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Kovacevic: Easy? Try it out, just for kicks

| Sunday, July 7, 2013, 10:05 p.m.
Conor Ralph | Tribune-Review
Trib Total Media staff writer Dejan Kovacevic attempts a penalty kick against Riverhounds goalkeeper Ryan Hulings. Kovacevic took five shots on goal and scored one.

If not for one innocent tweet last summer, I'd never have been standing there Saturday night, eyeball to eyeball with a professional soccer goalkeeper, with the fate of absolutely nothing more than my abject humiliation hanging in the balance.

Alas, there I was.

In the tweet, sent from the London Olympics, I'd commented that there couldn't be anything easier in sports than playing team handball. If you don't know what team handball is, think of water polo minus the water and the polo.

I further opined that handball looked even easier than a soccer penalty kick.

Well, that did it.

You might not directly know a soccer aficionado, but trust me, they've got numbers, and they'll come howling at the first trace of criticism.

I attempted reason. Told them I love soccer. Always have. Just think penalty kicks are a superficial — and yes, easy — way to settle games as monumental as the World Cup final itself.

The howls continued, including one from a reader who challenged me to try scoring against the Riverhounds' goalkeeper.

“I'll bet,” the howler wrote, “he'd stop you four out of five times.”

Four out of five?

Yeah, you know what I was thinking: Whoa … I could score once?

So, with the weekend free, I called Jason Kutney, the Riverhounds' way-cool, spikey-haired CEO, figuring he might not be too stodgy to give it a try. And to his credit, he was game, setting up a session between me and the goalkeeper for Saturday night at the team's wonderful new Highmark Stadium.

I wouldn't get Hunter Gilstrap, the Riverhounds' starting keeper, or even backup Greg Blum, the starter that night against Los Angeles.

No, I'd get third-string. A 21-year-old babyface from Dayton, Ohio, named Ryan Hulings.

Kutney called Hulings “really good on kicks,” and added, “He's certainly good enough to stop you.”

Kutney shamelessly tried more intimidation by telling the tale of Terrelle Pryor, the Raiders' QB and Jeannette giant who spent part of last summer training at Highmark.

“Terrelle wanted to try his hand at soccer one day, and he goes out there with all of us watching,” Kutney recalled. “He starts dribbling and … well …”

Well, what?

“Well, here's this incredible athlete, and he's out there stumbling around like a newborn fawn.”

Oh.

“No, seriously, I feared for the ball.”

OK, Kutney. Bring out the third-stringer, already.

Like most Americans, I haven't played soccer since graduating kindergarten. But I do have a sweet red jersey from a Serbian club team, as well as a matching headband. I also invested two minutes, 37 seconds on a YouTube instructional video for penalty kicks, and even did a little stretching in that I stood up upon getting out of my car.

Hulings seemed nice enough, but he wasn't above mind games, either.

“You might score, you know,” he said with a slight smile. “It's a really big net.”

Sizing it up from the mark where the five balls sat, 12 yards out, it really did look big: 8 feet tall, 8 yards across. The proverbial side of the barn. And with Hulings back on his goal line, as required, it feels even bigger.

Away we go …

Kick 1: Thud. Right into Hulings' chest. Think Penguins vs. Tuukka Rask.

I'd aimed to the right. Ball didn't listen.

Kick 2: High and wide to the right. Kind of soft, too.

Hulings professed to be impressed: “That was ambitious.”

Soccer people talk like that.

Kick 3: Finally, a solid effort. Hit it to the right, up off the ground … but Hulings' full-extension dive thwarted.

These guys are good.

Kick 4: Oh, wow …

I mean, yes, I intended for it to go in, finally shifting direction and going left. But I didn't believe until the first budge of the twine.

Was Hulings showing mercy?

The truth might never be known, but history should note that the kid took the field mumbling something about “preserving the integrity of my sport,” so I'm ruling that out.

Kick 5: Another Rask special, but the damage was done.

In all seriousness, my respect for soccer at all levels knows no bounds, and the Riverhounds' brand is no exception. It's the minor leagues, and even America's major league, MLS, doesn't stack up globally. But observers — and the naked eye — will tell you it's still “good quality.”

Soccer people talk like that, too.

Anyone up for shooting some free throws?

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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