Photo courtesy Nick Tre. Smith / Swope Park Rangers
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Usually, Swope Park Rangers goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas is staring down from the goal line, waiting for the shooter to make his move.
But on Saturday night, for the first time in his career, it was Zendejas who not only made the decisive save, but also scored the decisive goal as the Rangers defeated OKC Energy FC at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday night to win the USL Western Conference Championship for a second consecutive season.
“That was honestly the very first penalty kick I’d taken in my entire life,” said Zendejas. “It’s always been a dream of mine to have that moment as a goalkeeper. I’m glad I made it. It’s a lot of pressure.”
The pressure from converting from the penalty spot was on full display in the longest penalty shootout in USL Cup Playoffs history, with Zendejas and OKC Energy goalkeeper C.J. Cochran ending up squaring off in the 11th round. Cochran shot first, only for Zendejas to make a diving save on his shot to the left side of the net. The Swope Park goalkeeper then picked the left corner as well, only for Cochran to go the other way, unable to repeat his shootout heroics of a week ago in San Antonio.
Prior to Saturday night’s epic, the longest shootout in USL Playoffs history had occurred five years ago when the Charleston Battery needed seven rounds to defeat the Rochester Rhinos to earn their place at the USL Cup. The Rangers’ had multiple chances to seal the deal earlier than Zendejas, too, but misses by Lebo Moloto in the fourth round and Cochran’s save on Felipe Hernandez in the fifth sent the shootout to sudden death.
“It’s very unusual,” said Rangers Head Coach Nikola Popovic. “The thing is when the first five are happening, we had two chances to win the game. And we were not able to do it. It was crazy but of course penalties are 50/50. But what we did when you look over all the game, I think we deserved to go on.”
The Rangers certainly could have been kicking themselves over missed chances to put the game away in regulation and extra time. Moloto had a strong effort blocked by OKC’s Juan Pablo Guzman early in the second half, but the chances really started to arrive in extra time, where Moloto was denied by a big save by Cochran, and Kharlton Belmar squandered a chance in the 118th minute after beating the OKC offside trap, only to send his finish wide.
“For us, it was a little bit difficult sometimes to get the control of the game because the ball was bouncing around in the air,” said Popovic. “It was always a battle of trying to win the second balls. I think whenever we had possession, we were able to create some chances. The game went to extra time and I think we had the best chances to score.”
But those misses melted away as Zendejas rose to the occasion in the shootout. After fellow SPR goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod’s heroics in Swope Park’s shootout win against Phoenix Rising FC in the Western Conference Quarterfinals two weeks ago, Zendejas kept Swope Park’s undefeated home playoff record intact.
Now, after last season’s disappointment in the USL Cup against the New York Red Bulls II, the Rangers will head to Louisville to try and add their first league championship.
“I told the boys, we shouldn’t be happy yet,” said Zendejas. “Enjoy this night. But don’t be happy yet. Last year, I think we were happy with just the Western Conference [championship]. This year, I told the boys we have one more to win.”