In the unlikely event that the New York Red Bulls mount an unprecedented comeback against Atlanta United on Thursday night (7:30 pm ET | FS1, TSN2, TVAS2), both teams will need to be ready for a penalty-kick shootout. Ditto for Sporting Kansas City and Portland Timbers (9:30 pm | ESPN, TSN2, TVAS2, ESPN Deportes), where a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes would necessitate penalties as well.
If that happens, who would step up to the spot?
Let’s go through it.
Every player who signs a professional contract has the required technique to score a penalty. I don’t think skill is a differentiating factor for a PK shootout. Stepping up in front of a crowd is a mental exercise. The walk from midfield to the penalty spot is a ton of time to walk through all of the possibilities. This stadium is counting on me; this city is counting on me; my mom is watching; my contract expires in two months; will they still want me if I miss this?; I’m going to go left; actually I think I’m going to go right; maybe I should see what the goalkeeper does ...
The most important quality for a PK taker is the ability to focus on the task at hand. When I think about a player being successful in a PK shootout, I generally look for some combination of:
- Bravado: This dude can’t stop me.
- Disinterest/Perspective: The world won’t end if I miss this PK.
- Aloofness: There are people in the stadium right now?
- Been there, done that: Been here, done this.
Some coaches ask who wants to take a penalty. I’ve never liked that idea, because I was the guy who raised my hand to take penalties so that I didn’t think of myself as a wimp, even though I knew I absolutely should not be taking a PK. The manager should know his players well enough to know who is ready.
A couple other rules:
The best shooter goes first. For one, if you miss the first penalty, your chances of winning drop by around 25 percent. Second, it makes me sick when a team loses a shootout and their best penalty taker hasn’t gone yet.
The one caveat to the above rule would be if my best PK taker picks his shot at the last second based on the goalkeepers movement. For example, Josef Martinez does this when he does his hop before he shoots (above). The first shot often reveals how the opposing goalkeeper is going to approach the PKs, and whether he is going to guess before the player kicks or hold his ground until contact. I don’t want someone like Josef stepping up to the first PK until we know the GK plans on moving first.
I generally wouldn’t allow a player who took a penalty in the game to shoot again in the shootout. The mind game tilts in the goalkeepers favor. The shooter starts to overthink — I went right the first time, so maybe he think I won’t go right again … or maybe he thinks I like going right so he will go that way this time … I should probably just go down the middle … but missing down the middle would be so embarrassing ... — and thinking is bad when you step up to the spot.
So who could that be on each team?
Josef has become the team’s designated taker, but I don’t want him going first for the reason mentioned above. Almiron was the designated taker until Josef took over (there was never a clear reason why, as Almiron is 5 for 6 in his MLS career). Barco scored the game-winning penalty in the 2017 Copa Sudamericana final for Independiente, so he knows big moments. Larentowicz was the designated taker for Chicago in 2014 and 2015 and is 11 for 14 in his career, plus he’s a stone-cold killer on the field. Villalba could be a toss up with Julian Gressel, but Villalba seems to have a little more bravado and would be more comfortable with the situation.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls are the hardest team to pick because they don’t have big stars or a consistently consistent taker. Royer has taken over the duties lately, and is 6 for 6 in his MLS career. Kaku is 2 for 3 this year, but his last miss came against Brad Guzan at Red Bull Arena, so I’m hesitant about him. Long and Murillo come off as the “not fazed by 25,000 screaming fans” type. And Adams for the Bravado.
Valeri is obvious; he’s the designated taker and is 16 for 19 in his MLS career. After that, there aren’t a ton of players who have taken PKs in MLS. Asprilla is 2 for 2, plus the winner against Seattle in the shootout last round. Ridgewell made his opportunity in The Double Post game in 2015. Blanco and Guzman seem to fit the Bravado and Perspective categories.
Sporting Kansas City
Ilie regularly takes the penalties for SKC. Russell made his only attempt this year, as well. Zusi hasn’t taken a non-shootout penalty since 2012, but he buried his into the top corner in the 2015 shootout. Then I’d pick Salloi because he seems undeterred by big moments, and Espinoza because he’s experienced enough to understand how to handle the situation.