In their four MLS Cup Playoffs matches, the New England Revolution twice were forced to take part in what is widely considered the most nerve-racking, frustrating and cruel part of the sport of soccer: the penalty kick shootout.
It's a game of chance, and once things fell New England's way -- when it topped the Chicago Fire in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal Series -- and once it didn't, falling to Houston Dynamo in the dreaded tiebreaker Sunday at Pizza Hut Park in the MLS Cup Final.
After a scoreless 90 minutes, the sides scored goals 71 seconds apart in the second overtime period to take the championship game to penalty kicks for the first time in the league's 11-year history. Revolution head coach Steve Nicol had some decisions to make when he picked his list of shooters, as substitutions and injuries eliminated some of his top options.
New England's first shooter against the Fire was midfielder Jose Cancela, who was unavailable for Sunday's shootout since he never made it off the substitute's bench. Also missing was Joe Franchino, who left the game shortly after halftime in a tactical change, Khano Smith taking his place on the left flank. Franchino, the team captain, said he would have been up for the challenge had he still been in the game.
"Coach decided to make a change and went with it," Franchino said of the substitution. "I have the confidence that I could have made one, but I wasn't in the game and we were confident in Jay (Heaps) and (Pat) Noonan and we would still do it again if we had to go out there and do it again."
As it happened, Noonan fired his shot -- the Revolution's third attempt -- well high and wide of the target, while Heaps sent his weak effort into the midsection of Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad in the fifth frame to seal the result.
Notably absent from the Revolution's penalty kick lineup were midfielders Steve Ralston and Clint Dempsey. Ralston played the full 120 minutes on the right wing Sunday, while Dempsey, who missed New England's two previous playoff matches through injury, was brought into the game just after the hour mark.
"Ralston's groin was a problem," said Nicol. "Dempsey's ankle was a problem so we had to rethink them."
Ralston, who scored one penalty kick during the regular season, said that the decision to leave him out of the top five was Nicol's.
"When he asked me I said, 'I'm cramping but I'll take one,'" Ralston said. He added that he reiterated that he would take one, but Nicol said that he would take the seventh spot in the rotation, should extra rounds been necessary after the required five.
Dempsey, meanwhile, declined the opportunity to step into the decisive fifth slot.
"I just didn't feel confident on it to hit it like how I want to," Dempsey said. "I still couldn't really strike the ball the way I wanted to while shooting. (My ankle) is completely taped up so I really don't have much movement with my foot. (The question) was really just kind of with the fifth spot and they asked me if I think I want to take it and I told them that to be honest I just really don't feel confident. Jay is the one who stepped up."
Though Heaps couldn't convert his attempt to force sudden-death rounds, the Revolution felt they never should have even been in that situation following Taylor Twellman's goal in the 113th minute.
"We should have won in regulation. We were up one-nothing," Ralston said. "We had a lead for less than 12 seconds. It sucks. We're disappointed in the fact that we had a one-nothing lead. That's what we're frustrated about."
But New England couldn't hold on to that slim margin as Brian Ching scored the equalizer almost immediately to send the mostly pro-Houston crowd into a frenzy and the game into penalty kicks. And for the second consecutive year the Revolution were forced to depart Pizza Hut Park with nothing but thoughts of what might have been.
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.