Five rounds of penalty kicks weren’t enough to decide a winner. Nor were six, or 10 or 14.
It took a 15-round penalty kick shootout for the Ohio State men’s soccer team to advance past Akron, 1-1 (13-12), in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night.
“I think this result is what being a Buckeye is all about,” redshirt-senior goalkeeper Alex Ivanov said. “We battled through the end, we believed we could do it, we persevered and we did it.”
The teams went back-and-forth until Ivanov denied Akron redshirt-freshman midfielder/defender Robby Dambrot to open the 15th round. OSU junior midfielder Zach Mason then put it into the net for his second score of the shootout to put an end to the game.
“It’s relieving, and it’s just euphoria after that,” Mason said about his game clincher. “I mean, I don’t even know, I couldn’t even think, it’s just so exciting.”
OSU coach John Bluem said the team has been working on penalty kicks since the days leading up to the Big Ten Tournament in preparation for a shootout.
“We practice on them every day since the week before postseason play started because any of the postseason games can go to penalty kicks,” Bluem said. “But I think the main thing is just to be confident, pick where you’re going to go, don’t watch the goalkeeper’s doing if he’s jumping back and forth, just pick where you’re going to go and put it right in there.”
In all, 30 shots were taken in the shootout, with 25 finding the back of the net. Ivanov said, even of the three stops he made, there is no strategy other than simply guessing.
“At that point, you’ve just gotta pick a way and just dive, just get your hands there and make the save as best you can,” Ivanov said.
Those 30 penalty kicks were not the only ones taken on the night, either.
In the 30th minute, a collision off an Akron corner kick awarded the Zips a penalty shot, served by Akron sophomore midfielder Adam Najem. Najem sent it to the right post, where Ivanov dove, but not in time to stop the shot.
“We thought in the first half that we played pretty well, and that it was – I haven’t seen video of it yet – but it was a pretty tough penalty kick call early on there,” Bluem said.
The goal was Najem’s 14th of the year, moving him into a tie for third in the nation.
OSU had trouble generating much offense in the first half, as it had to play against the strong, cold winds after Akron elected to play with the wind first. The Buckeyes only managed one first-half shot, compared to four for Akron, two of which were on target.
However, the teams switched sides in the second half, and the Buckeyes were able to play the final 45 minutes with the wind at their backs.
Despite five corner kicks and the majority of the possession in the first 20 minutes of the second half, OSU started slow, not registering a shot until 63rd minute.
That first shot might have been all the Buckeyes needed to loosen up.
About three minutes later, junior defender Kyle Culbertson received a pass in front of the box off a free kick from junior defender Liam Doyle, and put it into the back of the net for his fourth goal of the season to tie the game.
“It was just a set piece,” Culbertson said. “Liam Doyle had a great ball in, and it just fell through the back side. I just wanted to make sure I got solid contact and put it on frame.”
The Zips had a chance to regain the lead with just over four minutes left in regulation, when a give-and-go freed up freshman forward Adi Dakwar with a shot at the net, but his shot banged high off the goalpost.
OSU freshman forward Marcus McCrary then suffered a similar fate about 90 seconds later, when his shot careened off the Akron goalpost, causing the game to head to overtime.
In the first overtime, OSU outshot Akron, 3-1, but none represented any real scoring chance, and the game went to double overtime.
Despite a trio of good looks for the Buckeyes in the second overtime, no one could find the back of the net there either. OSU outshot Akron, 3-0, in the period, but the game advanced to penalty kicks.
Culbertson originally signed with Akron out of high school before transferring to Columbia, and finally transferring a second time to OSU before the 2013 season. He had to sit out that season because of NCAA double-transfer rules. Despite never playing a game for the Zips, he said he had some extra motivation against his former school.
“It’s not a team we like to lose to, an instate rival, especially me, I’m not a big fan having been in an Akron shirt before, I definitely don’t like losing to them,” Culbertson said.
The overtime session was the third of the season for Akron, and sixth for OSU.
OSU, appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 when it advanced to the regional semifinals, now earns the right to face the No. 1 seed in the tournament and defending champion, Notre Dame.
However, Bluem said his team’s difficult regular season schedule has adequately prepared it for a game like that.
“I think it’s great that we’re going to go play the number-one seed in the country in the tournament,” Bluem said. “We have played one of the most difficult schedules of any team in the country all year long, and we’ve responded pretty well.”
Bluem said that missing out on winning the Big Ten championship has motivated his team further.
“We kinda feel like there’s still work left to be done, because we missed out on some things that we almost had,” Bluem said. “So now here’s another opportunity, and it’s a great challenge, but it’s a great opportunity, and our guys have been seizing those moments all year long, hopefully we can rise to the occasion and do it one more time.”
OSU’s second-round matchup with Notre Dame is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. Sunday in South Bend, Ind.