It’s virtually guaranteed that when the referee points to the opposition penalty spot, it’ll be Christian Ramirez who takes the kick for Minnesota United. In his 2½ seasons with the Loons, Ramirez has scored 43 goals, nine of which have come from a penalty kick. It’s a responsibility that adds to his goal tally, but it’s also one that comes with an enormous amount of pressure.
Virtually no one remembers a successful penalty, unless it’s taken in a particularly strange way. The penalty kick is supposed to be effectively automatic, akin to a wide-open jump shot in the lane in basketball, or a 5-foot putt on the golf course. In the Premier League in England, for example, nearly 85 percent of penalties have been converted over the past two decades. To succeed is expected. Misses are remembered forever, and not for the best; Gareth Southgate’s failure at Euro 96, for England, was immortalized in a mocking song by the English punk band The Business.
It takes mental strength to take penalties — especially after missing one. Some players never do come back to the spot. England’s Chris Waddle missed in the European Championships in 1990, skying his penalty nearly into orbit. Waddle, one of England’s best players, never took a penalty again by choice. Ramirez, though, has displayed a little more mental fortitude. He says that he simply doesn’t think about it when he misses a penalty — and that’s the way he was raised. “I’ve missed so many in my life, “ he said. “My dad was a big influence in my life to say, you missed that one — next time there’s a PK, grab that ball again and take it.”
Ramirez has only two misses for the Loons, one of which came last Saturday against Indy. It turned out to be pivotal, keeping the game in a scoreless tie and leading to Indy’s late winner. His only other miss was even more pivotal, coming late in the game against New York in 2014. Had he scored, the Loons likely would have finished off a win and clinched the fall championship that year; instead, they settled for a draw, then lost their last two games and missed out on a trophy.
It’s a testament, though, that Ramirez came back from his first Loons miss and scored all six times he stepped up to the spot in 2015. Earlier this year, he converted in the Loons’ U.S. Open Cup slugfest against Kansas City. “If you get too caught up in the emotional battle of the game, your performance becomes inconsistent,” he said.
For Ramirez, it’s a matter of pride — to play every game the same way, as he’s done since he was growing up. “Any game, any person could be watching, and that could determine your future,” he said. It’s the kind of attitude that the Loons need from Ramirez — especially if he’s called upon to step up to the penalty spot again Saturday night.
• Liga MX starts its fall season — the “Apertura” — this weekend. The Mexican league plays two half-seasons every year, 17 games apiece, with playoffs after each half. It’s hard to predict a winner in such a short tournament, but keep an eye on Mexico City powerhouse Club America, which might be due for a title run after two years without a domestic trophy.
• The National Women’s Soccer League got some bad publicity this week. Western New York hosted Seattle at Frontier Field, the home of Class AAA Twins affiliate Rochester. The temporary field for the game was painfully small, about 10 yards shorter and 15 yards narrower than usual. It looked like a youth field — not a good look for a league that desperately wants to look like anything but an afterthought.
• The U.S. women’s national team had to cut its 23-player roster from last year’s World Cup down to 18, to meet Olympics requirements. In the end it was easy, thanks to a combination of retirements and pregnancies. The only questionable decision was the choice of midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who hasn’t played since last year’s knee injury, over Heather O’Reilly.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Liga MX: Puebla at Monterrey, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. The fall season south of the border kicks off this week, and Monterrey is looking to build off a successful spring season. The northern side won the regular-season spring tournament but lost the playoff final to Pachuca. “Los Rayados” would like to continue their momentum.
MLS: Seattle at Portland, 2 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 9. MLS’ best rivalry returns to network TV again this year. Seattle fell all the way to the bottom of the Western Conference, but a midweek 5-0 beating of league leader Dallas may have broken the slide. Portland would dearly love to halt the resurgence of its biggest rival.
MLS: NYC at Montreal, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. NYC’s winning streak came to a resounding halt last week. Midfielder Frank Lampard scored again, though, and now he’ll have to face a Montreal side that’s usually led by his old Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba. Drogba may not play, but Montreal has played very well without him.
MLS: New York at Philadelphia, 6 p.m. Sunday, FS1. The Union shocked everyone by holding the Eastern Conference lead through much of the first half this season. The challenge now is for Philly to avoid a second-half letdown. New York will attempt to erase the two-point gap that currently separates the two in the East.