the penalty spot. From the supporters' point of view, if it's your team that's received the call, chances are you're already counting that attempt as a goal. If you're on the other side of the fence, you bury your head and hope for a miracle. In this duel between the penalty taker and the goalkeeper, often times the advantage lies with the offense.

Before we break down the actual art behind attempting to make the save, I did some research just to see how the odds were stacking up one way or another. On the Major League Soccer stats page, I pulled up some of the top goal scorers to see how they've done on their PK attempts so far this year:

  • Pedro Morales - 5/5
  • David Villa - 3/4
  • Lee Nguyen - 3/3
  • Chris Wondolowski - 2/3

You get the idea. Just on the first page, when you add up the stats, PKs are converted 23 out of 28 times -- or at an 82% clip. It's easy to see why fans chalk it up as an easy goal. So, should keepers be resigned to this fate and just go out there and give it the old college try? Just guess at it like it's a ridiculous question on your micro economics final and hope for the best? No! While a very steep challenge, making the save on a penalty is possible, if the right tools are used.

Body Language:

Keepers have one distinct advantage over the penalty taker. No one expects them to make the save while the world expects the taker to score. A good keeper can use this to his advantage, especially on the road. You'll often times notice a keeper who is well versed in making the save watch the eyes of the taker. Eventually, even if it is at the last possible moment, the eyes will give away where the shooter wants the ball to go (the more nervous the taker, the sooner he'll give it away). With quick reflexes, a keeper can make them pay for this bit of foreshadowing.

Tendencies:

Nothing today can't be found on the internet or on video someplace. With that knowledge, most teams have a designated player to take the PKs. As a keeper, it is their job to find and watch film/video on these guys and see if there are tendencies to what the man attempting the kick will do. Does Kaká go lower left 90% of the time? Is there a pattern to the direction of Pedro Morales' attempts? A well informed keeper is one who improves his chances.

Timing:

When the ref sets the ball and asks if the keeper is ready, generally he'll remind him that he can't move until the ball is struck. However, you'd be hard pressed to find a ref that'll call a redo if the keeper moves a fraction of a second early. This is especially helpful if the taker is nervous and gives his spot away too soon (body language, people!). A keeper who uses that millisecond to go the right way can make the difference between pushing the ball to safety and missing it by the smallest of margins.

Truth be told, I can guarantee you that all MLS keepers know these tips and try to employ them each time. Unfortunately for them, they are going up against world class ball strikers who are equally good at their craft. My college goalkeeper coach once told me that a well struck ball with pace will always find a home in the net, and that as a keeper, it's our job to save the botches and the lazy attempts. Those two instances happen more frequently than fans might realize, always giving the keeper a chance to prevent an easy goal. And if that doesn't give you hope enough, just remember, there's always a chance this could happen too...