Friday, March 06, 2009

Soccer Pimp: Loser's Lament

The first smile to cross my face this morning happened when I thought of myself sitting at Skydome tomorrow, watching the World Baseball Classic. The second smile appeared when the shuffle on my iPod offered me Hawksley Workman's Piano Blink. The rest of the commute was spent with a frown as I replayed the second half of the Impact-Santos Laguna match from last night in my head.

As I wrote yesterday, all the Impact had to do to progress to the semi-final round of the CONCACAF Champions League was not lose by 3 or more. This turned out to be a bridge too far for John Limniadis' valiant squad.

The Mexican champions got off to a quick start, netting a goal within 15 minutes. I lost a bit of hope at this point as it seemed that Santos were far superior to the Impact, a much different team than the one we saw at Olympic Stadium. My St. Thomas moment was fleeting, however, as the Impact quickly put together two goals and carried that lead into the half. As that second goal went in, I lifted my arms in victory but also in shock. It would not be the last shocking moment of the evening.

For those not familiar with the aggregate system in soccer, this basically meant that because of Montréal's 2-0 win back home last week, Santos had to score 4 goals in the second half to win the quarterfinal. Here's what I wrote on my Facebook page: "Ottawa Sports Guy is watching in disbelief as it seems the Impact are on their way!". What happened next will go down as one of the worst collapses in sports that I've ever witnessed.

When you're essentially up by four goals in soccer, it is perfectly natural to assume a defensive posture and let the action come to you, breaking up any attempt to score. Eleven men committed to this last night. Eleven others committed themselves to the opposite endeavour. Unfortunately, when a northern team travels to Central America in what becomes a battle of endurance, the weathered latin team's legs usually win out. It was no different on this night.

Wave after wave of attack beat down on the Impact's 18 yard box as Santos laid siege to the Montreal goal. For a while, the Impact were resolute in destroying whatever creativity was flung upon them. Right place, Right time, that kinda thing. Then the goals came. By the 90th minute, the score was 3-2 Santos and it looked like an Impact victory as we waited for the fourth official to signal the amount of stoppage time. The electronic board was raised above his head and flashed "4". Where he found four minutes, I'll never know. More on this later.

By this time, there were 11 white Impact jerseys jammed into the tight space of the 18-yard box. Their legs were visibly tired, and it seemed as though they hoped to build some sort of impenetrable wall to keep the ball out for four long, arduous minutes. The first goal went in, and the Santos players rushed back across the halfway line to get the game started again. It was too much for the tired Impact defenders. The last goal went in as the crowd went absolutely bonkers. If I wasn't cheering for the Impact I would have allowed myself a smile. Instead I sat in my La-z-boy in complete shock, my heart sinking into the pit of my stomach. How in the world had this turned into a Bill Simmons "gut-punch" game?

At a certain point in the second half, the referee lost the plot. A Santos player merited a red card on two incidents in the same sequence, for lifting his spikes at an incoming challenge and then raising his hands to the face of the defender when he called him on his intent to injure. All he got was a yellow, yet the rulebook is black and white about striking an opposing player's face with your hand. Then referee failed to call a penalty on the Santos keeper after he brought down the Impact striker in the box. Should have been a penalty shot, and Santos went straight back down the field and scored. And then there was the four minutes of stoppage time. Another dubious CONCACAF officiating decision that favours a Central Amercian team. Shameful, that. Now you know why I titled this thread "Loser's Lament".

All in all, we'll all have to take a deep breath and forget this unforgettable evening, instead remembering the year the Impact went on their improbable run to the quarterfinal of this prestigious competition and made Canada proud.

The first 2009 Voyageurs Cup match in Montreal takes place May 20th against Vancouver Whitecaps. Road trip, Waffle-Man?