Climbing the Ladder: A look at PK shootouts
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Climbing the Ladder: Winning PK shootouts

Last Wednesday, D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union played to a 2-2 result in a game with plenty of action. After two red cards and four goals, nothing was decided through 120 minutes. Since it was part of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup qualifying rounds, the game ended in a penalty shootout — the first of the 2011 MLS season. DC prevailed and advanced to the next round.

With more Open Cup games, the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and the CONCACAF Champions League final to come, the threat of a shootout looms large for MLS clubs. That begs the question: Which teams and players have performed well in penalty shootouts over the course of the league’s 15-year history?

1. Overall number of penalty shootouts

There have been a total of 46 shootouts involving Major League Soccer teams, not including the ones used to decide regular season games from 1996-99 (which weren’t “penalty” shootouts anyway). Of that total, 19 involved two MLS teams while 27 featured an MLS team taking on a lower league or international team, with a 15-12 record in those shootouts. Here’s the breakdown by competition:

US Open Cup 24
MLS Playoffs 8
SuperLiga 5
CONCACAF Champions Cup/League 4
Open Cup Qualifying 4
CONCACAF Champions Cup qualifying 1

Six finals have been decided by a shootout: the 1997 Open Cup; the 2006 and 2009 MLS Cups; and the 2007, 2008 and 2009 SuperLigas.

It took nine seasons for the first playoff matchup to be decided by a shootout, which didn’t occur until 2004. That was the memorable 3-3 game between D.C. United and New England, where United took the lead three on three occasions only to be answered each time by a Revolution equalizer. A raucous home crowd saw Nick Rimando save rookie Clint Dempsey’s penalty, sending DC to the MLS Cup on their way to the title.

2. Team Records

  Shootouts Record PK Goals PK Attempts PCT
New England 8 5-3 32 44 72.7%
DC United 7 4-3 22 31 71.0%
Los Angeles 7 3-4 31 41 75.6%
Chicago 7 2-5 22 34 64.7%
Dallas 6 4-2 26 31 83.9%
Colorado 5 4-1 22 24 91.7%
San Jose 5 2-3 27 32 84.4%
Kansas City 4 2-2 20 24 83.3%
Houston 4 1-3 15 23 65.2%
Real Salt Lake 3 3-0 15 19 78.9%
Columbus 3 0-3 13 17 76.5%
Miami 1 1-0 6 6 100.0%
New York 1 1-0 7 8 87.5%
Tampa Bay 1 1-0 5 6 83.3%
Seattle 1 1-0 4 5 80.0%
Chivas USA 1 0-1 2 4 50.0%
Philadelphia 1 0-1 2 4 50.0%
Totals 65 34-31 271 353 76.8%

Colorado and Real Salt Lake have excelled, the latter winning two of them en route to the 2009 MLS Cup championship. Again, it was Nick Rimando playing the hero (more on him later). As for the Rapids, they’ve won three shootouts in the playoffs versus no defeats, all on the road. They’ve also only missed twice in 24 penalty attempts, giving them a very high 91.7% scoring rate.

Chicago and Columbus have faired poorly, each with three more losses than wins.

Portland and Vancouver have yet to take part in a shootout as an MLS team. Along with the 2011 expansion teams, Toronto are also waiting for their first.

3. Top Goalkeepers

It doesn’t take a bunch of statistics to know that Nick Rimando has been outstanding in shootouts, but here they are anyway. There have been 11 MLS goalkeepers that have faced at least 10 shots that were on-target; of those, Rimando’s 38.9% save percentage easily ranks first.

(Minimum 10 on-target shots faced)

    Save PCT Shots Saved Record
1 Rimando, Nick 38.9% 18 7 3-0
2 Presthus, Tom 30.0% 10 3 1-1
3 Reis, Matt 24.2% 33 8 4-3
4 Sala, Dario 21.4% 14 3 2-1
5 Cannon, Joe 20.0% 15 3 2-1
6 Onstad, Pat 18.8% 16 3 1-2
7 Hartman, Kevin 18.2% 22 4 3-1
7 Saunders, Josh 18.2% 11 2 0-2
9 Conway, Jon 9.1% 22 2 2-1
10 Busch, Jon 6.7% 15 1 0-3
11 Gruenebaum, Andy 0.0% 10 0 0-2

Off-target shots that missed the goal completely or hit the frame were not included, as a save was not necessary.

To put Rimando’s accomplishments in perspective, the save percentage of MLS goalkeepers in all shootouts is 16%. RSL fans will surely be confident if the Champions League final gets ends up being settled from 12 yards out.

Conway and Hartman both had the distinction of participating in the longest MLS shootout back in July 2001. The San Jose Earthquakes hosted the Los Angeles Galaxy in an Open Cup quarterfinal, and 19 straight players stepped up to make their attempts until Wade Barrett’s shot was saved by Hartman. The Galaxy  advanced and won the tournament as part of a season where they were 3-0 in shootouts, having won two more in their victorious CONCACAF Champions Cup run.

4. Top Shooters

Fourteen players have taken at least three shootout penalties and made them all:

  Goal PCT Goals Shots
Twellman, Taylor 100% 5 5
Cienfuegos, Mauricio 100% 4 4
Ruiz, Carlos 100% 4 4
Elliott, Simon 100% 3 3
Findley, Robbie 100% 3 3
Gutierrez, Diego 100% 3 3
Larentowicz, Jeff 100% 3 3
Lopez, Claudio 100% 3 3
Mastroeni, Pablo 100% 3 3
Mathis, Clint 100% 3 3
Mulrooney, Richard 100% 3 3
Thompson, Abe 100% 3 3
Tierney, Chris 100% 3 3
Wondolowski, Chris 100% 3 3

It looks as though the Union could’ve used Ruiz in the shootout last week, but he had already been subbed off in the 80th minute. His replacement, Jack McInerney, missed his attempt.

Twellman has not taken the most shootout penalties of anyone; that honor goes to Greg Vanney. He took seven, with Matt Reis just behind at six. Both missed once.

Several more active players are two for two: Mehdi Ballouchy, Jason Garey, Ned Grabavoy, Will Johnson, Chris Pontius and Robbie Russell.

The man on the verge of the MLS goal scoring record, Jeff Cunningham, has only had one opportunity in his career. He scored in the shootout for Colorado against Dallas in the 2005 playoffs.

5. Worst Shooters

Only a small handful of players have missed twice, but the list includes several of the best attacking talents in league history:

  Goal PCT Goals Shots
Dempsey, Clint 0.0% 0 2
Heaps, Jay 25.0% 1 4
Moreno, Jaime 33.3% 1 3
Noonan, Pat 33.3% 1 3
Olsen, Ben 33.3% 1 3
Ching, Brian 50.0% 2 4
Donovan, Landon 50.0% 2 4

Donovan has missed twice in the most important of circumstances: against Pachuca in the SuperLiga final, and against Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup final. That’s not to say he’s bad at penalties, as his record for the national team and during the regular season has been good.

Heaps is the only player to miss three times, including the final shot to decide the 2006 MLS Cup.

On a final note, though he was only 0 for 1, it might not have been the best move to let Brandon Prideaux take a penalty in the 2009 Eastern Conference championship shootout. The then-Chicago Fire player ended his career by missing the decisive penalty that sent RSL to MLS Cup, after a career that saw him set a league record for most appearances by a field player without scoring.

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