Doing your homework: Tim Melia and penalty kicks

Tim Melia

When Christian Espinoza stepped up to the penalty kick spot it was written all over the faces of the San Jose Earthquakes: they already felt defeated. They stood there with hands on their heads, looking on bewildered at Tim Melia’s perfect execution on all of their spot-kicks, and so when Christian Espinoza stepped up to take his final kick, it seemed as if everyone already knew what was going to happen. But before that moment, there are many, many more moments that go into Melia’s dominance on penalties.

Tim Melia dominance on penalty kick situations comes back to homework

In 2009, the Rochester Rhinos went to a penalty kick shootout with the Columbus Crew during their second round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup matchup. The Rhinos and Crew went deep, going to the extra time in penalties, until the Rhino’s made a save and converted their next to upset the crew and make a deep run in that tournament. The Rochester Rhinos goal keeper that day? Tim Melia.

The next season, Melia found himself in a penalty kick shootout with Charleston Battery against an MLS team, again, during the U.S. Open Cup. Melia made one stop while the Chicago Fire missed two others. It’s the only other penalty kick shootout in “searchable” U.S. Soccer History to go the minimum of six rounds. Tim Melia was the winning goalkeeper in both of those.

“He’s just really good at it,” Peter Vermes said after the match. “I’ve never seen that in my life…It’s something special that he has. It really is. He’s a different level. I don’t get surprised a lot, but I was surprised tonight.”

In his pro career, Tim Melia is a perfect 6-0 when his team enters a PK shootout with him in goal. Better yet, across all competitions, Melia has faced 27 penalty kicks in shootouts, saved 11 of them. We couldn’t find footage of those U.S. Open Cup Shootouts with Rochester and Charleston, but in the four shootouts we have video of with Sporting KC Tim Melia has faced 20 penalty kicks, saved 9, and gone the correct direction 14 times. That is where the homework becomes obvious.

Melia was asked about the background work he does during postgame, and smartly, he was mum on that. But somone did counter with the question of whether or not shooters study the goalkeepers as well. His answer?

I don’t think people — especially field players — spend a whole lot of time studying goalkeepers,” Melia said. “The percentage of penalty saves is so small that if they hit a really good penalty more than likely it’s not going to be saved.”

As usual, Melia deflects praise on individual efforts like the penalty kicks as much as he does the shots themselves. However, he does undersell himself a bit talking about how small that percentage is.

According to data from the last 10 English Premier League seasons (2010-2019), goalkeepers have saved roughly 17% of the nearly 1000 penalty kick attempts. Melia has saved (not just missed, but saved) 47% of his career penalty kicks in normal time. He’s gone the right way on 50% of them as well.

At some point, it’s not luck. If he was saving around 20% of those penalty kick attempts we could call it luck. Clearly he does homework on shooters, and not just where do they like to go. It has to go beyond that. Give-aways in their run-up that show what side they’re going to, reading their eyes and body language, down to their hips and plant foot, it’s all part of the work that he and the goalkeeping staff go through. However, there really hasn’t been someone who has come near that level of dominance in these situations. You can do all the background work, and still come up empty. That’s why what Melia has done against penalties is so impressive. It’s the perfect mix of background work and execution.

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