HOOVER, Ala. ““ Soccer’s penalty shootout is merciless.
It is perhaps the cruelest tiebreaker in all of sports, pitting five of each teams’ players against the opposing goalkeepers, but even more so against themselves and their own composure.
It has decided everything from World Cup finals to American Youth Soccer Organization tournaments, and on this particular frigid Friday night in Alabama, it decided the fate of the UCLA men’s soccer team, one that fought with obscene amounts of heart, guts and determination in going toe-to-toe with the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels in the semifinals of the NCAA College Cup.
But in the end, the Bruins’ composure that got them this far got up and left, as UCLA missed three of its four penalty kicks at the end of its 2-2 overtime draw and fell to North Carolina, who converted three of four.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” UCLA senior midfielder and captain Andy Rose said. Rose missed the opening penalty of the shootout when UNC goalkeeper Scott Goodwin made a diving save to his right. “We battled with them for 90 minutes plus extra time, so we can take a lot of honor in what we did tonight.”
The Bruins edged out in front on two occasions, but the Tar Heels came roaring back with relentless pressure that twice cracked the Bruins’ staunch defense and beat stellar redshirt senior goalkeeper Brian Rowe to equalize.
The Tar Heels’ second goal, which proved to be the death knell for the Bruins, came with just five minutes remaining in regulation. UNC midfielder Enzo Martinez fired a rocket from well outside the box that Rowe did well to tip to the post, but the rebound trickled straight to forward Billy Schuler, who tucked it in from point-blank range to tie it at 2-2.
Despite the heartbreaking outcome, the Bruins can take heart in the fact that they pushed the best team in the nation to penalty kicks, and looked the better team for much of the match in the process. Several Bruins had outstanding games, including hometown hero Chandler Hoffman, the junior forward who set up both of UCLA’s goals with a deft touch and a lot of determination.
“It’s been incredible being back in my hometown,” Hoffman, a native of nearby Birmingham, said. “A lot of my friends and family were able to come out tonight and were able to see all the hard work that I’ve been doing out at UCLA pay off.”
Hoffman, who led the Bruins this year with 18 goals, played the role of provider Friday.
“I just had to find ways to make us dangerous offensively,” Hoffman said. “Ryan had an incredible finish (on his goal) and the one-two with Kelyn was another great finish.”
Describing junior midfielder Ryan Hollingshead’s opening goal in the 17th minute as “incredible” might have been an understatement. Hollingshead’s goal was sublime. It combined power, finesse, precision and intelligence into an unstoppable shot from the top of the box that sent the UCLA supporters in the stadium into raptures.
Redshirt junior foward Fernando Monge tried to squeeze a through ball into Hoffman, but UNC defender Matt Hedges cut it out. However, Hoffman showed just how hard his nose was and dogged the 6-foot-4 Hedges into giving up the ball. Hoffman laid the ball off to Hollingshead, and the rest was history.
“Once I took my first touch, I saw that I had tons of space but nobody really to play it to,” Hollingshead said. “So at that point, it was just go for it, and luckily I hit it well.”
Hollingshead had a great game overall, his super-goal notwithstanding. His runs from the right side of midfield, both on and off the ball, were well-timed and incisive, and his passing and shooting were both on-point. Hollingshead did an admirable job on the defensive side as well, making several important tackles and covering for his fullbacks when they found themselves out of position.
The Tar Heels equalized 10 minutes after halftime when left winger Ben Speas flicked the ball over sophomore defender Patrick Matchett, drew Rowe to the near post and then sent a cross to right winger Rob Lovejoy, whose diving header bounced over Rowe and into the net.
“After scoring early, I think we sat in a little too deep, and gave them too many options to pressure us in the first half,” Rose said.
Rather than discouraging the Bruins, giving up the equalizer served only to bolster their attack. Eighteen minutes after conceding, sophomore midfielder Kelyn Rowe, the Pac-12 player of the year, made a darting run through the middle of the pitch and into the box, where he laid the ball off to Hoffman. Instead of looking to score himself, Hoffman chipped the ball back to Rowe who dinked the ball over the keeper to put the Bruins in front again.
Despite conceding two goals, Brian Rowe had an outstanding game. The redshirt senior made no less than three acrobatic saves that wowed the crowd and frustrated the Tar Heels, including one with two mere seconds remaining in the second overtime period that rescued the Bruins from sure disaster. Rowe had nine saves on the night, but was powerless to stop the Tar Heels in the penalty shootout.
Rose was the first to step up in the nerve-wracking ordeal and took his shot well, but Goodwin made a great save, and followed up the effort with an equally impressive stop on Kelyn Rowe’s second shot. Sophomore midfielder Victor Munoz finally scratched for the Bruins, and when Schuler hit the post on the Tar Heels’ third shot, it looked as though the Bruins might pull it out after all.
But Monge’s fourth shot played the part of the fat lady as it sang past the left post. Speas tucked in the decisive penalty, and that was all she wrote for the 2011 Bruins soccer team.
The Bruins finish their successful yet truncated season with a 18-5-1 record, including a spotless 10-0-0 record in Pac-12 conference play, but the Tar Heels (20-2-3) proved to have too much in the way of attack for even the staunch Bruins defense to handle.