The keeper has all the eyes on him as he saunters to the center of the goal to face yet another opponent. The field and crowd are completely silent as the keeper prepares for his opponent just 12 yards away from him. The game is on the line and he has to make this final stop to clinch the penalty kick shootout for his team.
His opponent gets set, starts his run, plants and rips off a kick as the keeper dives. He saves it, game over, he’s the hero.
The grass is a green and prickly brown on an unseasonably nice February afternoon. It’s not warm, but it’s also not cold. The practice soccer field has to be the saddest patch of grass in the winter. No one is there to watch as I try to stop a couple of Union soccer players from scoring on me in a PK shootout adding to the sadness.
“You brought cleats?” said Matthew Kesler, senior philosophy major and goalkeeper for the Bulldogs.
“Yeah, I wanted to give myself the best possible shot at making a stop,” I answered, now becoming aware of the huge physical difference between the two of us. He is wearing sweats and normal tennis shoes while I’m wearing a hat to keep my hair out of my eyes, cleats and athletic clothes that I would wear to my high school cross-country practices.
I’m 5-10, weigh 140 pounds and I look like a stiff wind would knock me over. I have a small beard so I don’t look like I’m still a freshman in high school.
Kesler is 6-2, weighs 205 pounds, has a huge, mountain man beard and bigger muscles than I even hope to have. He looks like what I would become if injected with the super soldier serum from Captain America mixed with a grizzly bear.
Kesler and his friends Josh Warren, senior business management major and midfielder, and Clayton Martin, senior sports management major and midfielder, take practice shots as I start to shrink inside. The power of their shots makes me scared to get hit in the face or worse. I suddenly remember watching a soccer game where the keeper missed the ball, got hit in the face and had a black eye for a week.
They’re also wearing normal shoes and Martin is in jeans as he rips off his shots for fun. Out of fear for my own safety, I meekly asked Kesler for any advice before going into the goal.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” he said. “There’s more to it than that, but it won’t really help you since you don’t know what you’re doing. Just guess and dive to one side or the other.”
I stand in the middle of the goal as they place the ball. On TV the ball doesn’t look like it’s too close to the goal, but from where I am standing it looks like I could reach out and touch it without taking a step. Now my mind is flooding with worst-case scenarios like breaking my nose or losing a tooth. I start thinking about ways I can look respectable without having to put it all on the line to stop a ball and hurt myself. Getting embarrassed and hurt is all I can think of as Martin lines up for the first shot.
He runs into his kick and I think the ball is going right so I start to move and then the ball is in the lower left corner before I’ve even hit the ground on the wrong side the of the goal.
A lot of people assume the keeper just guesses where the ball is because of how little time they have to react but that’s only partially true. At lower levels plenty of keepers blindly guess which side they should dive to, but at the level Kesler plays he tries to read the kicker. He said that based on the plant foot he can get a read on where the ball should be going. The plant foot and hips usually point in the direction of where the ball is going because of how they affect the kick.
I didn’t know any of this until afterward, so I was the blind guesser. I also have a problem diving to my left due to a shoulder surgery that makes me afraid of potentially getting hurt. Kesler took the second shot and blasted it right past me. I didn’t even move due to fear and confusion.
Warren took the third shot which he prefaced by saying that he never made a PK before. I think this was supposed to help ease my nerves, but it had the opposite effect. He took his shot to the left, slow enough for me to react and hit it with my hands, but it shot straight through them into the goal.
Dejected, I slowly got back up and moved back to the center of the goal to take more abuse from the guys. Each player took five more shots on goal. Martin and Warren missed a couple, but not because I did anything special—they just missed the goal.
I technically blocked one of Martin’s shots, but it was because he lobbed it straight at me. This is a tactic used by some players to embarrass a keeper because a lot of them guess and dive immediately to one side of the goal and have to watch as the ball slow lands in the middle of the goal. Luckily for me, I’m too slow to dive before the ball gets kicked so I was still standing there when I realized the ball was going real slow straight at me. I almost dropped it when it got to me.
After the bloodbath that was playing in goal against collegiate soccer players, I got to take a couple of shots against Kesler. When I placed the ball on the spot he came out and moved it so he could intimidate me. He looked huge even in his baggy sweats that masked his true size and muscles.
“What do I need to do to score?” I asked Martin.
“Honestly, trying to approach it from the side and kick it with the laces would help most people, but you should just kick it as hard as you can and hope for the best,” he said. It appears my time in the goal has caused him to lose faith in my ability to even attempt to play this game the right way.
My first shot was a horrible looking ball that had tons of spin and went way wide right. It was maybe ten feet off the goal and it never left the ground.
“At least you had some nice spin on it,” Warren said, which did nothing to help my confidence.
Kesler blocked the next shot cleanly as it was just a little off center and about four feet high. I put the third one in the left corner on what was essentially a pass, and Kesler made an attempt but clearly didn’t want to go all out to stop it. He could have easily stopped the shot if he was trying because during the season I saw him leap from one goal post to the other to make a save.
The last legitimate shot was the one shot that I could actually call a rip, and sadly it was a toe ball that I had no control over. It hurt like crazy and it still only had maybe 60 percent of the zip of Warren, Martin and Kesler’s shots.
Afterward I talked to Kesler about what it feels like when he is on the field during a PK.
“I feel great,” Kesler said. “I’m the underdog and not expected to block any shots. That means the pressure is on them.”
Due to the distance and angle of the shot it should be an incredibly easy shot to make. The shooter has the whole goal to work with as opposed to working from one side which the keeper can shield off.
With the pressure of the game riding on the shot and knowing that it is so easy can mess with some players’ heads. That’s why you see some shots go way to one side or over the goal. I can’t imagine the pressure that the shooter must feel because I felt a good bit of pressure, and there was nothing on the line besides pride.
That’s the difference between Kesler and myself though. He relishes in the moment of pressure and believes that he can make a stop for his team. That’s the difference between a below average athlete, like myself and a collegiate player like Kesler; he doesn’t see the enormous amount of pressure, but a battle, or in his words:
“It’s like an old-fashioned Mexican standoff. Mano y Mano.”