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Live by the penalty? How OC Blues are using spot kicks in 2016

It may just be a coincidence, but PKs have been an important source of production.

Courtesy of OC Blues FC

There are obviously numerous ways to score in soccer. Breakaways, headers, volleys, bicycle kicks, and then the different ways to grab goals through set pieces — free kicks, corner kicks and penalties.

On that latter point — penalty kicks — teams have both a relatively "easy" chance to score when presented with an opportunity during a game, and cannot typically count on penalties drawn as a scoring strategy. Obviously, some teams are better than others in picking up penalties, dependent on making sure players end up inside the penalty box and can either get in positions to be fouled in the box or can create/get lucky with handball calls.

I noticed a trend earlier this season with the Orange County Blues, who seemed to be scoring a lot of penalties relative to their total number of goals. How many penalties? So far this year in USL play, in 24 games the Blues have scored 30 goals, with eight being PKs.

Penalties scored by OC Blues through 24 games:

  • April 17 vs. San Antonio FC: Didier Crettenand (Blues W, 1-0)
  • May 27 vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks: Roy Meeus (D, 1-1)
  • June 4 vs. Seattle Sounders 2: Meeus (W, 5-2)
  • June 18 vs. Real Monarchs: Meeus (W, 1-0)
  • June 26 vs. Rio Grande Valley FC: Crettenand (x2) (W, 2-1)
  • July 10 vs. Sacramento Republic: Crettenand (D, 3-3)
  • August 14 vs. Portland Timbers 2: Max Rauhofer (L, 2-1)

That makes it 26.7 percent of OC’s goals this year being penalties. That seems like a lot, but since USL doesn’t readily provide a breakdown of team penalties and I had to search for the Blues’ breakdown one game at a time, I decided to look to other leagues to compare.

In MLS, the team that has the highest proportion of PKs to total goals so far this season is the Vancouver Whitecaps, who have scored six goals out of 34 total from the spot (17.6 percent, 25 games played).

And in NWSL, the team with the highest proportion is Sky Blue FC, which has scored three penalties in 17 total goals this season (17.6 percent, 15 games played).

Now, in looking across the leagues, one could argue that the nature of play from league to league could skew the penalties awarded, and I admittedly don’t have a control for that. And the NWSL sample size is smaller than the other two cases, which makes the numbers somewhat difficult to compare, although it is certainly a coincidence that the Whitecaps and Sky Blue PK percentages are identical.

But the same organization, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), supplies referees in all three leagues, so in theory all referees are receiving the same training regarding what constitutes a penalty, and in some cases referees may call games across leagues.

So it seems like OC is well ahead of the curve in the proportion of penalties to total goals. The next question is what does it mean?

Well, that’s hard to say, too, especially since penalties are something of a strategy but no team can count upon PKs to be called consistently in their favor. Since valid penalties are at times not called, and teams are sometimes given penalties that they may not necessarily deserve, the very inconsistency makes them mercurial by nature. And ideally, teams would score a lot of goals by other means and still get a fair (meant literally) amount of penalties.

So PKs cannot be a primary source of goals in most cases, and yet — if a penalty attempt is presented to a team, that team never turns it down. The Blues may have received a disproportionate but reasonable by context number of penalties, and getting those chances is just part of the game. At the same time, it’s pretty clear that those penalties converted have played a significant role in their season, with 11 points directly earned due to penalties so far this season. Take those 11 points away, and Orange County would be 14th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference. It may be a one-season trend, but it’s working so far and penalties are surely playing a role in the Blues’ success this year.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!