A common saying amongst those in the soccer world is that a penalty kick shootout is a cruel way to decide a match.
After Saturday night, the Chicago Fire knows that saying back to front.
120 minutes of action saw the Fire and Real Salt Lake knotted at 0-0 so it all came down to a penalty shootout. The Fire came up losers in the decisive shootout, falling by the razor thin margin of 5-4 to put a painful end to a season filled with ups and downs.
"It's a real empty feeling and that's the bottom line," said Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett. "There's not really much you can say. [Our guys] put everything out there and competed and tried. When you get to PK's someone's got to lose and when you lose it's not an easy thing." The Fire held the early advantage in the penalty shootout, seeing their lead get to 3-2 after the third round of spot kicks. But John Thorrington had his effort saved by a diving Nick Rimando and it started to go downhill from there for the Fire. Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman was next in line and he put his effort past Jon Busch to make it 4-3 RSL.
C.J. Brown prolonged the shootout for the Fire with his calm finish after Beckerman's goal but Logan Pause and Brandon Prideaux missed the Fire's next two kicks and it came back to haunt the team. Lincolnway Central product Ned Grabavoy got the winner in the seventh round of shots, beating Fire keeper Jon Busch (who actually got a hand on the ball) to the left.
"It feels good," said Grabavoy of scoring the winner. "Especially to do it in front of a lot of friends and family in a place I grew up, in a place that's close to my heart, it definitely feels good. I'm excited and our club is very excited. This is a big moment for Real Salt Lake."
The Fire - who planned on starting the game in aggressive fashion - struggled a bit out of the gate. Salt Lake dominated the early possession and spent much of the first half on the Fire's side of the field.
"We weren't good enough with the ball the first half," Hamlett said. "We made too many turnovers which lead to some of their counters some of their chances."
But despite their early struggles, it was the Fire who had the first real chance of the match. The opportunity came in the 27th minute of play, when Brian McBride flicked a Cuauhtemoc Blanco corner kick off of the crossbar. The ball rebounded down past a charging C.J. Brown and fell to Fire defender Dasan Robinson who had a good look at goal but couldn't quite corral his first touch, ending the Fire's chance.
Real Salt Lake had the next opportunity in the match and it looked like they would go ahead just before the stroke of halftime. But Jon Busch came up huge, stopping Yura Movsisyan's thunderous half volley from 10 yards in between his legs to take the teams into the break.
The Fire came out stronger in the second half and got the second frame's first opportunity in the 64th minute of play. Fire midfielder Marco Pappa fired a low drive towards the right post but Nick Rimando miraculously got a fingertip to it and deflected the ball away from the net.
"In the second half we settled down a little bit," Hamlett said. "We looked to try and make some passes connect and get the ball out wide and we had some success."
No real chances of note came until stoppage time of the second half, when Real Salt Lake looked to have a winner before the ball was cleared off the line by a Fire defender.
After a short break at the end of 90 minutes, extra time began. Both teams played somewhat conservatively in the rough and tumble extra period, with neither able to create any real chances of note before the decisive penalty shootout began.
After the game, Hamlett talked about how he felt about referee Ricardo Salazar's performance.
"The foul count was 23-8 [in favor of Salt Lake]," Hamlett said. "It felt like every time that we had a chance to go on the break they committed fouls and I don't think the ref did a good enough job in terms of dealing with that part of [the game]."
The loss catapults the Fire into an offseason of uncertainty in which they'll lose Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Chris Rolfe to transfers and Brandon Prideaux to retirement.
Other Fire players out of contract include Brian McBride, C.J. Brown, Gonzalo Segares and Marco Pappa. Though not out of contract, defender Wilman Conde could also be leaving the Fire in the offseason. Conde has at times been at odds with Head Coach Denis Hamlett throughout the center back's time with the Fire and I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't in Bridgeview at the start of 2010.
Another issue the Fire will have to confront this offseason is the Head Coach position. Current head man Denis Hamlett is now out of contract and many will be calling for owner Andrew Hauptman to fire Hamlett and move on. A strong case can certainly be made for (two straight conference finals) and against Denis (failure to make MLS Cup with a very talented roster) but my gut feeling tells me that he'll be back next year.
I'll deal with all of these topics and more in the coming days/weeks but tonight is about the disappointment that was the end of the Fire's season. They'll try and pick up the pieces and move into 2010 on a positive note but it could be a much different year - and a much different team - in Bridgeview come March.