• December 4, 2021

Andres Rodriguez was doing everything in his power to get Team West on the board. 

Trailing 1-0 late into the ECNL South Carolina National Selection Game, Rodriguez had been fighting for scoring chances. But he and the rest of his team was unable to solve the stout goalkeeping of Team East. 

With a corner kick, Rodriguez received the service at the top of the box and wanted to bring it into the penalty area. But right before he got there, he drew a foul, setting up a critical free-kick. 

No one but Rodriguez was going to take that shot. He stepped back, took a deep breath, then sprinted forward and launched the ball on net 

And then, madness.

Rodriguez’s shot bolted for the top left corner. Hundreds of fellow ECNL athletes stormed the field as the VDA product drew Team West even with Team East 1-1. 

“As soon as I won that foul, I knew I was gonna take it,” Rodriguez said. “I just felt so confident that I was gonna score. My goalie told our center back before I shot it that I was going to score as well. Everyone knew it was going in.”

Up until that point, Team East had weathered Team West’s storm. From the opening whistle, Team West had considerably more possession than their opponents. Early in the first half, the Team East goalkeeper had to make two diving saves to keep the ball out of his net. Each wave of Team West attack was met with a great save and solid defensive play. 

Eventually, and slowly, the field started to tilt in favor of Team East. The boys in blue started to build an attack and were emboldened by their stellar defensive play. 

Just before the end of the first half, Team East was rewarded for their efforts. NTH-NASA’s Damola Salami found himself with a one-on-one opportunity against the Team West defense. As he received a long ball from the back, Salami tossed his defender to the ground. He turned and immediately ripped a shot into the top corner to give Team East the 1-0 lead. 

“The ball fell to me and I pinned my defender back and set myself up,” Salami said. “It was a great feeling to score, and a bit of a relief for the team. It got us out of a hole. Just a great feeling, definitely a goal I won’t forget anytime soon.”

Coming out of halftime, Team West wasn’t discouraged by the deficit. The squad continued to push forward and continued to generate scoring chances, but to each time, there was no avail. It seemed that the Team East goalkeeping and defense were going to carry them to a win, but then, Rodriquez’s strike put the game right back in both teams’ grasp. 

Through the final 10 minutes of the match, tensions rose as both teams searched for the equalizer, but it never came. The final whistle blew, which meant one thing. 

Penalty kicks. 

Those same hundreds of ECNL athletes who stormed the pitch following Rodriquez’s tally bordered the sidelines, creating an atmosphere unmatched anywhere, one with tangible pressure for both shooter and goalkeeper. 

The first seven PKs found the back of the net, but then Team East goalkeeper Carter Nunnery (Charlotte SA Academy) broke the mold, diving to his right, putting Team East ahead. But then, Team West countered with a save of their own on the potential game-winner. 

The game once again rested on the shoulders of Nunnery. 

Every penalty kick session, Nunnery has a routine. For the NSG, for some reason, he broke the routine. Following the third PK, he went back to his secret ways. He stopped the fourth. For the fifth, he stayed in his routine. 

He dove right. He got his hands on the ball. 

Team East won 2-1. 

And once again, the fans rushed the field. 

“This experience was great,” Nunnery said. “Being a keeper, standing there with fans like that, in your ear, I take it and enjoy it. Because you’re not going to do these moments very many times. At the end of the day, especially PK shootouts, I always have fun with it, because I know they’re supposed to score. But more importantly, what I’m going to take away from this is that my teammates, those are my friends and brothers for life. What we just experienced are moments we’ll never forget. That’s what I’m going to take away from tonight.”