Tim Melia isn’t giving much away. Fresh off his penalty shootout heroics against the San Jose Earthquakes, one in which the Sporting Kansas City keeper saved all three San Jose attempts to put the West’s top team into the conference semifinals, Melia is holding firm to his trade secrets.
In terms of his preparation, he spoke generally of “trying to pick up on anything I can get,” but didn’t divulge much in the way of specifics. When asked if there are things that shooters do to tip off their intentions, he told ESPN, “Sometimes.”
He added, “I think it’s an interesting skill set, but I don’t think you can be ‘good’ at penalties. I think it’s just something where you come out on the right side of it. I think I’ve had a little bit of fortune.”
Melia might have a point about fortune, but the KC No. 1 has also shown an uncanny ability to make his own luck. Twelve of the 26 penalties he’s faced in his MLS career have been unsuccessful. That translates to a conversion rate against him of 53.6%, the lowest such rate in league history among keepers who have faced at least 10 penalties. Melia is now a perfect 6-0 in matches decided on penalties during his professional career. And against San Jose, his ability to anticipate was borderline telepathic, positioning himself exactly where the Quakes’ shooters went.
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Yet his reticence is understandable. With Kansas City set to take on Minnesota United FC in Wednesday’s Western Conference semifinal, there’s every reason for Melia to maintain his poker face and keep close whatever advantage he has.
Given the stakes involved, it’s a way for Melia to try to maximize his odds of success. He insists he doesn’t do anything different than other keepers. There is video to study, and there are tells that can be picked up in terms of which direction a shooter will go.
Former United States international Brad Friedel was one of those keepers who was adept at saving penalties. Among his exploits were a pair of penalty saves at the 2002 World Cup, as well as a shootout win over Mexico in the quarterfinals at the 1995 Copa America. Among the tells he recalls from his career was the fact that when Frank Lampard took a penalty, if his left arm was extended, he usually was going to the keeper’s right. If Lampard’s arm was tucked in, that meant he was going to the left.
Granted, Lampard took a lot of penalties over the course of this career. According to Chelsea’s website, Lampard took 58 non-shootout penalties for the Blues, converting 49. Yet in a shootout, odds are that, for some of the penalty takers, there won’t be piles of video and data to analyze.
So what’s the approach for someone you’ve never seen before?
“I think each goalkeeper has their own little detection triggers,” Friedel told ESPN. “If you’re looking at the shooter’s eyes, that’s something you should never do. Generally speaking, if you can look from the waist down, the way that the hips will generally face is the way that the ball is going to go. Now you have really good players that can change at the last split second, but the other way to detect is looking where the plant foot goes.”
These days, it’s not unusual to see players — like Orlando City’s Nani at times — take an almost painfully slow run-up to the ball in a bid to get the keeper to commit early, but Friedel argues that the extra time actually allows a goalkeeper to take in more information.
“You have such a small reaction window to it,” he said. “The slower they ran up, they more they exaggerated their planting foot and it gave me more time to see which way it was going to go.
“The real difficult ones are the ones that are the players that just stand about 45 degrees, don’t look at you, don’t do anything, are really confident. And then they run up and they hit it with pace halfway up the goal on either side of you, because the natural reaction for keepers is to move early. And gravity does the rest, right? Very rarely do you see a goalkeeper in a penalty dive to the upper corner.”
Tells can also be situational, and have little to do with the shooter. Friedel recalled how when playing for Blackburn Rovers against Sunderland in 2008, he was about to face a penalty and noticed that nearly the entire Sunderland team was lined up on one side of the shooter.
“I’m like, ‘You know what? They must be shooting to my left. Everyone’s looking for the rebound on that side.’ So I went early to that side, and I saved it.”
There’s also the poker aspect of penalties. With so much scouting done and so many databases readily available for review, keepers can pick up tendencies. But the shooter also knows what the keeper knows. And the keeper knows that the shooter knows that the keeper knows, and so on. Friedel spoke of how former Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy would almost always power his penalties low to Friedel’s right. The one time Friedel cheated, Van Nistelrooy spotted it and simply rolled it in to Friedel’s left.
Sometimes, it’s just about getting the shooter out of their comfort zone. When Friedel played, his wingspan was downright intimidating, looking as if he could cover the entire goal. Melia noted how Seattle Sounders’ Stefan Frei was jumping around on his line when he was about to face LAFC’s Carlos Vela in last week’s MLS Cup playoff match. Vela ended up going down the middle; Frei held his ground and ended up catching the attempt.
“Frei makes Vela feel a little bit uncomfortable going to a spot that he normally goes. And then all of a sudden, Vela changes where he’s going and Frei makes a really important save,” said Melia. “So it is a mental game.”
Of course, there is such a thing as information overload. Melia’s brief rundown of things that goes through his mind — some of them, anyway — seems headache inducing.
“There’s just so many different things you’re looking at whether it’s their position, lining up to the ball, what’s the score within the shootout, what has the player done throughout the game?” he said. “Did the player on my team miss or score? Is he a right-footer or left-footer? If he’s a left-footer, did he put the ball down and jog back fast. Like all those things are kind of just trying to like compound in your head and help yourself make the best educated guess.”
Even the amount of pregame preparation has its limits. Former Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who prevailed in two penalty shootouts on the way to the 2009 MLS Cup with RSL, recalled how when studying up on the Portland Timbers’ Diego Valeri that he could have watched dozens of clips, but it would’ve been overkill because Valeri was a player who mixed things up.
“Then you start confusing yourself,” Rimando told ESPN. “At the end of my career, it was more just nailing down maybe 10 clips of Valeri. If he goes to his right 70% of the time, I’ll look at him going to his right, and nail down those particular ones.”
The keeper still has to remain in the moment, however. Rimando admitted that even as he studied a player’s tendencies, there were times he bucked the conventional wisdom and was successful.
“I have this instinct about it,” Rimando said. While trying to detect the various giveaways might seem like a lot to look at, experience helps in separating valuable information from the noise. Melia says that over time that process becomes more automatic.
“It’s the same thing I’ve learned playing in a game,” Melia said. “Players are going to drag a ball across, or a player is going to open up his hips and dip his shoulder and curl a ball. It’s just things that over time become natural. It’s like a map, essentially.”
Shootouts are their own animal, however. Rather than a single moment in time, a shootout can take on a particular rhythm and psychology. The pressure is mostly on the shooter. No one expects a keeper to make a save. But scoring can have an impact as well.
Melia spoke of how against San Jose, Kansas City’s first shooter, Johnny Russell, buried his shot into the top corner to JT Marcinkowski’s left. That turned up the pressure, which was then exacerbated when Melia saved Oswaldo Alanis’ attempt.
“The next shooter is a little bit more tense, more, ‘I was going to aim directly in the corner, but now I’m going to shy a little bit towards the middle to make sure that I give myself a [chance],” said Melia.
In terms of technique, there is a school of thought that keepers should dive diagonally forward in a bid to cut down the angle, even minimally. But Rimando said he valued quickness in terms of covering the goal instead of diving forward.
“Watching Melia the other day, he did exactly what I do,” he said. “Get that real quick stutter step to your left or to your right, and not just dive from the center,” he said.
But it all points to the fact that each keeper has their own twist on how to approach penalties.
“There’s really no book of how to save penalties,” said Rimando. “You’ve got to have everything in mind. You’ve got to be in rhythm. You’ve got to have confidence. You’ve got to believe in yourself.”
Right now, nobody’s belief is higher than Melia’s.