Agony followed ecstasy for the Nashville Metros on Saturday. A season of accomplishment ended cruelly with penalty kicks as the Milwaukee Rampage emerged from the teams' first-round A-League playoff series to take on the Richmond Kickers this week in the quarterfinals.
Coach Brett Mosen and his team are now dealing with an emotional end to their playing year - and the end of the Metros' five-year stint in the modern A-League. The league franchise rights, but not the coach or his carefully-built squad, now belong to the revived Hampton Roads (Va.) Mariners.
Still, a 14-win campaign and Nashville's first playoff appearance since 1998 are worth celebrating. Mosen said Sunday that he would always be proud of the 2001 side that brought winning back to Ezell Park.
"To have come this far certainly surprised a few people, but not me. I knew what I was looking for in the off-season and worked hard putting it all together," Mosen said. "I had a group of youngsters, many who had not played professional soccer before, but it's all about chemistry and I think our chemistry was spot on.
"No other team in the league had twin strikers who scored 15 (Jakob Fenger) and 14 (Jeff Houser) goals a piece (in the regular season). It was a pleasure working with all these lads and I have no doubts they will all find a place to play next season. I have already had calls from a couple of A-League coaches interested in certain players."
And he was grateful to the supporters who made his team a part of their spectating lives. "I'd like to thank our fans for coming out each week to support us. We had the biggest increase in fans in the A-League this season. We appreciate you all, thanks."
Nashville nearly gave those fans another chance to see them at home when Houser scored on a header from five yards out off a Chris Morman throw-in during the fourth minute of stoppage time for a 1-0 regulation game win. That tied the aggregate goals totals for the series at 3-3, necessitating extra play to determine who would take on the regular-season champ Kickers in the next round of the playoffs.
Mosen inserted Houser for Gabe Valencia in the 71st minute. The rookie star struck a curling 32-yard free kick that struck the crossbar just two minutes later, according to game reports. A minute later, defender James Wall just missed on a shot from four yards out.
The Rampage offense struggled in front of 2,152 fans at the Milwaukee County Sports Complex while the Metros employed a long-ball strategy to maintain control throughout much of the match. Milwaukee was outshot 19-14 by the Metros, and Rampage keeper Dan Popik was forced to make six saves to Cole Burgman's three for Nashville.
Popik saved his best for last, however, and it cost Nashville its season. Each team's first shooter - Steve Bernal for the home team and Dominic Schell for the visitors - missed. After Igor Soso put one through for Milwaukee, Fenger answered for Nashville to make the shootout score 1-1. Then it was time for the Rampage's David Hayes and the Metros' Andreas Maier to put it in the net, and both did for a 2-2 PK tie.
Steve Butcher made Milwaukee's next kick. Now it was Houser's turn.
Irony decided to make a victim of the player whose goal had kept his team's hopes alive, however. His shot to the lower left corner was saved by Popik. Mike Slivinski proceeded to convert his chance, and Milwaukee celebrated a 4-2 penalty kick triumph that gave the Rampage a series win.
It was reminiscent of Nashville's last time in the playoffs, when the New Orleans Storm beat the Metros on penalty kicks in the first round of the 1998 postseason. But the players and coach were different, and the pain was quite new.
"We out played Milwaukee in every department. We felt confident that we could pull the goal back from being 3-2 down with our previous meeting. We had a game plan, stuck to it and it paid Off," Mosen said. "Milwaukee really couldn't cope with our aerial attack, looking for Wright and Valencia up front. We knew Houser would get on at some stage and when you're a tired defender the last thing you want to face is a fresh goal scorer like Jeff.
"Our defense was solid and never allowed Milwaukee's forwards any time on the ball. 'Nacho' (midfielder Jeff Dominguez) did a tremendous job on Philippe Godoy, one of the top midfield players in the A-League, who never got a look in. We piled on the pressure from the start but the ball would not go in for us. They had no answer to our aggressive play. It was pure desire on our part, without doubt our best performance of the season.
"Our players got applause coming off the field from Milwaukee's fans. Many came up to me at the end of the game congratulating us on the way we played, but at the time it's little consolation when reality hits that your season is finally over. I thought we were the better side over the two games and to go out on penalties is a tough one to swallow, but that's soccer and I wish Milwaukee every success in the remainder of the season."
Now the Metros' ownership looks to find a new home in either the D-3 or Premier Development leagues, and Mosen and his players look to find new places to coach and play. Mosen knows the end is bittersweet, but the usually upbeat skipper will have some good memories of the team that he assembled this year.
He also feels they'll be remembered.
"I think we surprised a few people with the type of soccer we played. We were attacking-minded and entertaining. It was enjoyable to watch."