Phantom Kicks

In the 79th minute of an OUA quarterfinal match, an arm makes contact with an airborne soccer ball just 18 yards from the player’s own goal-line. A penalty is called. Joey Kewin steps to the spot, 12 yards (11 metres) from the goal, where a referee plants the ball onto the pitch. The keeper squares him up, reading Kewin’s subtle body movements – the twitch of a leg muscle, or direction of eyesight can sometimes be an indicator of which way a player will take the shot on a penalty. Or, the keeper guesses a direction and goes with the 50/50 odds of having the ball hit him. Kewin is a star striker for the Carleton Ravens men’s soccer team. Christian Maraldo is the man in charge of keeping the Ryerson Rams fragile 3 – 2 lead intact on this cold Sunday in October. Kewin takes the shot and Maraldo makes his dive.

This was not the first time Maraldo had found himself staring down the lone opponent, ball at his feet, game on the line. Last Wednesday, in their opening match of the OUA playoffs, Maraldo bailed out his Rams by stopping a crucial penalty kick from Laurentian, helping Ryerson to a 2 – 0 victory, and sending them into the quarterfinals.

Nor was it the first time the Rams post-season aspirations hinged on the spot kick. Last season, facing fierce downtown rivals the University of Toronto, with a semi-final berth on the line, the Rams lost in despairing fashion, 2 – 1, on penalties. The year before that, the Rams lost out on a bronze medal, falling to Western, again on the individual effort, just as they were beaten by Laurentian during their first-round in 2009. Three consecutive post-seasons ended in the most cruel of fashions.

Introduced to Association Football in 1891, the penalty kick is at once the most exciting and most infuriating play on a soccer pitch. Fans and players alike will lament the fact that it lacks the beauty, form and teamwork that a sustained buildup to a goal brings. No penalty call goes uncontested, and should they be required to determine the final outcome of a match, fans will bewail the notion that 120 minutes of team soccer are usurped by litigious individual battles. They will of course forget such misgivings if theirs is the team which benefit from the outcome of the penalties.

For a goalkeeper, the penalty-kick is generally a no-lose situation (barring the occasional major gaffe by the keeper). The keeper is not expected to make the save, so the pressure is on the shooter (the conversion rate of penalty kicks, at major levels of soccer, is accepted to be around 80 per cent), and dealing with the potential of having the outcome of the match on one’s boot is daunting (see Beckham’s infamous spot kick misfire for England).

In the 79th minute, with the chance to level the game for his team, Kewin fires, and Maraldo makes his dive into the path of the oncoming ball. Maraldo has done his part, he has made the initial save.

The elation on the faces of his Ryerson teammates hardly had chance to show, because the other quirk of the penalty kick (excluding those used to end a match if a full 120 minutes had expired with the score still tied) is that the ball remains in play if the keeper cannot corral the shot.

His wits about him, Kewin reacts quickly, slotting home the rebound. Game tied, momentum all Carleton.

The Rams would need overtime for a fourth successive year.

Win and you’re in. One and done. It’s do or die. The playoffs, any playoffs, are full of such clichés from the sporting lexicon. As simply as possible, these words define the gravity of playing games in the post-season, as if the players even need extra motivation, or a reminder that a loss often means the team can pack up, their season over.

There is a certain ethos about the post-season; talent is crucial sure, preparation necessary, but the experience of having been there before – a sort of playoff wisdom – is regularly cited as a good indicator of a team’s ability to make a long post-season run.

When the Ryerson Rams found themselves lining up against the Ravens for 30 minutes of extra time, post-season ethos suggested the fourth time could be the charm for the Rams to beat their post-season overtime curse.

This season, the Rams came into last Sunday’s match on a record-setting 14 game unbeaten streak (eight wins, and six draws), leading many to believe that this could be the year the Rams thundered into the OUA Final Four.

Unfortunately, post-season ethos also suggests that the regular season can be thrown out the window when playoff games begin, so momentum counts for less when the stakes are so high in a single-game elimination, and especially so when the opponent possesses the league’s top scorer, as the Ravens did in forward Andrew Latty.

Having conceded just nine goals all season, the Rams shipped six against Carleton, three of those coming during a dispiriting overtime.

The final score was 6 – 3, sending the Rams out of the OUA playoffs.

Overtime continues to be their breaking point, but the Rams true phantom is the penalty kick.