The most revealing moment in the frenetic and incident-filled final 10 minutes of D.C. United's controversial 1-1 draw with Philadelphia came when beleaguered referee Mark Geiger blew the final whistle.
At that juncture, the NBC Sports Network cameras captured a tension-prompted exchange between Bill Hamid, Chris Korb and Brandon McDonald. Korb hit a suspect backpass that Geiger ultimately rescued with his decision to end the match. Korb's decision may not have cost United in that moment, but it still prompted some finger wagging from Hamid and a shove or two between Korb and McDonald as the players trudged off the field.
The internal fracas soon dissipated and McDonald shrugged the incident off when asked by the Washington Post about it after the game, but the noticeable displays of anger and frustration shed some light into the suspect mentality of a United side that just about fell apart as events turned sour in the waning stages of the match.
As United coach Ben Olsen, his players and most observers would suggest, Geiger played a significant role in the home side's inability to cope with the situation. He failed to exert any semblance of control over the match, ruled out a seemingly valid goal when Union defender Gabriel Farfan kicked the ball out of Zac MacMath's hand as United chased an equalizer and showed too much leniency to Michael Lahoud in the second half. Even his correct decisions (ruling out Dwayne De Rosario's apparent winner from the spot when Hamdi Salihi ran through the penalty arc before De Rosario struck the ball and shipping off Emiliano Dudar for a ludicrous challenge from behind in stoppage time) sparked dissent because he maintained such a poor hold on the game.
(Note: Philadelphia can and probably should certainly point to Sheanon Williams' suspect second yellow card in stoppage time as another egregious mistake by Geiger, but United didn't appear quite as troubled by that decision.)
In the end, Geiger's faults do not excuse the dearth of composure from a United side that once again displayed signs of cracking under the pressure of securing a playoff berth for the first time since 2007. They do not explain why Salihi felt the need to rush into the penalty area so ardently and tempt Geiger into a straightforward decision. They do not forgive Branko Bošković for foolishly getting involved in a situation that ended with his dismissal, De Rosario for clipping the top of the crossbar on his second penalty attempt after converting so coolly at the first opportunity to win the game or Dudar for lunging into a foolish tackle moments before the final whistle to earn United's second red card of the night. They do not justify the repeated scrapes with the Union or the unsightly shoving incidents between teammates.
This outbreak of intemperate behavior presents a problem that seemingly reflects the impatience within the club regarding the current run of one win in the past five matches. In the past few games, United coach Ben Olsen has dropped a left back he just acquired (Mike Chabala) to shoehorn Dejan Jakovic into the lineup at right back and has given the sparingly selected Long Tan two starts recently to underscore his disgust with the lack of production in front of goal. Lionard Pajoy's arrival on Thursday to join a forward corps already teeming with more prolific options in front of goal (even without the currently injured Maicon Santos) and his immediate starting berth against the Union reeked of a desperate move designed to jolt the players even further.
Although Chicago and Houston have pushed United into fifth place in recent weeks, the rash moves appear wholly unnecessary in the current situation. The return of regular fullbacks Robbie Russell and Daniel Woolard would help matters, but this group still boasts more than enough talent to merit its place in the postseason without them. De Rosario will end his goal drought (no goals since May 19) at some stage and reinforce the many reasons why he remains among the league's best schemers, while his other teammates can pick up some of the slack at the back and up front until he does. Nearest challenger Montréal sits one point back with four more games played and seventh-placed Columbus (admittedly bolstered by summer arrivals Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuaín) trails by four points even if it wins its game in hand.
All of those positives won't matter one bit if United cannot control its emotions on and off the field. Plenty of time remains to address the concerns appropriately and muster the type of poise required to see out a scenario that ends up in a playoff berth more often than not. The adjustments may not happen in time to secure a victory against the streaking Fire on Wednesday without the suspended Bošković and Dudar, but they need to occur quickly in order to avoid more ugly scenes and the entirely unpalatable prospect of missing out on the postseason entirely.
Five Points – Week 22
1. What type of incident prompts a spot kick?: The referees in two high-profile infractions this weekend struggled to answer this particular query. Jasen Anno apparently pointed to the spot after blowing the whistle prior to Tim Cahill's shot crossing the line in New York's 3-2 victory over Portland (a contentious decision in and of itself), but he incorrectly applied the advantage rule and permitted the goal to stand upon further reflection. In Montréal's 3-1 home victory over San Jose, Armando Villarreal awarded a penalty kick to the Earthquakes after Steven Lenhart struck Hassoun Camara first in an incident that resulted in dismissals for both players. Throw in a half-dozen other talking points over the weekend and this particular set of games did not reflect particularly well on the league's officiating crew.
