Benefield: Pressure is on when penalty kicks start

Santa Rosa goalie Osvaldo 
Benavides looks back to watch the ball enter the goal on a penalty kick during an NCS playoff game in 2013. Some soccer coaches and players believe it is unfair to decide a game on a shootout. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat, 2013)

Santa Rosa goalie Osvaldo 
Benavides looks back to watch the ball enter the goal on a penalty kick during an NCS playoff game in 2013. Some soccer coaches and players believe it is unfair to decide a game on a shootout. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat, 2013)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Penalty kicks are the necessary evil of soccer.

The Montgomery Vikings boys soccer team knows this better than any team around.

The Vikings, who finished second in the NCS tournament last weekend, saw an astounding three of their four tournament games go to penalties.

“I don’t remember anything like it,” said Vikings coach Jon Schwan, still stinging from the team’s defeat at the hands of Terra Linda in the NCS final Saturday — a game that, naturally, went to PKs.

Even more unfathomable?

In the last five years, eight boys soccer NCS tournament games have been decided by penalties. Montgomery has been involved in six of those.

For soccer naysayers, shootouts represent much of what is wrong with the game: A dreary back and forth game that can’t produce a winner is then decided in a way that reflects only in a small way the sport being played or even shows who is the better team.

“It’s inherent to the sport of soccer” that a weaker team can win, Schwan said. “In penalty kicks, it levels the playing field even more.”

Penalties have long been the way games are decided — when overtime and golden goal (sudden death) periods don’t produce a winner. But penalties have only been part of soccer’s grandest spectacle for 36 years. Penalty kicks as game deciders were instituted in the World Cup in 1978 and since then nearly 20 percent of all knockout World Cup matches have been decided by penalty kicks.

But penalties have only decided two final matches: In 1994 when Brazil beat Italy and again in 2006 when Italy beat France.

It may not reward the better team, but it’s riveting theater.

Remember when Italian golden boy Roberto Baggio — he of the weird ponytail thing — launched his moonshot into the stands to give the title to the Brazilians in ‘94? It’s almost sporting schadenfreude to see a shooter of an opposing team send a ball sailing over the cross bar or hit the shot straight into the big mitts of the goalkeeper.

But it’s different at the prep level. It’s different when the shooter isn’t a multimillionaire superstar, but a high school kid with the weight of his entire squad resting squarely on his shoulders.

It’s only 12 yards from “the spot” to the goal line, but it can feel like 100 when you are gassed, emotional and begging for the ball to make that net shake.

There’s a reason why they call it “the spot.” You’re on it.

Schwan had to deal with both sides of the PK reality this postseason. His Vikings beat Santa Rosa High in a bizarre shootout that went an unheard-of 14 rounds with a string of goals called back because of violations. Then the Vikings went on to beat league rivals Rancho Cotate 6-5 in penalties before falling to Terra Linda 5-4 in the final.

How does a coach handle that moment, that kid, who missed? The one who is left standing on the spot while the opposing team mobs the keeper just a few feet away? What to say to a keeper who couldn’t quite get a glove on it?

“You be real honest,” Schwan said. “They are not dumb. They know a large portion of it did fall on their shoulders in that last moment. But you remind them of the moments that slipped away earlier in the game or how we could have avoided (penalties).”

“Then you let them cry on your shoulder,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s heartbreaking.”

It’s a strange thing to have a team game decided in such a one-on-one way. Even breakaway goals in regulation start with something more than just shooter versus keeper. Someone made a mistake somewhere — a soft tackle or errant pass — that launched the breakaway.

There has long been talk of ending soccer games in a different manner, but none have taken hold.

Montgomery’s goalkeeper Jordan Page just might be the most seasoned in the land after what he had to endure this postseason. He doesn’t mind all eyes on him because he says the pressure is on the other guy.

“It’s not a situation I’m uncomfortable with,” he said of the mano a mano setup of PKs.

“I feel confident about myself,” he said. “As a goalie, people only expect you to get one, let alone two or three.”

That’s the kind of mindset you want from the guy who is guarding your net in the most high-pressure situation imaginable. Page had to navigate that scenario a mind-blowing three times in the postseason.

“It’s the most pressure on the shooter. As a PK shooter, that is your only job,” he said.

Which can make the weight of a miss crushing in the moment and linger in the long term.

“It was pretty rough,” Page said of the Vikings’ loss. “It was a very quiet bus ride home.”

In those moments, there is not much a coach or a teammate can say, when 80, then 100 minutes of play come down to one strike of the ball.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield