Having won the 2005 MLS Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake midfielder Ned Grabavoy treasures the bonding a championship creates.
"You're locked with that group of guys and coaches and organization forever," he said.
Yet on his way to another title game, Grabavoy found himself isolated.
First, a case of the H1N1 virus removed him from the team several days, causing him to miss the first leg of the playoff series with Columbus.
Two weeks later, he stood alone in front in the net in Chicago, preparing to deliver the biggest kick in franchise history.
And now, having personally shipped his team to Seattle for Sunday's MLS Cup against the Galaxy, Grabavoy knows he may not even get onto the field as a substitute. "Nothing's promised," he said.
Actually, that makes his starring role of last weekend all the more improbable. The circumstances that resulted in Grabavoy's being in such a dramatic position in that game all conspired to brighten a season he described as "probably my most difficult year in the league."
Released by the second-year San Jose Earthquakes in March, Grabavoy was taken by RSL in the waiver draft and never could establish himself as a starter. He played in only 20 of 30 regular-season games with eight starts and did not appear in the playoffs until the 123rd minute of the Eastern Conference final at Chicago, where the Illinois native was inserted by coach Jason Kreis just so he would be eligible for the penalty-kick phase to follow.
Even then, Grabavoy became involved only when the shootout went beyond the standard five rounds, and RSL's Fabian Espindola missed high on his game-winning chance. After another save by RSL's Nick Rimando, Grabavoy came through as the ball bounced off the goalkeeper's hand and into the net in a shot that's being replayed often this week in ESPN's promotion of the MLS Cup.
"Even if I wasn't in that situation, even if I'd played a lot less this season than I had, I'd still be as happy and proud of this team and where we're going," Grabavoy said.
Teammates say that sentiment is genuine. Describing him as "a great locker-room guy," defender Nat Borchers said. "I'm so, so happy for Ned, because he's struggled to get in the starting lineup this year."
After winning an NCAA championship with Indiana, Grabavoy started for a less glamorous Galaxy team --- one he considers similar to RSL -- in 2005, his second year in the league. He played 66 minutes of a 1-0, double-overtime upset of New England.
"To have a moment like that with teammates you're close with and guys you've worked and sweated with for a whole season, it was truly unbelievable," he said, remembering the "complete mayhem" after the final whistle.
The following May, Grabavoy was traded to Columbus. He joined the expansion Earthquakes last year and started 21 games, while missing six weeks with a sports hernia injury, then landed with RSL, quickly discovering a talented team he believed could contend for a title.
The unpleasant side effect was far less playing time than he was accustomed to. RSL endured a mostly frustrating season until doing just enough to make the playoffs, closing the regular season with a 3-0 win over Colorado as Grabavoy entered the game in the 62nd minute.
Then came the swine flu experience and his long wait to make a postseason contribution. The ultimate result was a moment never to be forgotten in RSL lore.
"There were a million plays in that game where guys did great things to help put us in this position," Grabavoy said.
None of them, of course, will be remembered quite like the last kick, provided by the unlikely kicker, who now can only hope he'll get to do more than watch in Seattle.
Regardless, Grabavoy is eager to share in another title. "After winning a championship, you're at a complete high," he said. "After that, you train every year and you play so many games, and you try to get back to that point, because you want that high, you want that feeling. Hopefully, everyone can experience that."