CRANBOURNE EAST, Victoria -- Nominally, a penalty shootout is a best-of-five contest. Five of your best penalty takers against five of theirs from 12 yards out, with the winner taking it all. Sometimes, more is needed, sometimes less, but that's the general gist of it. That's unless you happen to be Melbourne Victory in Saturday afternoon's A-League Women semifinal win over Melbourne City, when their goalkeeper Casey Dumont effectively won it in the first round of attempts.
As she waited for Katie Bowen to approach the penalty spot for her side's first attempt, the keeper's veneer of concentration broke. It wasn't with a grimace or nerves, though, but a laugh and a grin. Perhaps that should have been a sign. There was no outward display of nerves or some kind of weakness to seize upon, just an unyielding layer of assuredness and belief that her team, she, would find a way to win. Again.
Moments prior, when the 31-year-old had stood over the ball as the two teams broke from their huddles after 120 minutes, it initially looked like some kind of mistake had been made. With so many viable options available to him, surely Victory coach Jeff Hopkins wasn't having his keeper lead off the shootout? Perhaps the custodian was simply standing guard over the ball in order to prevent some kind of gamesmanship skullduggery on the part of City. Maybe it was an attempted act of mental disintegration towards her opposite number, Melissa Barbieri, as one of her teammates approached.
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But then Dumont stayed there and it became apparent that this wasn't a bit. The Victory keeper was going to lead off the first shootout the competition had seen in almost a decade, one that would determine if her side's hopes of a third-straight ALW championship would remain alive.
A cool, almost brazen effort followed. Dumont didn't even break stride as she slotted the ball into the bottom corner of the net, sending Barbieri the wrong way, before taking up her place for City's response. Advantage Victory.
In most circumstances, one might expect a keeper to blast the ball as hard as they can, replicate a goal kick and hope the ball's trajectory doesn't rise too quickly before it can find the net. Dumont didn't do that. She placed it. She placed it very well, especially for a player whose national team aspirations have been hampered by the work she does with the ball at her feet.
Bowen's subsequent attempt went left, the same way that Dumont dove, and was placed at a perfect height to be palmed away with a strong, overhand palm. Thoughts of it bouncing in off the rebound were snuffed by a quick recovery. Victory led the shootout.
Right then and there, everyone probably could have gone home. Sure, Melina Ayres, Maja Markovski and Alana Murphy had to convert spot kicks as well, and City's Hannah Wilkinson will be haunted by the sound of her effort clanging off the crossbar, but it all just felt so academic at that point. City would have won the game at a canter had Dumont not already put in a performance for the ages, which included saving a Holly McNamara penalty in the 89th minute. It only felt right that she would win the game up the other end as well.
"The girls asked [her to shoot first], and I was like, 'Yeah, no worries, I'll do it'," Dumont told Network Ten. "We practised during the week as well, that always the first person that steps up sets the momentum. So I was like, 'I'll happily do that for the team if needed.'"
And really, this game deserved something special to end it. Melbourne City 3, Melbourne Victory 3, 1-4 on penalties, one of the best games in A-Leagues (men's or women's) history. It wasn't the cleanest of matches by any stretch of the imagination, but even before the penalty shootout began the 120 minutes provided enough moments to suggest that a football god somewhere was sitting around ticking items off a checklist.
There were furious comebacks that responded to furious comebacks; 1-0 at half-time, to 1-3 at the 72nd-minute mark and to 3-3 by the end of the game. Penalties saved and penalties converted. Extra time forced by 97th-minute equalisers. Senior internationals, junior internationals and should-be internationals engaging in a battle of thrust and counterthrust. A coaching battle between the most successful coach in the league's history and a rising rookie in their first campaign.
It is a performance now cursed to be cast in the result's shadow, but Rhianna Pollicina was excellent for City with two goals and a successful penalty in the shootout. McNamara was a constant threat before being forced off the field after 100 minutes with a gash on her leg. Wilkinson's willingness to hurl herself after everything led to City's 97th-minute equaliser to force the game to extra time. Bowen, Julia Grosso and Leticia McKenna all put in shifts for a side that had 67% of the ball and outshot Victory 30 to 20.
Up the other end, it's perhaps the only time that Ayres will score a hat trick, let alone a 20-minute hat trick in a knockout final, and find herself overshadowed. Injuries have slowed the striker for two successive regular-season campaigns and she disappeared somewhat off the radar with a stint in Iceland, but Ayres remains arguably the competition's most pure, ruthless striker. She is, in the best sense of a word, a predator -- when there is a gap in an opponent's armour or a fleeting half-chance that arises from nothing, like a shark that smells blood in the water. Alongside Matildas superstar Sam Kerr, Ayres is the only player to net at least three times in an ALW final -- and she's done it twice.
Indeed, perhaps there's something to be said for experience. The virtue of being able to fall back on hard-won wisdom and take confidence from the knowledge that this has all happened before and will all happen again. Yet again Saturday, Victory entered the finals after a regular season that concluded with them in somewhat questionable form -- just sneaking into the top four on the last day of the season. Yet again, they went on the road to take on a side that finished above them on the regular-season table. And yet again, they found a way to win.
With so much ill feeling surrounding the competition this year, marked by battles between the competition's administrators and its supporters, it was the type of game that the league needed in the first week of finals. Something to get the focus back on the football and the on-field product, a magnificent game to watch.
That it was played on an oval unsuited for watching football, an hour's drive outside of Melbourne, and not broadcast on television in a year that Australia will host Women's World Cup is yet another own goal for the sport.
Nonetheless, despite its off-Broadway staging, Hopkins' side's hopes of a third-straight ALW championship remain alive. Melbourne City's season is over at the hands of their bitter rivals once again, thoughts of what might have been and what lies ahead are now set to dominate the thoughts of Dario Vidosic and his squad.
It could all come crashing down next week, of course, their hopes of a three-peat dashed in the preliminary finals. But that's a matter for then.
"That's all experience gives you," said Hopkins. "We know we've been through a lot this year, last year, and the previous year. The game is never over until it's over."
The coach's warmest words, though, were reserved for his goalkeeper. He and Dumont have been constant collaborators since the competition's inception; the keeper starting for the Queensland Roar side he guided to the league's first-ever championship back in 2009. He quickly moved to sign her when he made the move down to Victoria years later.
Just over 14 years ago, a then 16-year-old Dumont had stepped up to slot the first penalty for the Roar side in a semifinal shootout against Sydney, blasting beyond Nikola Dieter and then going on to save a Sarah Walsh penalty to win it.
"She was amazing," Hopkins said. "She prides herself on her performance. She's the most competitive person that we've got at the club. She wasn't going to give up. In the huddles at half-time, she had a lot to say. She made sure that if anyone was just wavering a little bit, that there was no way that was going to happen."
Pausing briefly, emotion then noticeably entered Hopkins' tone: "I can't speak highly enough of her and what she brings to this team."