AUSTIN (KXAN) — Stopping a penalty kick in Major League Soccer isn’t an easy thing to do. When world-class athletes get a free run-up and can blast the ball however they want from 12 yards away, chances are it’s hitting the back of the net.
But there’s a little better chance it won’t go in when Austin FC’s Brad Stuver is on his line.
Stuver stuffed Real Salt Lake twice in Sunday’s penalty kick shootout to decide who advanced to the Western Conference semifinals after the clubs played to a 2-2 draw at Q2 Stadium. Verde won the shootout 3-1, and it could have very easily been 3-0 had it not been for a bit of bad luck.
Stuver saved penalty kicks from RSL’s Andrew Brody and Braian Ojeda to help put Verde in the conference semifinals Oct. 23, and nearly saved one by Marcelo Silva had it not grown a pair of eyes and somehow found space underneath him.
“You go the right way and it sneaks under you somehow, it was a little upsetting,” Stuver said. “But I wasn’t going to let that deter me. In that moment, you’re hoping you get one.”
Silva’s was the first kick from RSL, but Stuver stopped the next two and then got to watch the fourth by Tate Schmitt sail into the stands with 20,000 of his closest friends screaming at the top of their lungs.
When Brody stepped up, it looked like Stuver knew where the kick was headed, like he was clairvoyant. Stuver dove low and to the left, right into the path of Brody’s attempt. The shootout was tied 1-1 at that point, and when Diego Fagundez blasted Austin’s next kick into the goal, Stuver stepped back in goal with a lead he was determined to protect.
He did just that. Ojeda’s shot took Stuver in the same direction for the same result, except this one was a little more dramatic. Stuver got enough of the ball to initially keep it from going in, but the ball lightly touched the crossbar, and Stuver said it “felt like slo-mo” watching the ball fall to the pitch.
“I knew I saved it, but I didn’t know if it was going to come down into the goal,” Stuver said. “I got up, watched it hit the bar and then drop down, then I was like, ‘OK, cool.'”
Emiliano Rigoni made it 3-1 after his conversation, and then Schmitt put one in the seats. After that, it was pandemonium on the pitch and Austin FC came away the victors to await FC Dallas or Minnesota United on Oct, 23 in the conference semifinals.
Stuver studies penalty kick takers and their tendencies, just like a pitcher does to opposing hitters in baseball. As the old cliche goes, knowledge is power, and if Stuver knows what his adversary has done in the past, he’s got a better chance at stopping them. He came into the match, assisted by the club’s statisticians, with a notebook on six RSL players who had taken penalties before.
The only problem with that is it’s not guaranteed who is going to take the kicks until they’re submitted to officials prior to the shootout. It turned out the kickers Stuver prepared for weren’t the ones actually taking the kicks.
“We were kind of in a scramble, so it was more like winging it,” Stuver said. “We had a list of players who had taken a penalty, but it’s difficult to get a read off just one. In the moment, it’s just going off of feel.”
While not part of the shootout, Stuver had already allowed a penalty kick earlier. Sergio Cordova scored his second goal of the game in the 15th minute as a result of the PK, so Stuver’s mindset was simply not to let that happen again.
This season in MLS, 169 penalties were taken by teams across the league. Stuver saved two out of the seven he faced, good for a 28.6% save percentage. With Stuver’s included, MLS goalkeepers saved 30 penalty kicks, 17.75%, so Stuver is above average there. Including both the in-game PK and shootout, Stuver saved two out of the four that were on frame. In total across the regular season and the playoffs this year, Stuver has stopped four out of 11, or 36.4%.
Stuver said with all the studying and information gathering in preparation for shootouts, sometimes you just have to do what your instincts tell you to do.
“If you read Nick Rimando’s piece at the beginning of the year, he said it’s all about wrists,” Stuver said. “I don’t think that’s true at all. You get a gut feeling and some guys try to fake you out, and I try not to look too much into that. I go off the gut feeling.”