Penalties: Not as Much of a Crapshoot As You Think, v 2.0

Many moons ago, when Backpost was in its infancy, we wrote this post about penalties and all the hidden complexities that go into the apparently simple exercise of one man trying to kick a ball past another from 12 yards.

We quoted from Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, who wrote, in a fascinating chapter called “The Economist’s Fear of the Penalty Kick,” that “economists revere the penalty as a real-life example of game theory.”

This week, the economists are at it again with the penalty-kick studies. A report from the London School of Economics and Political Science claims that penalty-shootouts are “unfair” because the team kicking first has a 60 percent chance of winning the shootout.

Spearheaded by professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, the report claims that the team shooting second is always under psychological pressure of “’lagging behind’ and that that “clearly affects” their performance.

The good professor suggests that FIFA adopt the tie-break system used in tennis, where opponents have two consecutive serves, to make the shootout more fair. In other words, he suggests one team take the first kick, then their opponents take the next two, then they get two, and so on, in an ABBAABBAAB format, as opposed to the current ABABABABAB system, which, the economist argues (after examining 282 shootouts), confers a 20 percent advantage on team A.

You can now look for FIFA to completely ignore these findings.

For more on the report, click here.


U.S. national team keeper Tim Howard made a stoppage-time save of a Jermain Defoe penalty to salvage a 2-2 draw for Everton against Tottenham on Sunday. The Toffees had battled back from 2-nil down, only to surrender the penalty (legit, by the way) in the dying moments.

Here it is, Defoe a spot-kick away from winning the game for Spurs:

You gotta like the U.S.’s chances if they go to penalties in South Africa next summer. Their keeper is building a track record of coming up big on them.

Clint Dempsey and Fulham were also in action on Sunday, downing Sunderland 1-0 to move into eighth place in the table, two points behind Liverpool. Dempsey was active all game, creating chances and nearly finishing several as well. Bobby Zamora headed in the winner in the 6th minute.

We forgot to include Marcus Hahnemann’s 90-minute effort versus Bolton in our Saturday post, our bad; he made seven saves and picked up a yellow as Wolves won, 2-1.

 *Jimmy Bullard injury update: Grade 2 sprain of medial collateral ligament. Coulda been worse for the EPL Player of the Month for November. He’s expected back in six to eight weeks.

Simmons Jinxes Donovan

Left side...right, wait—D'oh!

If you didn’t catch Landon Donovan’s appearance on Bill Simmons’s podcast before MLS Cup 2009, it’s worth checking out for several reasons, not least of which is that Simmons totally jinxes Lando’s penalty in the title game.

At one point during their chat, the subject turns to penalties, and how there’s more to the dynamic between kicker and keeper than meets the eye. Then Simmons says something to the effect of, “And when that happens, you just sky it way over the bar—I mean, not you, but other shooters….”

Cut to Donovan’s PK this past Sunday night: what does he do—a guy who hasn’t missed a penalty since the Clinton administration? He skies it over the bar! Cue Twilight Zone theme…..

Simmons also makes a good point in the podcast about the name of the championship game, “MLS Cup”—it’s a little bland, we agree. They could use a more iconic, catchy moniker. MLS has made giant strides in areas like team names, uniforms (especially), and stadiums. Here’s another marketing opportunity-area for the league. The trophy itself was  appropriately re-named last season in honor of Phil Anschutz, maybe the game itself is due for a rechristening.

[UPDATE: Simmons’s mea culpa; scroll down—way down—for it, and a link to podcast excerpt.]

MLS Cup 2009—Looking Back

Oh, hell yes.

Say what you want about the fairness of settling games—especially championship games—on penalties, but you can’t deny that they are riveting theater and, judging by the expressions, at right, of Mssrs. Findley, Wingert, Borchers, Beckerman, Williams, and Grabavoy, they do not cheapen that championship feeling one iota. Those are the expressions of players who just won a trophy, end of story.

