The Great Goal Kick Shift / by Eliot McKinley

During the Renaissance era, the English language went through a revolution where vowel pronunciation radically changed. This was known as The Great Vowel Shift, and ultimately led to modern English. Similarly, in the late 2010s, goal kicks were revolutionized in what I am calling The Great Goal Kick Shift. Seemingly a worldwide phenomenon, the location where goal kicks were taken rapidly shifted from their traditional location at the corners of the 6-yard box towards the center of the field.

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The advantages of playing shorter goal kicks have been demonstrated already by Jared Young, here at American Soccer Analysis, so I’m not going to focus on that. In fact, MLS teams seem to have read that article and taken it to heart. The season after Jared wrote it, MLS teams began taking shorter goal kicks, a trend that has continued since the 2017 season. Additionally, the number of goal kicks that end in a team’s half has doubled since 2013, and as of the 2019 season accounts for more than half of goal kicks.

In conjunction with the shortening of goal kicks, has come The Great Goal Kick Shift. Traditionally, the keeper would place the ball at either the left or right corner of the 6-yard box, typically even closest to where it went out. This was the case for MLS teams from 2013-2016. A specific team may have tended to utilize one side or the other (e.g. 2013 Montreal Impact), but almost all teams, except the 2015 Earthquakes, took their goal kicks at the ends of the box in this period.

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However, starting in 2017 a few MLS teams began to deviate from this paradigm. Atlanta and Columbus suddenly shifted to taking a majority of goal kicks near the center of the 6-yard box. Many others also appeared to move in the same direction, but to a smaller extent. This shift continued across most of the league over the next couple years, and in 2019 only a handful of teams predominantly take goal kicks from the corners of the 6-yard box.  

Obviously there was a reason for this. After tweeting the initial league-wide finding I heard back that it was at least partially due to goalkeeper coaching changes, and contemporary articles agree. Additionally, this change is probably also driven by increased build-up play. Some of the early adopters, such as Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew, were teams known for playing out of the back. Setting up in the middle makes the entire field available, rather than pre-conceding one half of the field by setting up on one side of the 6-yard box. With increased pressing in recent years, these options can be important for the kicker once they see how a defense sets up. This theory perhaps holds water, as the MLS teams that continue to take goal kicks from the edges of the 6, Colorado, Houston, Montreal, and New York Red Bulls, are not known for their buildup. But even they are utilizing the center more often.

Moving to the center obviously has its theoretical advantages over the edges of the 6-yard box on goal kicks. It is likely that The Great Goal Kick Shift will mutate a bit in MLS once the new rule where players can receive the ball within the 18. It is already observed in Europe where the rule is already in effect. While this shift is minor in the grand scheme of soccer, small things matter. Like throw-ins, this is something that probably requires data to observe (kudos if you noticed this watching games, you have better eye than me). Now that we know The Great Corner Kick Shift exists, we can look for any effects it is having on the game.