Friday October 30th, 2015

You watch sports for finishes like this. Portland and Kansas City needed an astonishing 11-round penalty shootout to decide a winner in their MLS playoff elimination game after a 2-2 draw on Thursday night, and it was a reminder that no matter how many games you watch, you can always see something that you haven’t seen before.

For example: All Kansas City needed to advance was for Saad Abdul-Salaam to convert his ninth-round penalty, and he came as close as humanly possible, hitting both posts with the same shot before it spun out for a miss.

In the end, every active player took a penalty, and in the 11th round it was the goalkeepers who decided matters. The hero, finally, was Portland GK Adam Kwarasey, who blasted home his spot kick and then saved the effort from Kansas City keeper Jon Kempin for the epic Portland victory.

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It was an excruciating way to lose for Kansas City, which had gone ahead 2-1 in extra time, only to allow a late equalizer from Portland’s Maxi Urruti. And it was a brutal result for Kempin, Sporting’s backup keeper, who had come on for an injured Tim Melia and made three impressive penalty saves of his own during the shootout.

Exhale. What a game.

Portland’s win means the MLS Western Conference semifinals will be FC Dallas against Seattle and Vancouver against Portland, with the first legs part of the MLS playoff quadruple-header on Sunday.

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Here are my three thoughts on the game:

Eleven rounds of penalties!?!

You hear a lot about penalty kicks being a bad way to break ties in soccer, but you know what? There are few moments in sports more dramatic than penalty-kick shootouts. The pressure, the psychology, the technique, the crazy bounces. They were all there in spades on Thursday night, and nobody who watched the finish to this game is going to forget it. Portland may have won in the end, but soccer won too.

This was a game of moments

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It wasn’t the best-played playoff game, which was no surprise considering how much these teams had canceled each other out whenever they had met this season. But you knew that moments and individuals were going to be decisive, and that’s exactly what happened. When Krisztián Németh put K.C. ahead early in extra time with a glorious angled finish, you suspected that would be enough for the visitors.

But we’ve seen a lot of crazy extra times recently—USA-Mexico, anyone?—and Portland found a way to tie it late thanks to some shaky K.C. defending and a well-taken equalizer by Urruti. That set the stage for the even higher-drama moments of the shootout.

Portland is on a roll

There was very little to separate the teams in the West this season, but the Timbers’ run of good form lately has them poised to make a deep run. Portland has now won five of its last six league games, including three on the road, which helped earn the home game on Thursday in the first place. (Kansas City, for its part, suffered a late-season swoon much like last year’s, including the same one-game-and-out exit from the playoffs.)

The challenge now for Portland will be to recover both emotionally and physically to play against Vancouver in three days after the 120-minute (and 11-penalty round!) drama that unfolded on Thursday. Good luck going to sleep after that one.

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