As unusual as it may be for a team that went 11-12-7 during the regular season to be lifting the cup when all is said and done, Real Salt Lake are worthy champions. They peaked at the right time, and they outplayed Los Angeles last night. They could have won in the run of play—should have, even. 

An email friend of Backpost, an Englishman (who supports Hull and Jozy Altidore, btw), sent us the above photo, with comments to the effect of, “If players have this much passion, then more fans will surely follow, right…? 46,000 to see this one? Not bad. Looked like a good final.”

And we agreed, and we appreciated the sentiments, and at the same time we thought, Well, it’s the league championship, and damn right they’re fired up to win it; while also thinking, Yes, we can understand how the U.S. is still considered a backwater burg in global soccer, and how it might, from an outside perspective, seem surprising to see players that stoked to win MLS. But this league is coming along, and beyond that, soccer is here to stay in this country. It’s alive and well on these shores. And snowballing.

Look, Real Salt Lake, which another friend of ours—a dedicated anglophile, despite growing up in New Jersey—once called Get Real Salt Lake, has real fans:

RSL fans trekked from Utah to Seattle for MLS Cup 2009

When the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup, it advanced out of group play and lost 1-0 to Brazil in the second round. The Yanks’ most skillful player that day, Tab Ramos, was deleted from the game by a Leonardo elbow to the head (it fractured Ramos’s skull). We’re not suggesting that Ramos would’ve delivered a victory, but his exit didn’t help, and the final score was only 1-0. MLS launched in 1996, and,  yes, the U.S. had a stinker of a ’98 World Cup, but in 2002, the Yanks were a Torsten Frings handball from a tie with Germany in the quarterfinals. MLS has been a huge part of the improvement.

The U.S. has full-international wins over Argentina, Germany, Brazil (that’s right), Spain, and England. They may have shat the bed at the 2006 World Cup, but not before drawing eventual world champions Italy 1-1 with nine men (to the Azzurri’s ten), in a match no less an authority than Wikipedia—Wikipedia!—called “hugely encouraging” for the Amerks. Seriously, though, the U.S. is good and getting better at this game, and the numbers, and the tide of history, are in the U.S.’s favor.

So…yeah…the giant is still snoozing, but it is rousing—maybe slowly, but surely.

But back to this title tilt, and the 2009 season: Sure, the Beckham-lifting-the-trophy photo opp did not materialize, and it would have been massive press for MLS, but Los Angeles’s worst-to-first season in the Western Conference was about the best the league could expect this year. A Galaxy title would’ve been gravy.

Think back to last spring, when the league was wrangling with AC Milan over Beckham’s contract. Many, many people said they should cut bait and say good riddance. But the Galaxy and the league played this one the right way. Having Beckham as a part-time player (a committed one, that is—as he undeniably was this year) is better than not having him at all‚ no matter how much cash he might’ve generated in departing altogether. They kept him, made an honest man of him, and came within a penalty shootout of a dream ending with him.

John Harkes said during the MLS Cup telecast that Beckham had told him he wants to return after his upcoming loan to AC Milan (he will return, regardless), and it’s not a stretch to believe it, especially after looking at a photo like this, after Donovan’s penalty versus Houston in the semifinals:

For Beckham, it really is all about the soccer.

The man is all about the game, and despite everything else that comes along with him, it begins and ends there. But next year, he most likely will not have Donovan, the league MVP, for a teammate, and that will be a huge loss. It won’t be easy for LA to make up for it, but they’ll need to, and continue to surround Beckham with a decent lineup. Then take another shot at that photo opp next year.

Oh, and: Nick Rimando!

MLS Cup Live Blog

Real Salt Lake was sub-.500 during the regular season, and  won its final two games on penalties—and yet you have to say RSL deserved this. It may not be what’s best for the league—the Beckham-Donovan trophy-hoisting shots would have gotten much more play, to put it mildly—but Salt Lake outplayed both Chicago in the semis and LA tonight.

