There were shots off the post, a disallowed goal, more Sean Johnson saves, the dramatic contexts of playoff contention and the last regular season home game of the season - Saturday’s win had a handful of talking points, but it had really only one truly interesting scene: Mike Magee’s game winning penalty.
Because despite the atmosphere and everything that was at stake, the game, in fact was pretty flat. Maybe it was the rain-soaked field, maybe it was a bit of nerves but Fire fans had to be uncomfortable when they saw the first 10 minutes with little of the urgency, high pressure, and high defensive line that pushed the team to those two huge away wins in D.C. and Dallas. Toronto was finding gaps all over the field to exploit and if it wasn’t for such bad finishing by Robert Earnshaw, they would’ve been in front.
The Fire grew into the game, however, and were in control when Magee scored the winning penalty. Then, as we’ve seen for the past month or so, the Fire managed the remainder of the and took all the points.
So maybe it’s good that it wasn’t a spectacle of high drama. Maybe it was just a professional victory -- a cold blooded three point snatch.
But then there was Magee’s PK.
Just a few weeks ago, Magee hit the crossbar with what would’ve been a game winning PK against Montreal. It cost the Fire two crucial points. “Tonight's on me,” he said after the game. “It won't be the last one I miss but I'm confident taking them and I'll bury the next one.”
It’s more or less the approach you expect from someone leading the league in goals and there aren’t many better opportunities to pad your stats than from the penalty spot.
And yet, and YET, Saturday’s PK was terrifying. I didn’t like the way Magee looked, I didn’t like his set up. He kept wiping his hands, and he started his run-up exactly at the whistle. You can often tell if a player’s going to score their PK based on their face, their calm, their approach, and their cool. We all know Magee is cool in front of goal, but wouldn’t the Montreal miss be on his mind? There he was, right in front of Section 8, back in his home city, a stadium chanting MVP - it was a moment, just a second or two, where some people might have thought about the whole chaos of the season. All the missed chances, all the posts they hit, all the points they dropped, all the mistakes and antagonism and pressure.
It happened so fast. Magee didn’t let the moment fester. He knew what he was going to do. He knows where the goal is. He wipes his hands, he tugs his shorts down a bit, he looks at the ref waiting for the whistle. When it comes he leaps off the line like a 5k start, skips a bit to the left of the ball, and approaching it that way, executes the deftest of chips right into where the goalie’s chest would’ve been if he hadn’t dove down to his right, where he thought Magee would go.
What I love about the way he took it is that he seemed to beat the rhythm of the game. I wanted a dramatic pause. I wanted to consider the entire season in the moment, and I wanted him to look straight at the keeper with fire in his eyes, like Rivaldo in 2002. But then, that’s what makes him such a good finisher, isn’t it? It’s the way he seems to catch defenders and goalies unaware. For some goals he’s quicker than you think he can be, and for others he seems to wait an eternity before calmly putting it away. The PK on Saturday was a combination of both. It had the quickness to take a few people by surprise (and short circuit any nerves), and the calmness to chip a Pirlo-esque panenka in front of thousands of people, in the most important game of the season.
After the game, Magee admitted he had some nervousness: “Normally I get up there and don't think twice about missing, and this time the last one off the back of the post was on my mind, so I figured I couldn't hit it off the post if I shot it up the middle.”
Even when admitting nerves, he sounds like the doubt in his mind didn’t really make him fear not scoring, it just pushed him to score differently.
And so now the Fire go to New York with nerves and doubts, but like Magee, they’ll have to use those doubts to push forward. They’ve learned from their mistakes against Montreal (and Columbus, and etc. etc.) but for three games in a row they’ve managed games and have a chance to finish the season the way Magee finished his PK: maybe a little afraid of the posts, maybe not exactly with the suave calmness of a secure playoff spot, but with a chance to kill it off, take the points, and head into the playoffs.