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The Loneliness of the Not-So-Long-Distance Penalty Kicker

Bravo to Luke Dempsey and his brilliant blog post here on the dreaded 12 yards. Also bravo to Luke for not mentioning my own penalty kick flub, which (if my memory serves) helped cost him New York soccer glory. But while he had the grace to let it go unmentioned, I have never forgotten how, in a league championship game, my toe stubbed the turf as I swung my mighty leg forward, and the ball leapt forward several feet, then rolled slowly for a few more before halting far from goal.

Now, some excuses: We did not practice penalty kicks, partly because in the years leading up to this match, we had consistently lost games by such large margins that the prospect of getting any sort of shot on goal was like the shot of winning Powerball. Also, we were exceptionally good at complaining, which meant the toad-like Bulgarian referee who came to hate us so much he was more likely to personally slide in with both feet at crotch-level should any of our players come close to the penalty area than award us a free kick.

We certainly could have used the scoring opportunities: Our goalie made most saves—when he did make saves—with his left premolar; after letting in more goals than seemed possible during a game, he was aptly described by a teammate as “Swiss cheese without the cheese.” But penalty kicks seemed a distant possibility—and when we did get them, we let Luke take them, and he usually made them.

And then came the playoff run. To be fair, we had won games in previous seasons. But never had we come together as we did in the fall of 2001. Because it was New York, and space was at premium, we played on a quite nice turf field on the roof of a downtown pier. You could still smell the acrid smoke from where the Twin Towers had stood, adding to the strangeness of the whole thing. So we played and we scored and our (new) keeper saved and, game by game, we advanced to the final.

I didn’t want to take the penalty, which is never a good sign, but I’d ended up on the field when the whistle blew, and the rules of the pier meant I thus had to be one of the five. In his England-Italy commentary, Steve McManaman noted that penalties are a step-up moment, when the big players prove their size by wanting to take the kick. I was not a big player, hadn’t been since high school when I had the ulterior motivation of impressing girls who might only notice me when I scored goals—or might be impressed if I missed but displayed remarkable worldliness in later explaining how such instances weren’t life or death, and what was much more important than a kick in a soccer game was knowing that what really mattered in the world was helping people in need, especially those starving in Asia or wherever, as well as making out at parties because if we don’t have that sort of moment, what do we really have? On that pier, that night, no such motivation existed.

I’m guessing Luke Dempsey took and made his kick. I did not. I thought about what I was going to do, fearfully. I thought about which corner I might aim for, and whether I could aim it accurately. I thought about what would happen if I flubbed. The more I thought, the harder it was to envision success; I could not visualize the ball slamming into the back of the net, only the keeper making an easy save. And I went over my entire playing career and couldn’t think of a single instance when I’d taken a penalty kick—ever. Today I can recall making several in high school (lower right corner), but at the time I was blank.

Blew it.

Did Ashley Cole think too much? How could not have? Did Ashley Young not think enough? We’ll probably never know. But I felt for them in a deeply empathetic way. I, too, had stood at that spot. I, too, had failed England. (In that I had failed Luke, who is either from England or just coincidentally speaks like Shawn Ryder. Most of the other guys on the team were from Connecticut.) As noted, I had not spent hours on the pitch practicing penalties. Or the team did not have a penalty shootout history that might have inclined us to practice taking penalties. We did not have every single person who wrote about soccer warning us that we needed to think very, very seriously about penalties. It was not my job to be ready to take penalties. I have my excuses. But I still think about it. As for England—well.