Defining Clutch in Football

By | April 18, 2019

As I was discussing Alex Morgan’s 100th goal with a friend, they brought up an interesting point; “aren’t the goals Morgan’s been scoring better because you have to consider the situations in which they’re scored, and the older players [Wambach, Akers, Hamm] would just beat up on teams that were less developed and have 3 goals in a 10-0 win?” [1] This question opened the door for a much broader discussion, eventually leading to an unsettled debate on if there’s a way to assign value to a goal. One school of thought is that some goals are worth more than others, I mean, kids grow up dreaming of scoring a World Cup goal. The other side of the coin is at the end of the day, isn’t every goal, well, a goal? 

After a few days of texting back and forth about possible metrics, I tried thinking about how ‘importance’ is defined across different sports and used when comparing athletes or specific plays. As you could guess from the title of the post, I landed on the word clutch. defines clutch, in reference to sports, as an extremely important or crucial moment of a game. [2] Inpredictable, a statistics website, has a breakdown of NBA shooting that defines clutch as a shot taken during a time when the outcome has an elevated impact on win probability. [3]

I decided to create my own metrics for level of clutch in the soccer world, you can find them (and justifications) below!

Metric Weight (1-4) Scale (1-5)
Match Type 4 1: International friendly

2: Invitational tournament

3: Major tournament qualifying/group stage

4: Major tournament knockout

5: Major tournament final

Score prior to goal (relative to other team) 3 1: +/- 3 or more goals

2: +/- 2 goals

3: + 1 goal

4: Tied

5: -1 goal

*Bonus point: game winner or post-ET PK*

Opponent FIFA Ranking 2 1: 51 and beyond

2: Top 31-50

3: Top 21-30

4: Top 11-20

5: Top 10

*Bonus point: rivalry or revenge game*

Time 1 1: Rest of game

2: Last 10 minutes of first half

3: Last 10 minutes of game

4: Added Time (second half)

5: Extra Time

Note 1: These are only for international competition, because (in my opinion) ranking goals in professional leagues would have more complex metrics to consider (player history with the team, implications for next season (draft picks, promotion, relegation, etc.) and the scales would have to change to reflect the differences between leagues.

Note 2: Major tournaments are defined as the World Cup and Olympics.

Match Type: While friendlies are definitely fun to watch, there’s objectively less on the line and the goals are less memorable: 1/5. Invitational tournaments have a little more at stake, as there’s typically some type of prize or degree of glory on the line: 2/5. Qualifying for major tournaments is important, as well as managing to make it out of the group stage. The decision to rank qualifying and group stage games as equal was out of convenience and, admittedly, some lingering hard feelings about the USMNT this WC cycle: 3/5. Major tournament knockout games have more importance than the group stage: 4/5, but less than the finals: 5/5.

Score prior to goal: The scale for this metric was more difficult to decide than the first, as I had to consider the difference between positive and negative goal differentials. Bigger gap in score, makes goals less exciting to watch and less influential on the outcome of the game: 1/5 and 2/5. Extending a 1 goal lead gives the extra comfort and boosts confidence: 3/5. Breaking a tie could be the difference between having to play extra time or going to PKs: 4/5. The tying goal is extremely important, because without tying there’s no way to pull off a comeback and win: 5/5. The bonus point here seemed like a no brainer, as game winning goals are the deciding factor and post-extra time PKs are the last chance to win. I foresee a good amount of disagreement on the scale here.

Opponent: The scale for this was also hard to decide, I ended up going with ranking for two reasons. The first being that this is how the US Soccer Federation doles out bonuses for the men’s team (page 11, section 53). [4] The second being that it would be complicated to use my first idea, based on ranking relative to opponent, because positive and negative differentials would make a significant difference – scoring against a team ranked significantly higher than their own should be worth more, but scoring on a team within 5 spots should be worth the same, regardless of if the opponent is ranked higher or lower. The bonus point was again an obvious choice, as rivalry or revenge games are often more emotional and rewarding to score in. Scale increases as opponent rank increases.

Time: This metric is the one that matters only when paired with others, for example: scoring in the final minutes when down by 5 goals is less significant to the outcome than scoring a tying goal at any point, therefore is weighted the lowest. Also, the scale is the least intuitive, least justified and most subjective; this is likely the result of its low weight in the calculation of goal clutch-ness.

By these metrics:

  • World Cup final goal, to tie the game, against a top 10 ranked, rival opponent, in extra time = 4(5) + 3(5) + 2(5) +1 + 1(5) = 51
  • Friendly match goal, scored when up or down by at least 3, against a team ranked 51st or lower, during any regulation time besides last 10 of a half = 4(1) + 3(1) + 2(1) + 1(1) = 10.



[1] US Soccer, ‘100: Alex Morgan Joins Exclusive Club’

[2], ‘Clutch’

[3] Inpredictable, ‘NBA Clutch Shooting Breakdown’

[4] The New York Times, ‘US Women’s Soccer Complaint’

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