Seth Vertelney: Bizarre becomes routine in the most improbable playoff series in MLS history

In a series marked by controversy, inclement weather, mistakes and triumph, D.C. eked out a 2-1 aggregate victory.
Where to begin?

Perhaps the best place to start is at the end. The Red Bulls had one last chance to tie the Eastern Conference semifinal: a well-positioned free kick just outside D.C. United's penalty box. Thierry Henry, living soccer god, stood over the ball as he had so many times before, ready to deliver.

Then, inexplicably, amazingly, incredibly, Roy Miller stepped up and took the shot.

But then again, maybe Miller taking the final shot (which, by the way, flew miles over the crossbar) was a fitting way for the most improbable playoff series in MLS history to end. Over two legs, one venue swap, one postponed match, three red cards, two own goals, two missed penalties and one in-game Twitter rant from a sent-off goalkeeper, United and New York ensured that this series would never be forgotten as long as grown men are paid to kick soccer balls.

It began with an unprecedented swap of home dates, robbing D.C. United of the home-field advantage it had earned during the regular season. With Hurricane Sandy battering the New York/New Jersey area, United was forced to open at home when it was scheduled to play the second leg of the series at RFK. Fans were apoplectic, but the team's hands were tied. Mother nature struck the first blow in the series.

The first leg was a bizarre affair but compared to what was to come, it was fairly routine stuff. A missed penalty kick from the previously flawless Chris Pontius, a terrible Roy Miller own goal, and an even-worse own goal from D.C. keeper Bill Hamid set the tone.

Then, Andy Najar lost his mind.

The young Honduran international picked up a yellow card on a poor challenge and out of pure frustration, he then flung the ball and struck referee Jair Marrufo, earning a second yellow within the span of 10 seconds. United played out a home draw with 10 men.

After the 1-1 result, the scene shifted to New Jersey for the second leg. Much like the first leg, the weather opening the scoring before either of the two teams could.

Instead of a hurricane, this time it was a blizzard. To make matters worse, D.C. United paid for tickets and transportation for some 700 fans -- payback for the last-minute venue swap from the first leg.

With the D.C. fans in their seats at Red Bull Arena, a steady snowfall began accumulating on the pitch. Just around 30 minutes after the game was scheduled to start, MLS officials decided to postpone the second leg by a day, leaving the D.C. faithful with a four-hour journey home that would seem much longer than the same journey there.

The double dose of date-swapping anguish prompted league commissioner Don Garber to write an open letter to fans.

“Many of you made great sacrifices to attend the game and we let you down,” Garber said. “Although I believe that our intent in trying to preserve the ability to play the match was well meaning, in the end we would have better served our clubs and our fans by making the decision earlier.”

A mea culpa like this from the commissioner would normally be a remarkable step, but in this series, it just felt like one more act in a vaudevillian performance.

Finally, Thursday night came along. The weather was crisp, the field pristine. And the game would be, naturally, completely bonkers.

For most of the match, it was a fairly even affair, the teams fighting out a scoreless battle. Then came the 70th minute. Things got weird.

Kenny Cooper was played behind the D.C. defense and rounded Hamid in goal. The keeper scythed down the striker, earning a red card as Mark Geiger pointed to the spot. Hamid was incredulous.

When D.C. fans and players saw Geiger's name on the assignment sheet prior to the match, they likely sighed and shook their heads in disbelief. In August, Geiger cost United a sure victory after he forced Dwayne De Rosario to re-take a penalty kick, opting to call encroachment after Hamdi Salihi's toe barely crept over the line. De Rosario missed on the second try, prompting DCU coach Ben Olsen to label the game as “The Geiger Show” following the match.

United likely enjoyed the sequel of The Geiger Show much more than the pilot. This time around, he called encroachment rather less controversially, as Thierry Henry was so far inside the box on Kenny Cooper's successful penalty kick he might as well have taken it himself. Backup keeper Joe Willis saved Cooper's second try. The game, and the series, was still level.

Fuming in the locker room, and with the game ongoing, Hamid sent out one of the tweets of the year, such was the greatness of its timing and hilarious (intentional?) misspelling of NBC commentator Kyle Martino's name:

“Great leap.. GREAT LEAP.. He jumped right over me.. Hey Kyle martini please please please see your optometrist tmrw..”

Not to be outdone, Martino shot back from his Twitter account post game, saying “I'm going to head to the bar, get me a couple of Me Martini's.”


The drama, incredibly, was far from over. Red Bulls Designated Player/pariah Rafa Marquez added another moment to his New York Hall of Shame resume with a ridiculous challenge on Chris Pontius that earned him a second yellow card. With just minutes to play and extra time beckoning, Robbie Russell slipped rookie Nick DeLeon through the Red Bulls defense, and the midfielder made no mistake.

After the wildest set of events any MLS playoff series had ever seen, D.C. and its fans were celebrating. After schedule changes, red cards, own goals, angry tweets and a commissioner asking for forgiveness, a berth in the conference finals made it all worthwhile for the Red and Black.

Follow SETH VERTELNEY on or shoot him an email