Congrats RSL. Nick Rimando is MVP.

Real Salt Lake are your 2009 MLS Cup Champions!

Robbie Russell can win it now for RSL … HE DOES!! Russell tucks it inside the left post as Saunders dives right. It’s over!

Buddle: Stopped by Rimando! Poor shot—not far enough in the corner, and at a save-able height: Waist high.

Chris Wingert must score to keep RSL alive. He does. Right side, low.

Chris Klein….sends Rimando the wrong way, slots it low in the left corner.

Andy Williams can win it now for RSL. MLS Cup … NO!!! Suanders with the save!! Freaking Saunders!

Magee must hit for LA to survive….He does! Top left corner.

Ned Grabovoy slots to the right side. Goal. RSL back on top,

Lando: … He skies it! He puts it over—way over! Not even close! Oh, man. Landon Donovan.

And Saunders stops Beckerman! We’re all even again! What a night for Saunders.

Kirovski! Hasn’t missed in 12 MLS penalties for his career. …. But of course he misses here!! Rimando dives to his right and stops Jovan’s not-very-well-taken, waist-high penalty.

Robbie Findley: Beautifully taken, upper 90.

Berhalter for LA: Goes to Rimando’s left and…hits side netting with Rimando in hot pursuit. Nice shot.

Now it’s Clint Mathis for RSL . Mathis buries it with power. Not much placement, but it’s in.

Beckham is first shooter! He steps up and….rolls it into the lower left side while Rimando goes the wrong way.


120:00 This game is at the ragged end, tired players, wide open, end-to-end, action, and here Mathis plays a superb ball into the box to Andy Williams, who fails to collect it, then collapses in either disbelief that he didn’t do better with that or … exhaustion…..And there’s the final whistle. We are headed to penalties for the second time in MLS Cup history (Houston’s 2006 title came on penalties over New England).

119:00 Mathis bends in a free kick. Saunders confidently claims it. He’s played well since coming in for Ricketts in what Chris Russo would say is a big spot.

117:00 Beckham to Donovan down the left side! Donovan sends a weak cross/chip that Rimando grabs easily. RSL counters….goal kick.

114:00 Friend just texted me that LA should bring on Kirovski. Can’t tell if he’s joking or not. Beckham restart parried away by Rimando.

113:00 Donovan to Magee … back to Lando … out of bounds.

110:00 Chris Klein over the back of Wingert on a ball at the far post. Foul on Klein, good positioning by Wingert. This one looks headed to penalties.

106:00 According to Allen Hopkins, Arena asked Bex if he could continue. Beckham said yes and is still out there now as we begin the second extra time period.

105:00 RSL completely dominating now, knocking it around: Beckerman to Wingert and back. But here’s an LA counterattack…that fizzles. And that’s the first 15 of extra time. Beckham is limping noticeably now.

100:00 Beckham fouls Beckerman about 23 yards out on the right. Complains about it. Has no case. Mathis steps up to take the kick, drives it near post! Side netting. Real Salt Lake continues to dominate extra time.

97:00 Mathis sends in Findley on the right! Side netting. Findley should’ve done better with that.

96:00: Real Salt Lake once again dominating possession but now Klein has a chance on a rebound. He flubs it.

93:00: Saunders with a great save on Findley! Espindola makes a driving run into the box, lays it across the top it’s sent on to Findley, and DeLaGarz and Saunders both smother his attempt. Huge.

Extra Time

Is Beckham hurting? He just pulled on his inhaler. And he has a bone bruise on his foot.

90:00+7 RSL on the counter, led by Mathis. He sends Williams into the box on the right. Williams back to Espindola…and … out of bounds. … There’s the final whistle. We’re going to extra time.

90:00+6 Beckham leveled in midfield. No call.

