The Swope Park Rangers (18-8-9) claimed the club’s second consecutive Western Conference championship and advanced to the 2017 USL Cup Final after a dramatic penalty kick shootout with OKC Energy FC on Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.
In an 11th round of penalties, SPR goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas made his fourth save of the shootout to deny his goalkeeping counterpart then stepped to the spot himself to convert the championship-winning attempt as the Rangers prevailed 7-6 in penalties after a scoreless draw through 120 minutes in the Western Conference Final.
The Rangers are now the first team in USL history to reach the league championship in back-to-back seasons and become the first expansion team in the modern era of American men’s outdoor professional soccer to reach a league final in each of the club’s first two seasons.
Led by first-year head coach Nikola Popovic, the Swope Park Rangers will play Louisville City FC (20-6-9) in the 2017 USL Cup Final at 8 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 13, at Louisville Slugger Field in Louisville, Kentucky, in a nationally-televised postseason finale on ESPNU.
On Saturday, the conclusion saw the goalkeepers take center stage after both produced clean sheets with three-save performances during the run of play.
Zendejas dove low to his right to deny Jonathan Brown in the 36th minute with what proved to be the first half’s only attempt on target in a tense affair. His second save would be simpler, comfortably collecting a half-volley from Alex Dixon in the 50th minute, however his final stop was the best of the bunch as he leapt to his left to hold onto Jose Angulo’s well-taken effort in the 97th minute.
His counterpart, C.J. Cochran, was called into action for the first time in the 80th minute on a free kick from Kevin Oliveira as SPR was held to seven shots in the opening 90 minutes.
The Rangers attack would come to life in extra time with nine shots in the final 30 minutes, including a save from Cochran to turn away Lebo Moloto from close range in the 102nd minute and a final sprawling stop on Felipe Hernandez in the 113th minute.
The Rangers nearly found the long-awaited goal on the cusp of full time as Kharlton Belmar, the team’s leading scorer with 15 goals this season, raced into the penalty area on a breakaway in the 118th minute only to see his potentially game-winning shot skip inches past the post.
Instead, the celebrations would wait through the roller coaster ride that was 11 rounds of pressure-packed penalties. In a sign of theatrics to come, Zendejas saved the opening penalty and Cochran responded with a save of his own in the second round before both teams would miss back-to-back penalties to ultimately send the shootout into sudden-death attempts.
Six straight conversions would follow, only to have the twists and turns continue with a double dose of failed penalties in the ninth round. Sam Fink and Parker Maher, the final two field players to shoot, would each successfully take their turns leaving only the goalkeepers to settle the most thrilling tiebreaker in USL history.
Zendejas capped off the sensational ending, stoning Cochran with his fourth and final save of the shootout then stepping to the spot to deliver the decisive penalty kick into the back of the net to eliminate the Energy at long last and seal SPR’s triumphant return to the USL Cup Final.
– Story from Swope Park Rangers