In soccer, there is nothing more terrifying than a penalty shootout. As multiple analysts have pointed out, penalties are little more than a crapshoot. One man steps up and chooses the way his shot will fly: low and hard, high and toward the post. The keeper is all that stands in his way, and he must choose the way he will dive, whether it be left or right. The best goalkeepers do their research before the match, watching past penalty kicks to determine if the taker shoots to the right or to the left. But considering the best takers change their direction in a pattern that cannot be mapped, for most goalies the decision to dive one way or the other is taken at the last possible second.
In the Open Cup match against the Portland Timbers, Kasey Keller saved two important penalty kicks. Keller is one of the most experienced keepers in the MLS and a veteran of the U.S. Men's National Team, where he holds the record for the most clean sheets. While Keller missed a penalty save opportunity last week in Philadelphia, last night he reminded us that there's no one in the MLS we'd rather have in the net.
Yet even trusting Keller does not lower the intensity of a penalty shootout. Nate Jaqua put the Sounders in the lead at the 13th minute with a beautiful header off Sanna Nyassi's cross, but after some poor defending in the first half, Bright Dike pulled one level for Portland in the 38th. Then we had nearly an hour of nail-bitting, broken only by howling when Taylor Graham got sent off with a second yellow. The Sounders kept the match at a draw through two 15-minute periods of overtime play, impressive when down a man. And then ... the penalty kicks.
Considering the Sounders, coming into this match, had scored exactly zero of the three penalties they had been awarded this season, my tension progressed from nail-biting to hitting the arms of my companions. First the Timber player steps up, as our section of the bar huddled around the big screen, unable to sit, all mumbling "Kasey Kasey Kasey save it Kasey c'mon Kasey" before leaping in joy when the shot was blocked. The Sounders stood, arms around one another, watching as Nate Sturgis stepped up to the spot. Flick -- into the net. Next it was Steve Zakuani's turn to be a hero, and then Fredy Montero.
With the Sounders leading 3-2 on penalties, Patrick Ianni had the chance to win the game, but his shot hit the crossbar and our nerves stayed ragged even as we watched the next Portland player score. 3-3. The Sounders' Open Cup run was hanging by a loose thread. Who would step up to save us? Zach Scott. Zach Scott, who most Sounders fans love to hate, was the man who smoothly put the ball in the net as the bar erupted in cheers. For one night, we loved Zach Scott. We wanted to buy him a round of drinks and let him crash on our couch and possibly even kiss him goodnight, such is the elation brought about after winning a penalty shootout-particularly one when the team's defending the US Open Cup title.