90:00+4 Kirovski with a nice defensive play in the LA box. He’s shifted to a holding-midfielder role, and John Harkes has some words of praise for him. … DeLaGarza flicks an Andy Williams cross out at at the far post. Another good defensive play by LA. Mathis started the sequence with a good pass to Williams on the right flank.

90:00 Espindola comes close for RSL at the near post.

88:00 And now Gonzalez is out, waving to the bench for a sub, possibly as a result of his lunge to stop Findley’s shot two minutes ago, and an injury in training last week. DeLaGarza is coming in for him. Terp for Terp. But what’s happening to LA’s rearguard tonight? We will play two 15-minute extra time periods before penalties. And they just announced seven minutes of stoppage time.

86:00 Buddle back the other way! From Donovan … But he’s just offside.

86:00 Robbie Findley goes 1 v 3 against Berhalter, Gonzalez and Franklin. Suanders with a huge save after Findley makes his move on Gonzalez and rips a shot on goal.

85:00 A Beckham corner is followed quickly by two Beckham crosses, all of which are extinguished by RSL, but the momentum has shifted back again. LA is in control now.

82:00 Franklin sends a nice pass to Beckham, Beckham fouled by Beckerman. Becks free kick from 35 yards, overhits it a bit, header goes wide.

81:00 Mathis free kick headed by Olave. Saunders collects it.

79:00 Chris Klein coming in for Birchall. Birchalll and Kirovski have been the lesser half of the LA midfield tonight.

77:00 Havent said Beckham’s name much this half, but now he sends a great ball into the box to Kirovski. Jovan with a lame effort, but he does win a corner. Beckham takes it…cleared out by RSL.

75:00 Espindola coming on for Yura Movsisyan, whose MLS career is now at an end. He’s signed for Randers for next season.

73:00 Buddle with good possesion at the top of the box, lays it back to Donovan, but Donovan rolls it wide from 23 yards out.

73:00 Mathis with another good ball to Findley into the box. But Findley’s first touch botches the deal.

71:00 Mathis with a great ball to Beckerman [?], who sends Movsisyan down the right side on goal! … Movsisyan misses the target.

70:00 Real Salt Lake with a sea change in momentum. Plenty of space in midfield for them all of a sudden. Movsisyan again on the right. Berhalter slides it out.

67:00 Much like the Galaxy before its goal, Real Salt Lake was buzzing before they found the net. They could have had a penalty on the Movsisyan tackle. They are dominating possession right now.

66:00 Oh boy: Josh Saunders is coming in for Donovan Ricketts, who calls it a night due to the hand injury.

64:00 GOAL! Real Salt Lake! Robbie Findley buries a ricochet of a shot by Movsisyan after a frantic build-up by RSL. We are tied, 1-1.

60:00 Great sequence for RSL: Beckerman to Olave [?] to Movsisyan and as he readies the shot he’s tackled from behind in the box! … No call. Mathis, outraged further back up the pitch after the ball is cleared out, picks up the ball and is whistled for a hand ball.

58:00 Beckham with a free kick from 25 yards, just to the right of center, outside the box. Blocked by the wall.

56:00 Kirovski, by the way, moved out left when Donovan shifted to the center. Magee also drifted out to the left, making Donovan almost a second forward. Magee scored his goal ghosting in from the left to the back post.

54:oo Birchall is full of heavy touches tonight. Not his best game.

52:00 Dunivant sends Donovan down the left, Olave sees him out. Then Wingert with a hard tackle on Beckham. That could have been ugly.

51:00 Ricketts finally back up, ready to take goal kick. ESPN graphic informs that no goalkeeper has ever been removed form an MLS cup Final.

48:00 Movsisyan picks up a loose ball and springs Findley down the right side, all alone streaking toward Ricketts’ goal! He takes a heavy touch while cutting inside and both Ricketts and Gonzalez converge on him. Ricketts and Findley in a heavy collision. Both players come away hurt. Ricketts’ right hand is hurt, according to Allan Hopkins.

