In the end, the Maryland Bays' glorious season ended with a game of Russian roulette.
"Six months work culminated in this," said Bays coach Gary Hindley. "I guess we should have just skipped the games and just done penalty kicks."
The Bays, with a 2-1 victory, tied the semifinal series at a game apiece Saturday night, only to see Albany use a time-killing game plan in the 30-minute tie-breaker game to force the final decision to a shootout.
"You can't feel bad about losing in a shootout," said Bays goalkeeper Steve Powers. "It is purely a game of chance. That's the way it was set up and we all knew it."
For the 2,700 who jammed into Columbia's Cedar Lane Park, it was a gut-wrenching way to watch their defending American Professional Soccer League champions lose after a 19-2 regular NTC season.
The APSL finals begin in Albany, N.Y., Saturday against San Francisco Bay. The Blackhawks, runner-up to the Bays in the Western Conference during the regular season, reached the finals Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Eastern Conference champion Fort Lauderdale.
Despite the heartbreaking nature of it, the Bays were nothing but gracious in defeat.
"They won and they deserve it," said Bays defender Joe Barger. "We had a good season. We broke a lot of records. And we'll be back. In a 30-minute game and a shootout, anything can happen."
Jean Harbor, the Bays MVP who played hurt, voiced the most disappointment.
"This is perhaps the biggest disappointment since I've been playing," Harbor said. "I've never ended a season like this. They used the tactics they wanted and they won.
The Bays dominated the main game Saturday, winning 2-1 on goals by Kevin Sloan and Phillip Gyau. But in the mini-game, the Bays, despite a one-man advantage throughout and a two-man advantage at times, were stymied by Albany's delay tactics.
In the ensuing shootout, each of Albany's five shooters scored on Powers, while Albany keeper Scoop Stanisic was able to stop a shot by Johnny Abe to create the one-goal difference.
"I think we're going to win the championship," said Albany coach John Bramley. "The Bays were the team we had to fear. The Bays are the best team in the United States. For us to turn them over is unbelievable. Now we play San Francisco. We've beaten them before. We know we can beat them and we know they're not the team the Bays are."