15 January 2006

Indianapolis 18-21 Pittsburgh

My hometown team has wounded me badly. I'm displacing my disappointment by thinking how I would describe it in soccer terms.

First, it's key to realize what the American football playoffs mean. Of course, it's an elimination tournament, like the FA Cup. But there is no other prize to be won, no separate league championship. The Colts are officially the AFC South champions, but that means about as much as winning the Community Shield, and maybe less. So, losing this game is equivalent to losing the league and crashing out of the cup... in the same match.

Indianapolis had been the dominant team all year, and were playing at home. They had already crushed Pittsburgh earlier in the season. But Pittsburgh had played quite well of late, winning their last 5, while Indy had rested key players in late-season games and had dropped 2 of 3 as a result..

So, how did it go... if it were a soccer match? Pittsburgh came out playing hard. Their attack was flawless, and they were able to score two early goals. Randel-El hammered home a rebound at 8', and Miller converted an easy far-post chip at 16'. On the other side of the ball, Indianapolis couldn't even retain posession; their attack was constantly disrupted by the aggressive tackling of Pittsburgh. Their world-class midfielder, Manning, was constantly hammered and had no time to run the offense. Indy were able to sustain a bit more pressure near the end of the half, but the Pittsburgh back line remained strong and Indy scored nothing of consequence. 2-0 at the half.

Indianapolis still couldn't muster much of an attack after the break, though at least their defense stiffened a bit. Pittsburgh, knowing they had a solid lead away from home, relied on their normal ball-control offense and kept Indianapolis from the attack. Their sustained pressure kept Indy off-balance, and when Indy turned over the ball deep in their own end, Pittsburgh were able to score at 65', on a powerful header by the huge veteran striker Bettis. 3-0 to Pittsburgh.

With the lead, Pittsburgh elected to play a more conservative game, and it nearly cost them. They took off a forward for a defender; Indy were able to restore their passing game, and Manning hit a beautiful long pass from the center circle to spring Clark, for their first goal at 68'. 3-1. Pittsburgh returned to their ball-control game and were eating up tons of time. But Indy regained posession, and again were able to quickly advance into the goal box. The striker, James, got into the box and put away a header. He was clearly offside, and the flag was up, but the ref inexplicably overruled the linesman. However it happened, at 84', Indy were back to 3-2 and knew they had a chance.

Indianapolis tried a last desperate attack, but left themselves exposed. Deep into injury time, Pittsburgh were able to counter, and Bettis -- possibly in his last game -- took over and was bearing down on goal. But with only the keeper to beat, he slipped! Indy were able to recover quickly. With only seconds left, they streamed into the box. The cross was fired in -- the defender handled! -- and a penalty was given. One kick to send it into extra time.

The penalty-taker, Vanderjagt, has been the most accurate ever in the history of the game. He lined it up... took a calm run-up... and put the ball two yards wide of the net. Replays afterwards caught first the losing coach, and then the winning coach, mouthing the same words: "He missed it." "He missed it!"

The home fans left, dejected. There were few away supporters -- even the touts had refused to sell to Pittsburgh fans -- but those who did find tickets partied long into the night. And I turned off my TV and went to think about soccer instead.

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