2. Disciplinary Committee alterations needed after Barry Robson's late ban: Not a soul in Vancouver – except, perhaps, for the Scotland international himself if his comments to the Vancouver Sun provide any indication – claimed Robson did not merit his one-match ban for aggressive dissent toward an assistant referee in the Whitecaps' 2-0 defeat to FC Dallas on Wednesday. All they wanted was a little more notice.
They had a valid point. Although the Disciplinary Committee kept the Whitecaps in the loop throughout a process that started on Thursday morning, the panel did not reach a verdict until late in the day on Friday. Vancouver boss Martin Rennie received word he would not have Robson's services on Friday night (according to The Province [Vancouver]), while Seattle coach Sigi Schmid did not learn of the suspension until Saturday morning (according to the Seattle Times). MLS announced the decision four hours before the Whitecaps' 2-0 defeat at Seattle.
“Vancouver was made aware that the incident was under review on Thursday morning,” MLS executive vice president of competition and game operations Nelson Rodriguez said in a statement obtained from the league. “All of the gathered evidence was only available to the Disciplinary Committee as of mid-day on Friday. Logistical and personal issues kept the Committee from convening in its normal manner which unfortunately delayed the final decision. Though Vancouver was informed of the suspension [Friday] evening, the Whitecaps were kept apprised of the situation and the possibility of a suspension throughout the process. We intend to work with the MLS Players Union to see if an expedited process can be agreed upon in similar circumstances in the future.”
In this particular instance, the deliberations of the Committee negatively influenced the competitive concerns of Saturday's match and the proffered explanations do not excuse its actions. Neither coach can properly prepare for a match without a firm verdict regarding any supplementary discipline pending on either team. It isn't too much to ask for the Committee to inform clubs of suspensions in enough time to adjust their plans or postpone the verdict if they cannot do so. In this case, it failed on both accounts.
3. How about the Impact?: Jesse Marsch's expansion side has now won four matches on the trot after dispatching the Earthquakes at Stade Saputo on Saturday night. This run of form may come too late to yield a playoff berth, but the strides made by Patrice Bernier (his seventh goal of the season from the spot to seal the victory), Marco Di Vaio (another goal and another night of earnest toil to lead the line), Felipe Martins (a fantastic bit of skill to assist on the opener to reinforce his credentials as one of the signings of the season) and company bode well for the future as Marsch continues to mold a side for the long-term.
4. Keep an eye on FC Dallas: Schellas Hyndman's side followed up that stunning midweek victory in Vancouver with a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium. FCD has certainly looked the part of a playoff team since David Ferreira returned (when he isn't being scythed to the ground, of course) on July 4. Ferreira scored the stoppage-time winner in Sandy to highlight the transformation of his previously floundering side (5-3-2 since Ferreira's return). The revival may come too late to rescue FCD's postseason hopes (five points behind Vancouver with one more game played), but it doesn't alter Ferreira's tangible impact on the team's fortunes.
“Well we’re a completely different team,” Hyndman told reporters after the match. “I think before, we battled, we were always hoping to get a result. Now we’re kinda going in thinking we’re going to get a result. When we were winning 1-0, he came up to me and said, “I’m dead, I’m absolutely dead,” and I said, “OK, we’ll get a change for you,” and he said, “No, I’m gonna keep fighting, but I just want you to know I’m dead, I can’t run.” Then Matt [Hedges] got hurt, so we used our third sub, and I just had him hold up a little bit higher…it really made a difference, didn’t it?”
5. First impressions reflect well on Columbus' new Designated Player signing: Federico Higuaín entered the league with little fanfare, but the Crew's new Argentine playmaker displayed the type of influence he can have on matches in Sunday night's 2-2 draw at Houston. Higuaín made his debut as a halftime substitute and shifted the course of the game shortly after his arrival. He offered lively movement and tidy combination play when the Crew pressed forward and supplied the necessary linking work with Jairo Arrieta to propel the usual counterattacking forays. His role in the wonderful second goal scored by Eddie Gaven (including a sumptuous ball over the top) showed how drastically he can affect the match if he carves out the time and space necessary to do so. If Higuaín can obtain full match fitness in short order, then the Crew could take advantage of a forgiving home slate (six of the remaining seven matches at Crew Stadium involve opponents unlikely to make the postseason) to fuel a late postseason bid.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.