Home > Women's Teams > Second-Guessing Nairn and Leroux

Second-Guessing Nairn and Leroux

By now, everyone who actually cared about the US Women’s U-20 team knows that it was eliminated from the World Cup in a penalty shootout in which (a) Captain Christine Nairn’s left-footed shot slightly to the left of center was saved and (b) Sydney Leroux’s right-footed shot sailed high over the center of the cross bar.  The question now is whether their intended shot placements were logical.

The Evidence:

I could not compile a history of Women’s U-20 World Cup penalty shootout statistics.  However, prior to this year’s Men’s World Cup, ESPN The Magazine (Issue 13.12) presented a chart of every penalty shot taken during World Cup shootouts from 1978 through 2006.  I took the graphical representations they made and turned them into percentages that are easier to deal with.

I assumed that the empirical statistics reflected the chance that something might happen as the result of aiming for a particular area of the goal.  But of course that is not necessarily true;  e.g., there’s not a 0% chance of missing any shot.  But it gives us a sense of what happens based on shot placement.

The Results

  Top Left   Top Center   Top Right
  L R   L R   L R
% Miss 20% 21%   0% 20%   17% 7%
% Save 0% 7%   0% 0%   0% 0%
% Goal 80% 74%   100% 80%   83% 93%
  Bottom Left   Bottom Center   Bottom Right
% Miss 10% 5%   0% 0%   9% 0%
% Save 44% 36%   25% 44%   40% 28%
% Goal 50% 61%   75% 56%   55% 72%

Directions are from the shooter’s perspective. So Top-Left refers to the corner of the goal that is to the shooter’s left when they are facing the goal.

The Analysis:

1.  Nairn’s Left-Footed Shot to the Bottom-Center.  Not an unreasonable first shot.  Virtually no chance of missing the goal entirely, which forces the keeper to make a save.  And the keeper is less likely to save a shot to the Bottom-Center than one to either the Bottom-Left or Bottom-Right.  Higher shots are more likely to score goals, but if you’re shooting with your left and worried about shooting high or wide, Bottom-Center is the way to go.

2. Leroux’s Right-Footed Shot to the Top-Center.  Down 3-2, Leroux needed to score here.  Her best chance?  Top-Right (93% with 0% chance of save).  Top-Center isn’t a bad option:  there’s virtually no chance of the goalie making the save.  But right-footed shots to Top-Left and Top-Center are missed with almost stunning frequency: 21% and 20% respectively.  So statistically speaking, you’re much better off shooting Top-Right.


Although Nairn could have perhaps placed more zip in her shot, it is hard to argue with her shot placement.  It was a shot with a high probability of success and forced the Nigerian keeper to make the save.  Leroux’s shot was not an unreasonable shot, but she was more likely to succeed if she’d gone Top-Right instead.

Categories: Women's Teams
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