With five penalty saves in the past two seasons, El Paso Locomotive FC's Logan Ketterer has been among the best when it comes to facing penalty kicks in the Championship. | Photo Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
There’s a certain love/hate relationship soccer fans have with penalty shootouts.
If you’re a neutral fan, you love the tension. If you’re a fan of the team that won, you love that they advanced. If you’re not, well… the hatred is perfectly reasonable.
But the reality is we’re almost certainly in for more of these tests of skill, body language and composure during the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs. In the past five postseasons, there have been 12 postseason games decided by penalty shootouts, or 16 percent of the total number of postseason games in that span.
There hasn’t, in fact, been a postseason since 2015 that hasn’t seen a game decided from the penalty spot. Those numbers mean it would certainly be a surprise if over the next month the fate of two clubs’ seasons weren’t decided this way.
So, with that in mind, who might you really like to have on your side when the chips are down? Past success in shootouts is certainly a plus – after winning twice in a shootout in their run to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup last year, New Mexico United certainly might be confident. But, if we’re going strictly by the numbers in the Championship’s regular season and playoffs since the start of the 2017 season, here are the players who’ve proven their mettle when placed on the spot for their clubs.
Rafael Diaz stepped in as Republic FC’s starter in midseason after an injury to Adam Grinwis but added to a solid resume that he had previously built while part of the New York Red Bulls II. It’s in fact in New York where Diaz’s credentials from the penalty spot come, having gone 0-for-1 this season in Sacramento. Republic FC has experience in shootouts before, some good, and some less so, but Diaz figures to give them a fighting chance if a shootout is required.
Over the past four seasons, no-one has made more penalty kick saves that Logan Ketterer, and the fact that he’s been able to do that over Locomotive FC’s first two seasons only adds to how impressive he’s been when given the opportunity to be a hero. This year, El Paso’s shot-stopper hasn’t been quite as nailed on as in 2019 when he went 4 of 6 in denying opponents from the spot, but with that large a sample it should give Locomotive FC’s shooters confidence that their goalkeeper is going to give them a big chance to advance.
Since he returned to the Battery from his loan spell with Maccabi Haifa, Joe Kuzminsky hasn’t had to face a penalty kick this season, a testament maybe to how good the Battery’s defense has been. His overall record, though, is above average; in the past four seasons, Championship goalkeepers have saved 22 percent of the penalties they’ve faced, and some of the best aren’t in this postseason field like the Portland Timbers 2’s Jake Leeker (5/14). If Kuzminsky can match his ratio of one save every five
Brandon Miller has had a resurgent season overall for the Charlotte Independence, and that included his ability to make the big stops from the penalty spot. Miller went 2 of 2 this season in keeping opponents out to raise his overall percentage from 29 percent, and when you add in his overall numbers in leading the league with 61 saves this regular season you have a goalkeeper who is back on top of his game in the way he performed during his Goalkeeper of the Year season in 2015.
Handed his first consistent opportunity to start in the professional ranks by Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley, Danny Vitiello has taken his chance and run with it. That’s not only been reflected in his overall performance – where he claimed the Championship’s Golden Glove with a 0.500 goals-against average – but in the confidence he’s shown facing penalty kicks in his eight appearances. The Hounds’ season ended in cruel fashion two years ago. This time, Vitiello might be the man that can send them through if penalties are required.
In the past four seasons, there’s been no-one who has converted more penalty kicks in the Championship than Wal Fall. In fact, the only player that has matched the number of penalty kicks Fall has stepped up to take in that span is Phoenix Rising FC’s Solomon Asante, who has gone 13 of 17 with his opportunities. Fall’s level of consistency is an illustration of the confidence he brings to the field and measures up with others in STLFC’s lineup; Sam Fink, for example, has gone 6 of 6 from the spot in the same timeframe. If there’s any team that might relish a chance at a shootout, it’s STLFC.
It’s maybe remarkable to think that when Sebastian Guenzatti missed from the penalty spot against Atlanta United 2 on August 22, it was the first time he – or the Rowdies as a team – had missed a penalty kick in a regular season or playoff game in their time in the Championship. Guenzatti’s record stands up with the best forwards in the league, but the Rowdies have been deadly from the spot no matter who has stepped up in the past and present. That could be very good news for the side if it’s forced to go to the spot with the game on the line.
As one of the leading scorers in the Championship’s history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hertzog has boosted his overall total by way of the penalty spot. He went 2 of 3 this season as Reno finished tied for the most goals in the league, a little below his typical rate overall, but the confidence that he typically strides toward he spot with before picking a variety of locations for his finishes is exactly why he’s someone you’d want stepping up with a game on the line.
Given his technique and ability on the ball – and the confidence he exudes on the field – is it any surprise that Enzo Martinez has never missed a penalty kick for the Charlotte Independence? Martinez went 2-for-2 this season from the spot to add to his perfect run and you could easily envision him being the man to step up and set the tone for the shootout with the first shot, or be the one to potentially end it in round four or five.
Just like Martinez, Augustine Williams is a perfect 5-for-5 from the spot in his Championship career, but what stood out in Williams’ two goals from the spot this season was the situations they came in. First, there was an 84th-minute chance with the game tied against Las Vegas Lights FC on September 14 that Williams tucked away beautifully. Then there was the chance in the 68th minute against Orange County SC on September 30 in the game that ended up clinching Los Dos their playoff place. Williams rose to the pressure in two must-make situations down the stretch this season. There’s every reason to believe he’d do the same again if needed in the playoffs.
Tag(s): Features Reno 1868 FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Charlotte Independence Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Wal Fall Corey Hertzog Augustine Williams Enzo Martínez Brandon Miller Rafael Diaz Joe Kuzminsky Sebastián Guenzatti El Paso Locomotive FC Playoffs News Logan Ketterer Daniel Vitiello