46:00 Ned Grabavoy in for Real Salt Lake. Johnson out. Is that because of the food poisoning, or for tactical reasons? ESPN says they’ll find out.

Halftime: It took them a while to get into the game—while RSL enjoyed a lot of benign possession—but LA’s difference makers eventually made the difference in the first half. When Donovan slid into the middle he immediately injected life into the Galaxy attack (yeah, Kirovski didn’t work out too well in there) and combined more readily with Beckham. As we said, they nearly created a goal for Buddle before Magee’s strike. RSL has no answer for those two.

45:00 Borchers with a header! … Right into Ricketts’ arms—but a nice ball in from Andy Williams.

41:00 GOAL! The Beckham–Donovan combination sprung Buddle moments ago, but he was offside; this time Donovan takes a pass from Becks on the right and serves an absolutely perfect ball to the backpost where Magee calmly finishes. 1-0 Galaxy.

40:00 Donovan has moved to the middle and it’s making a positive difference for LA. Birchall clatters in to Mathis after a bad first touch. Mathis dinged up.

38:00 Jason Kreis sporting an Inspector Gadget trenchcoat and looking like the third Voltaggio brother from Top Chef this season.

36:00 LA counterattack: Donovan with a nice run, springs Magee on the left, Magee pulls his shot past the far post.

36:00 Johnson with space on the left for RSL, dumps it off….Gonzalez quashes the threat.

34:00 For LA, Donovan and Beckham need to assert themselves in this game. Kirovski doesnt look ready to do it. On the RSL side, Beckerman has been active, but that’s about all. Mathis invisible so far.

31:00 This game has all the makings of an unpretty 1-0 result, where one lucky bounce or one mistake makes the difference.

28:00 Beckham bends a wicked corner in to the mixer that bamboozles Rimando, but no Galaxy player can get on the end of it. Just as well, since it should have been a goal kick, not a corner.

27:00 Findley one-on-one with Berhalter in the LA box. Greased lighting versus molassses and LA fans are heart in throat right now. Berhalter ushers him over the endline. Nice play.

25:00 Rimando has trouble handling one from Kirovski. Artificial surface creates a funky bounce. First attempt on goal of the game.

25:00 Clint mathis with a nice touch to Beckerman, who tries to spring Findley over the top. Offside.

22:00 Morales in tears as he exits. Championship game cut short.

20:00 Morales hobbles back out on to the field after a nice play to keep possession by Beckham. But sustained possession leading to attacking forays are in short supply so far. But now Morales has just waved to the bench to say he’s done. Too bad. But the silver lining? CLINT! Mathis will come on for him.

16:00 Robbie Findley offside. Morales appears to be dinged up after a recent collision with Beckham. Replay shows that they went knee-to-knee and Morales is clearly worse for the wear. Johnson is also battling food poisoning, so Mr. Kreis’s substitution options looking like a tricky proposition early on here.

14:00 Donovan (and Beckham, for that matter) very quiet to this point. Now he picks up a ball on the left wing, knocks it by Johnson and Johnson takes him out with a hip check. Yellow card for the young Canuck.

12:00 Beckham still sporting his version of the Fauxhawk. Corner kick for him now: Near post…Will Johnson knocks it out. Second try they go short, and draw a whistle for offside on the pass back to Becks.

9:00 Nice sequence for LA. Long ball from Franklin to Buddle at the top of the box. He dribbles wide cuts it across the top of the box to Magee, who backheels to Donovan, who can’t find a seam. He lays it back for Kirovski and the ball is eventually worked wide to Dunivant, who crosses for Buddle. Header off target.

7:00 No chances yet. RSL still controlling possession, but almost entirely in the middle third of the field.

5:00 Birchall tries to get stuck in on Beckerman. Fails. Beckerman the other way with the ball, but then turns it over with an aimless long ball.

1:00 And we’re on. Real Salt Lake with an early stretch of possession, Movsisyan and Morales combining well. Hectic early pace.

