Goalkeeping can be a lonely profession.
Look: There’s the rest of the team, down at the other end of the field, linking up, having fun, and there you are, standing by yourself in a colorful shirt, all alone. And when the action does come your way, you usually only get involved when every single other thing has gone wrong, when every safety mechanism has been blown. And what’s the reward for doing the job that no one else can in the most crucial moments? You can get to kick the ball really far away from yourself so other people can have fun with it.
But every once in a while.
On Saturday night, Minnesota United had played all 90 minutes of rugged a game against FC Dallas — a team the Loons needed to hold off to maintain momentum in a crowded Western Conference playoff race. The teams traded punches the entire game, with Dallas looking brighter following a solid nine days off after besting D.C. United 2-0 on July 4. The Loons were playing their fourth game in a similar span, having beaten both San Jose and Montreal in league play and then topping New Mexico United with a first-choice squad in the Quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday. The home side was — to crib from Avon Barksdale — a little slow, a little late, but not so badly they’d conceded — yet. A 0-0 finish and a point for each side felt more than fair.
And then, right as the PA was announcing that five minutes would be added to the clock for stoppage, Jan Gregus ripped a shot from near the top of the box. Gregus had found himself with a swathe of free space in front of him after a meager headed clearance from Matt Hedges, and as he shifted the ball from his left to his favored right foot, he got Jesse Gonzalez — who’d been sure-handed in stopping three of three shots on target from Minnesota up to that point — to commit just enough to his left that Gregus’ shot toward the keeper’s right forced him to sprawl and punch rather than grab the shot. Full of the confidence borne from six goals across six games, Mason Toye leapt forward and calmly delivered a left-footed shot into the back of the net.
Now all the exhausted squad had to do was hold on.
Confronted with an onrushing Bryan Reynolds moments later after an errant touch by defender Chase Gasper, Vito Mannone had his hands full trying to fend off the Dallas attacker without fouling. Faced with nothing but bad options, he was forced to do the best he could with what he had — again, a typical position for a goalkeeper.
“Once I’m there, I’m trying to stand still,” said the MNUFC keeper after the game in the locker room. “And he’s going away from the goal, he’s going wide, he’s not even going through the ball and — I thought — with his run he came into me, but ...”
But the referee saw it differently after a video review and awarded FC Dallas a penalty kick deep into stoppage time, the game all but dead save for this last gasp of life from the visitors.
And so it would come to rest on one man’s shoulders.
When Dallas’ captain Reto Ziegler stepped up to the spot, Mannone was more than prepared. “I studied him a long time for two days,” he said. “[Ziegler] was the main guy to take the penalties. He took some different ones, and we studied with the goalie coach.” As Ziegler approached the ball, though, something was up. Strange, off. “His run up was telling me something different from what I saw in the video. And I waited, waited, waited.”
All of that waiting, of course, happened in the span of a few breaths. When Mannone finally dove, he sprawled to his right, away from Ziegler’s favored side and the side the coaching staff had encouraged him to guess. “The irony is that we were telling him it was going to the other corner, so good job he didn't listen to us,” said Heath after the game.
As Mannone shoved the ball aside, the crowd erupted and Mannone sprung back to his feet, yelling and punching the air for just a moment before getting back to work for the final few moments of the game. A penalty is that moment when all the rush and press of the game, when the entire team effort gets concentrated down into a showdown. In a way, it’s a moment to shine, for either the player taking the penalty or the one intent on taking it away.
“A penalty is a chance for the keeper to become the hero and that’s how I feel it every time. I looked at the ball and I thought, this is my moment,” Mannone said. “This is my one.”
But as soon as it’s over, the hush, the tension, the held breath floods back into the entire stadium.
“We needed the fans to push us all the way and they did,” said Mannone. “In these moments, I can give something back to the team that helped me every time. You know, the coaching staff, the fans and the club. That’s why I do my job, really. To live this moment and enjoy and try to help my teammates.”