Photo courtesy Nick Tre. Smith / Swope Park Rangers
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – One week on from a memorable penalty shootout victory in the 2017 USL Cup Playoffs, a second consecutive shootout so nearly produced another magical moment for OKC Energy FC.
But after C.J. Cochran's heroics a week ago, there was to be no magic from the spot this time around.
Energy FC was still part of something historic. After squaring off with the hosts and defending conference champion Swope Park Rangers for 120 minutes in a tight match at Children's Mercy Park on Saturday night, it was really no surprise when the shootout went through the entire team, lasting 11 rounds, the longest in USL Cup Playoffs history.
But when Cochran saw his penalty saved by Swope Park goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas to open the 11th round, and then couldn’t stop Zendejas’ own effort, it brought an end to Energy FC’s season in the USL Western Conference Final for the second time in three seasons.
“I thought going into this match that it was an even game and the only question was whether we were prepared physically for this game here,” said Energy FC Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen. “I think you saw out there in the last 20 minutes we were very tired and the guys battled through it and it comes to a crazy penalty shootout where I honestly thought it was lost a little bit before.”
Despite what was a heartbreaking loss, spirits were still high for OKC and Nielsen after the match, pleased with a phenomenal effort from his team which managed to look dangerous in front of goal despite holding far less of the ball than their hosts.
“It was close, it couldn’t get any closer and I feel horrible for the guys but there’s nothing to be ashamed of, we did everything we could and it was not meant to be tonight,” said Nielsen
This season as a whole has been a story of impressive fight from OKC, and that continued on into the postseason where the club's No. 6-seed saw Energy FC has overcome the odds with a pair of road victories against a record-setting Reno 1868 FC side and regional rival San Antonio FC just to get to this point. The clubs travails on the road had left a battered and bruised squad that Nielsen has had to manage through a long campaign, leaving him with pride, and not frustration.
“We had some little unlucky injuries, Alex Dixon got injured in training yesterday and we had Richard Dixon out there who’s been struggling for the last few weeks, probably on 80 percent,” said Nielsen. “We had [Juan Pablo] Guzman in there who was struggling, so I was not at any point frustrated out there today, I was extremely proud of what they tried to pull out there today.”
Despite falling short of a first trip to the USL Cup for a second time, though, Nielsen believes the side's outstanding late-season form has raised the bar overall. With the focus now shifting to 2018, ensuring the hangover from this elimination doesn't linger as the side aims for season-long consistency when next spring and the new season arrives is the prime focus.
“We’re going into off-season now, the guys will have their individual talks and we definitely have a special group to build from,” said Nielsen.