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History, other factors if USA, Japan go to PKs again in World Cup final

USA and Japan went to penalties to decide the 2011 Women's World Cup final. What if they do again in 2015? Ben Lyttleton breaks down the decisive factors and how much history would come into play in such a situation.

The last time USA met Japan in a Women’s World Cup, it was the 2011 final. Japan won after the game was tied 2-2 and went to a penalty shootout, in which the USA missed its first three kicks.

Penalties have become something of a motif in USWNT history; Brandi Chastain’s successful spot-kick in the 1999 World Cup final kick-started a revolution in the women’s game. And earlier this week, in the semifinal, Germany’s top scorer Celia Sasic missed from 12 yards–Germany's first miss on the Women's World Cup stage–just before Carli Lloyd scored from the spot to seal a second straight place in the final for the USA.

So what lessons can USWNT learn from its recent penalty history if the game Sunday goes the distance? Here are some pointers:

Scoring the last goal prior to PKs helps

USWNT won the quarterfinal shootout against Brazil in 2011 in dramatic style; it was trailing 2-1 to Marta’s early extra-time goal until Abby Wambach equalized two minutes into injury time. Scoring so late gives that team a shot of momentum going into the shootout, and there is an unmistakable disappointment for the side that has conceded.

This often manifests itself in the shootout, as 60% of teams scoring last go on to win. USWNT beat Brazil 5-3 on spot-kicks. Against Japan in the final, the same held true: Homare Sawa leveled up three minutes from time for Japan and that gave it an edge in the shootout. 

Put your best kicker first and fourth

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Shannon Boxx kicked first in both shootouts in 2011 but had a let-off against Brazil. Her penalty was saved, but the goalkeeper moved too early, so the kick was retaken and she scored (This infringement regularly happens in the men’s game but is hardly ever penalized). Against Japan, Boxx started her run-up very quickly after the referee’s whistle–a sign of stress–and goalkeeper Aiyumi Kaihori comfortably saved her effort.

Once Aya Miyama scored the next kick for Japan, USWNT was behind and chasing the game.

The common misconception is that your best kicker should take the fifth penalty. Sometimes being chosen fifth means the shootout will be over before it’s your turn, as what happened when Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal side lost on penalties to Spain in the Euro 2012 semifinal before he could take one. By contrast, Lionel Messi always kicks first for Argentina.

Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a professor of game theory, calculated the ideal kicking order in a shootout, and showed that Nos. 1, 4 and 5 are most important–and that the fourth is marginally more important for the team kicking first than second.

Palacios-Huerta’s index shows how each kick is important in a standalone sense as well as because of what’s occurred in the penalties that took place before them. “In round 1, for instance, the first team begins with a 60.2% chance of winning,” he explained. “If it scores, this probability increases 7.1%, to 67.3%, and if it misses the probability drops 26.9% to 33.3%. The corresponding figures for round 5 are +17.6% and -35.7% respectively.”

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History carries its own trauma

How will the likes of Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath, who all missed in succession in the 2011 final, respond if faced with the challenge of scoring past Kaihori four years after the worst moment of their careers? The walk to the spot, described by Andrea Pirlo (who scored in the 2006 World Cup final) as “an endless and terrible walk into one’s own fears,” could bring up old trauma, and not just for those three players who missed.

Dr Geir Jordet, the Director of Psychology at the Norwegian Centre of Football Excellence, has looked into the weight of history and specifically, the effect that losing one or two preceding shootouts had on the next shootout.

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This is significant because the USWNT has not played a shootout since that 2011 final. Jordet found that the chances of scoring a penalty in a shootout are, on average, 76% (slightly lower than the open-play average of 78% as some players are non-regular shooters). But if your team lost its last shootout, even if you did not take a penalty, or were not even on the side, that likelihood drops to 72% (and drops to 57% if you lost the previous two shootouts).

As any England soccer fan–who has seen its men’s team lose six of seven shootouts in major tournaments–will tell you, losing on penalties can be a vicious cycle of defeat. There is a virtuous cycle of winning as well: victory in your last shootout increases likelihood of scoring in the next shootout to 83%.

Things to look out for

U.S. teams have been on a bad recent run of shootouts. Last month, the men’s Under-20 side lost 6-5 to eventual winners Serbia after a shootout in the World Cup quarterfinal. Last August, the women’s Under-20 side lost 3-1 on penalties to South Korea at the same stage of the Under-20 Women’s World Cup–in that shootout, just as in the 2011 final, it failed to score its first three kicks. So how can USWNT channel the spirit of 1999, when all five of its shooters scored?

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They could take their lead from the Sweden team that this week won the Under-21 European Championship after beating favorite Portugal on penalties. Sweden’s players did certain things that I recommend all teams try and do in a shootout scenario. Each player waited an extra second after the referee blew the whistle to signify the penalty could be taken. It sounds simple, but it means the shooter can kick when he or she is ready, rather than when the referee says so.

Portugal’s kickers, just like the USWNT’s in 2011, reacted far quicker to the whistle.

Three of Sweden’s four scored penalties were struck with power down the middle of the goal. They knew that Portugal goalkeeper Jose Sa liked to dive early. Most goalkeepers are the same: only 6% stay central for a penalty while 29% of penalties are kicked centrally.

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Sweden also celebrated its scored penalties with gusto. It helped that it was in front of its own fans, but there is an emotional contagion to the body language of celebrating goals that has a positive effect on teammates–and a detrimental one on opponents. The one Swede who missed his penalty, Abdul Khalili, did not face a horrible walk back to the center circle, as his teammates poured towards him to welcome him back into the group.

That sense of unity creates less pressure on the next kicker.

These elements alone will not guarantee that USWNT would win a penalty shootout if it came down to it. There needs to have been purposeful practice in training for months beforehand, and mental preparation so that every player would know her exact task–including where she would shoot her spot-kick–well in advance (with a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C). But it might improve the team's chances, and in a World Cup final, where the margins are so fine, well, that might just be enough to make the difference.

Ben Lyttleton’s book Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty will be published in the USA this month.