AUSTIN (KXAN) — Stopping a penalty in Major League Soccer is no easy feat. When world-class athletes get a free run and can blast the ball at will from 12 yards out, chances are it will hit the back of the net.
But there’s a slightly better chance he won’t get in when Austin FC’s Brad Stover is on the line.
Stover scored twice for Real Salt Lake in Sunday’s penalty shootout to decide who advances to the Western Conference semifinals after the clubs drew 2-2 at Q2 Stadium. Verde won the penalty shootout 3-1 and it could very easily have been 3-0 if not for a bit of bad luck.
Stover saved free-kicks from RSL’s Andrew Broady and Brian Ojeda to help Verde reach the conference semi-finals on October 23, and almost saved one from Marcelo Silva had he not grown a pair of eyes and somehow found space underneath him .
“You’re going the right way and he kind of sneaks under you, it was kind of upsetting,” Stover said. “But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. At this point you hope to get one.
Silva was RSL’s first kick but Stover saved the next two and then had to watch Tate Schmidt’s fourth go into the stands with 20,000 of his closest friends screaming at the top of their lungs.
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When Brody stepped up, Stover seemed to know where the punch was going, like he was a clairvoyant. Stever dived low and left, right into the path of Brody’s attempt. At that point, the penalty shootout was tied 1-1 and when Diego Fagundes put Austin’s next shot on goal, Stover stepped back in goal with a lead he was determined to protect.
He did just that. Ojeda’s shot sent Stover in the same direction for the same score, but this one was a little more dramatic. Stuver got enough control of the ball to stop it going in, but the ball lightly touched the crossbar, and Stuver said it felt “like slow motion” as he watched the ball fall onto the field.
“I knew I saved it, but I didn’t know if it was going to go in the goal,” Stover said. “I got up, watched it hit the bar and then went down, then I was like, ‘OK, great’.”
Emiliano Rigoni made it 3-1 after his call and then Schmidt put one on the spot. Chaos ensued on the pitch and Austin FC emerged victorious to await FC Dallas or Minnesota United on October 23 in the conference semifinals.
Stuever studies penalty takers and their tendencies, just as a pitcher does with opposing hitters in baseball. As the old cliché goes, knowledge is power, and if Stever knows what his opponent has done in the past, he has a better chance of stopping them. He went into the game, aided by the club’s statisticians, with a notebook for six RSL players who had previously taken penalties.
The only problem with this is that it is not guaranteed who will take the kicks until they are handed over to the officials before the penalty kicks. It turned out that the kickers that Stover had prepared for were not the ones who actually took the kicks.
“We were kind of in a fight, so it was more like hiding it,” Stover said. “We had a list of players who took a penalty, but it’s hard to read just one. It’s just coming out of the feel right now.”
Although not part of the penalty shootout, Stuver had already conceded a penalty earlier. Sergio Cordova scored his second goal of the game in the 15th minute on a PK, so Stuver’s mindset was simply to not let that happen again.
This season in MLS, 169 penalties have been taken by teams in the league. Stuver saved two of the seven he faced, good for a 28.6% save percentage. Including Stuver, MLS goaltenders have saved 30 penalty kicks, 17.75%, so Stuver is above average there. Including both the PK in the game and the shootout, Stuver saved two of the four that were on the frame. Combined in the regular season and playoffs this year, Stuver has stopped four of 11, or 36.4 percent.
Stuver said that with all the studying and gathering information in preparation for a shootout, sometimes you just have to do what your instincts tell you to do.
“If you read Nick Rimando’s article at the beginning of the year, he said it’s all about the wrists,” Staver said. “I don’t think that’s true at all. You get a gut feeling and some guys try to trick you and I try not to look into it too much. I am coming out of the inner feeling.