Attinella's three blocked PKs: 'Unheard of'
I like penalty-kick shootouts.
I know, it's like saying you like the designated hitter. Penalty kicks, I agree, are an abrupt way to decide a college game played remarkably closely by two teams for 110 minutes. Having said that, they're one of the most exciting things in sports -- simple and decisive.
Throughout the regular season, if a soccer game is tied after overtime, it ends in a tie. In the postseason, when one team must advance, soccer turns to penalty kicks. Each team picks five players, and they each get one shot on goal, alternating between teams.
Before hosting the Big East tournament, USF set up temporary bleachers behind each goal -- just little four-row portable deals, but they give fans a chance to get right behind the net. USF didn't take a penalty kick all season, and its opponents took two. Bulls keeper Jeff Attinella blocked them both.
So USF coach George Kiefer had confidence going into overtime against UNC Greensboro, telling his team if the game went to penalty kicks, Attinella would win the game for them. Penalty kicks are at such a close distance that a single save in a shootout is impressive -- two is outstanding. Three, as Kiefer said, is unheard of.
UNCG should not be in penalty kicks in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans finished the regular season 5-11-2, got three upsets in the Southern Conference tournament to get an NCAA Tournament spot, then knocked off Duke and Loyola (Md.) to reach Saturday's game. They'd scored two minutes into the second half against USF, leading for 35 minutes until Jordan Seabrook scored with 7:25 remaining, putting in a rebound after Zak Boggs' header went off the right post.
"Our team fought really hard to get us to that position," Attinella said. "Down 1-0, there were about 20 minutes there where you could tell we were thinking our season was over. We fought hard, and were fortunate to get into that situation."
UNCG got the first kick, and Attinella stopped it cold, guessing correctly and blocking a low kick to his right. Joris Claessens, a senior who had played in only five games this season, has USF's first kick, and he sends it high and to the left. You could hear it nick off the UNCG keeper's glove just before it went into the net. 1-0, USF.
The Spartans kick again, and again, Attinella guesses right, going low to his left for a second stop. USF's Javed Mohammed converts his kick, low and to the right. 2-0, USF, meaning any combination of two Bulls kicks or Spartans misses will give USF the win.
UNCG converts its third kick, as the shot goes low and left as Attinella dives right. USF's Jason Devenish answers, however, with a shot that's low and to the left, giving USF a 3-1 lead. One more kick or one more Attinella save and the Bulls are in the Elite Eight.
UNCG's E.J. O'Keefe lines up for the fourth kick, knowing a miss will end the Spartans' wild season, as the first team ever to make the Sweet 16 with a losing record. Their coach, Michael Parker, is the winningest active coach in college soccer, and this is the first losing season he's ever had. Soccer games that go to penalty kicks don't count as losses or wins -- they're officially draws (ties) toward a team's record, and UNCG advanced to their conference championship game by winning on penalty kicks, so they had fresh experience with shootouts.
O'Keefe's kick is high and to the left, but Attinella guesses right, and punches his left hand out to block it away. USF doesn't even need its final two kicks -- the Bulls have won. The crowd -- announced at 1,823 fans, and that was before they started spilling over from basketball -- goes crazy, and USF has finished its season unbeaten on its home field.
With a Big East championship and as one of eight teams that will still be alive in the NCAA Tournament after this weekend, Kiefer's soccer team is having one of the greatest seasons in any sport in USF history. The Bulls will find out Sunday who they will face in next weekend's quarterfinals, and it'll likely be top-seeded Wake Forest, the defending national champions and college soccer's dominant team this season.
"We know we have a special team here," Attinella said. "We've been working really hard this entire year for a situation like this."