KANSAS CITY, Kan. – If fate was cruel for Sebastian Velasquez on Saturday night, it was downright sadistic for Lovel Palmer.
The Jamaican utility man had a chance to keep Real Salt Lake alive vs. Sporting Kansas City in an epic, 10-round penalty-shootout at the conclusion of Saturday night’s MLS Cup final. If he had converted, the shootout would have continued to an 11th round that would have seen each team’s goalkeeper trade attempts.
They never got that chance, as Palmer – a 72nd-minute substitute after Chris Wingert left with a flare-up in his recovering broken ribs – blasted his kick off the crossbar and harmlessly onto the turf, sending Sporting Park into wild celebration.
"When you go to PKs, anything can happen,” Palmer told MLSsoccer.com in the locker room postgame. “It's not the better team that's going to win. … Unfortunately, I was the guy trying to save the day and it didn't go our way."
Palmer never believed he’d ever even be in this situation. The 29-year-old explained that in training, RSL rarely went beyond seven kick-takers when practicing penalties. If anything, Palmer said, he expected goalkeeper Nick Rimando’s name to be called.
“When it got to [rounds] eight and nine, people started looking over their shoulder and saying, ‘Who's next?’ When it went to 10th, I said, ‘OK, maybe it's Nicky next and I'll be the 11th guy.’ But I stepped up and shot it, and unfortunately it hit the crossbar.”
No one felt worse for him than the man he replaced. Wingert cites Palmer as one of the key reasons RSL were even in the MLS Cup final after a retooling season in which even head coach Jason Kreis said a .500 finish was perhaps a best-case scenario.
Palmer is the prototypical RSL player – a “value player,” as GM Garth Lagerwey says, whose skills were underappreciated elsewhere and who was available to the Utah club in last year’s Re-Entry Draft, and someone who could buy into the club’s “the team is the star ethos.”
The former Houston and Portland man was solid for RSL in his limited minutes mostly off the bench this year in midfield and defense. He was even better in the playoffs, replacing Wingert in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship when the veteran left back initially broke his ribs in the 33rd minute.
Palmer was a big part of RSL keeping Portland off the board at Rio Tinto Stadium during his shift for all but the last minute of extra time, then repeated the feat off the bench again in the second leg at JELD-WEN Field as the Claret-and-Cobalt blanked the West’s highest-scoring team.
He was a bench hero again on Saturday, keeping the hosts scoreless through both frames of extra time. That made Wingert only root for him even more when Palmer’s name was called deep into Saturday’s shootout.
“When he went up, I thought to myself, ‘This would be so unfair, please let him make it,’” Wingert recalled. “I’m devastated for him because he was so awesome. Hopefully he brushes it off, because he’s been great the whole year – particularly the last few weeks, outstanding.”
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But fate had other ideas. Palmer’s missed kick allowed Sporting to celebrate a trophy on their home turf for the second time over the past two years, and RSL left to figure out how to break a drought that has persisted since their first and only title five years go.
"For another couple of days and weeks, the only thing I'm going to be able to think about is that PK hitting the crossbar,” Palmer said. “At some point or another, I'm going to have to get over it and start thinking about 2014 season and Real Salt Lake making it back to the MLS Cup final."
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.