The American Professional Soccer League season came to a disturbing end for the Los Angeles Heat late Wednesday night.
A controversial red card and a pair of fresh legs enabled the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks to win the APSL West championship in a playoff finale that ended just before midnight.
San Francisco's Dominic Kinnear beat Heat goalie Mike Littman with a tap off a pass from Robert Gallo in the 23rd minute of the deciding mini-game at Spartan Field.
The 1-0 victory in the 30-minute mini-game followed a marathon three-hour first game Wednesday that San Francisco won on penalty kicks, 4-2.
The Blackhawks won the regulation game after two 15-minute overtime periods failed to resolve a 1-1 tie.
The Heat won the first game of the series in Long Beach on Saturday, 2-0.
In Wednesday's mini-game, the Heat was playing shorthanded when Kinnear, who did not play in the night's first game, scored for the Blackhawks.
About two minutes before Kinnear's heroics, Heat midfielder Mike Getchell was thrown out of the game with a red card for a tackle on San Francisco forward Eric Wynalda, who also plays for the U.S. National Team.
In all, it took nearly four hours to decide the title.
At halftime of the first game, with San Francisco ahead, 1-0, APSL West Chairman Bill Sage expressed concern that overtime would "keep us here all night."
But he did not say what the league plans to do to bring the playoffs more in line with the types of championship events that American audiences are used to.
The brief home-and-home series, like many other things in the financially strapped league, was designed to save money. But judging by the exhausted faces of the players, league officials need to reconsider the playoff structure when they meet later this month.
Soccer players are well-conditioned athletes, but the length of Wednesday night's action affected the quality of play in the mini-game.
Kinnear was fresh after coming off the bench, but most of the players on both sides could be seen bending over, grabbing their trunks or pulling up with leg cramps.
Many in the crowd of 3,800 seemed a bit exhausted too. About half of them left after the regulation game. A reporter standing near the exit heard several fans say they had to get up for work the next morning. In addition, the snack bars closed early, leading to long lines at drinking fountains.
Most newspapers, including The Times and the San Jose Mercury News, failed to get the final result into Thursday's editions because the series ran well past deadline.
Said one reporter of the 8 p.m. starting time: "(The APSL) didn't make a lot of friends with the media tonight."
For Heat players, owners and executives, finishing second was hard to take.
Defender Danny Pena, forward Brad Smith and several other Heat players charged toward the officials at midfield after the game. They were restrained by Heat midfielder Jim Gabarra, but not before they protested the red card on Getchell, which left the Heat with only nine field players.
It was also a bitter turn of events for Jill Fracisco, the Heat's general manager. She had hoped that a championship would erase memories of a season that has included bickering among owners, front-office shortcomings and an announcement that the team will move from Torrance to Orange County.
The Bay Area is where Fracisco, 26, the only female executive in the APSL West, grew up. And Spartan Stadium was where she worked with the defunct San Jose Earthquakes before she came to Los Angeles.
As has been the case many times this year in APSL matches, officiating played a major role in the rough-and-tumble series.
In Wednesday's first game, 26 fouls were called and six yellow cards were handed out. Heat President and co-owner John Ajemian has called for the league to create its own pool of officials.
Currently, as a cost-saving measure, the league uses local officials. In the first game Wednesday night, both linesmen were from San Jose and the referee was from Seattle, where the APSL is headquartered.