Here are your lineups:

Real Salt Lake

————Findley             Movsisyan

Johnson            Morales             Williams


Wingert    Borchers         Olave             Russell


Los Angeles

————-Buddle             Magee

Donovan            Kirovski            Beckham


Dunivant    Berhalter       Gonzalez  Franklin


No surprises in the RSL team, but the Galaxy going with Kirovski in the middle of the park is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. According to the ESPN crew it’s because Kovalenko is sick. We’ve never been too big on the ham-handed, foul-prone Kovalenko, but we’re not sure Kirovski is not a step down, if only mobility- and fitness wise.


Outstanding atmosphere in Seattle right now. Qwest Field looks full, and the energy is stupendous, even if they are chanting “See—attle….Soun—ders!”

Game Theory, Penalty Kicks, and Icy Veined Lando

As Landon Donovan prepared to take his series-clinching penalty against Chivas USA on Sunday night—right before he launched into his obsessive-compulsive, Nomar Garciaparra-esque,  pre-kick ritual of odd tics and gestures—ESPN2 put up a graphic showing the location of Lando’s last ten penalty kicks. They all went to his right, the keeper’s left. Every one.

John Harkes almost jumped out of the booth: “I love this graphic!” he said, and we here at Backpost have to agree. Why hasn’t it been done before? And more important, did Zach Thornton and Chivas USA have this information? Safe to say it would come in handy.

As it happened, both Donovan and Thornton behaved as though they knew about Landon’s last ten spot kicks. Thornton dived to his left, and Donovan, well, check it out in these highlights [Updated with better video]:

What Donovan did, as he talks about above, was look up on his approach, see Thornton cheating to his left, and just roll it  slightly off-center the other way. Goal. LA to the Western Conference final. It seemed like Thornton knew that Donovan had gone that way on each of his last ten PKs and that Donovan knew he knew.

There’s a great new soccer book out by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. It’s called Soccernomics, and it’s kind of a Moneyball for world soccer, debunking all sorts of conventional wisdoms connected to the game. In a chapter titled “The Economist’s Fear of the Penalty Kick,” Kuper and Szymanski discuss how “economists revere the penalty as a real-life example of game theory.” Game theory tackles the question of “what happens … when what I should do depends on what you do, and what you should do depends on what I do.” Game theory supposedly came up during the Cuban missile crisis, and was used by the U.S. government during the Cold War (“If we do X, then they’ll do Z, and then we’ll have to do A, and they’ll do B…” and so on). The chapter recounts the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal penalty shootout between Germany and Argentina—the one in which German keeper Jens Lehmann kept in his sock a cheat sheet on his opponents’ shooting tendencies—and the astounding penalty shootout at the 2008 Champions League Final between Chelsea and Manchester United, when Chelsea allegedly had advance info on Man U’s penalty shooters’ tendencies, but Manchester keeper Edwin Van Der Sar ultimately bluffed his way into Nicolas Anelka’s head on the critical penalty.

It’s all fascinating stuff—and even more so if read alongside YouTube videos of the two shootouts in question. The dynamic is neatly summed up in the short story,  “The Longest Penalty Ever” by the Argentine writer Osvaldo Soriano, which Szymanski and Kuper quote. Two teams in the story have one week to prepare for one penalty that will decide a big match, which had been suspended with 20 seconds left.

“At dinner a few nights before the penalty, “Gato Diaz,” the keeper who has to stop it, muses about the kicker:

‘Constante kicks to the right.’

‘Always,’ said the president of the club.

‘But he knows that I know.’

‘Then we’re fucked.’

‘Yeah, but I know that he knows,’ said el Gato.

‘Then dive to the left and be ready,’ said someone at the table.

‘No. He knows that I know that he knows,’ said Gato Diaz, and he got up to go to bed.”

And if he’s smart, with ice in his veins, he may look up to see where you’re going to dive before he shoots. So don’t move!