Maybe I’m going deaf. Maybe I’m going blind. Maybe I’m going out of my mind. But it’s hard to fault Sorin Stoica for what happened to the Revolution on Sunday.
When Matt Reis reached to his left to impede Marco Di Vaio from a point-blank, near-post opportunity, Stoica only had one option. A penalty for the foul, and a red for the denial of a goalscoring opportunity. Given where Stoica was when he made the call, it’s a textbook case for the penalty/red card call – which is something that Reis even conceded after the game.
Twenty-seven minutes later, Jose Goncalves firmly planted his right leg right into the path of a rapidly approaching Felipe Martins, who tumbled to the turf as a result. Goncalves didn’t even attempt to play the ball, nor did he come close to getting it. Once again, Stoica made the only call he could – a penalty.
So why were there so many gripes about the officiating?
The prevailing sentiment seems to be that, for starters, fifth minute is too early to call the penalty/red card double-whammy. A double-whammy that dooms the guilty party to 10 men for nearly an hour and a half. That the call is unduly harsh. And it is. But so is tripping a guy - granted not just any guy, but the golden boot frontrunner – inside the area on a clear goalscoring opportunity.
But that wasn’t the only issue that was met with considerable protest. The timing of the second penalty – which came 27 minutes after the first – drew loud boos, televised criticism and angry tweets. After all, what kind of referee calls not one, but two penalties, in the same half, and the first half, to boot? The answer: A referee who doesn’t let the clock dictate his decisions. Shocker, I know.
Stoica may not be the most popular person in Foxboro right now, but he separated himself from many of his peers. In a good way. Because, let’s face it: Too many MLS referees allow the clock, crowd and circumstances to alter their decisions. They fear the controversial decision, and often decide that the best action is no action. Anything to avoid the frying under the spotlight, the laws of the game be damned.
If anyone deserves the blame for how Sunday’s contest played out, it’s Professional Referee Organization, better known as PRO. They’re the ones who’ve been charged with improving the officiating around the league. They’re the ones who can’t allow a hard challenge in the box to be a penalty at one game, and a goalkick in another. And they’re the ones who’ve done little to significantly improve the refereeing in MLS.
And that’s the real problem. The interpretations, rather than clear-cut decision making, reign supreme among MLS referees. As a result, teams like the Revolution are put in uncompromising situations because there’s no consistency. On another night, Reis gets cautioned. Or Goncalves is shown red. Or Chris Tierney earns a free kick near the edge of the area late in the first half. PRO has got to something about these blurred lines.
Anyway, let’s put the ambiguity behind us, and dive, Felipe Martins style, into the five things we learned from Sunday’s clash.
1. Despite going a man down, the Revolution proved that Impact’s defense is still a liability. Going down a man early certainly didn’t do the Revolution any favors, you couldn’t tell that by looking at the attack. Not only did Fagundez put the ball in the back of the net, but he and his teammates collected more corners (4-0) and more open play crosses (5-4) than Montreal, and were level in the shots on goal (4-4) department. Note: all of this occurred without Juan Agudelo. Not that it was entirely surprising, mind you. The Impact entered the game allowing nearly two goals per game on the road, a stat that’s kept them from pulling away from the rest of the pack. Say what you will about how good they are offensively, but the Revolution – even shorthanded - might have shown that the Impact’s defense might be their undoing once the playoffs arrive.
2. A.J. Soares may have just lost his starting job. Credit the third-year center back for fighting his way back into the lineup. Earlier this year, he was felled by injury, which allowed Stephen McCarthy to reclaim a spot in the lineup. Instead of sulking, he worked hard in training and found himself in the XI after the disastrous 3-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City. But even though his tenacity can’t be questioned, his defending on Sunday certainly can be. It only took five minutes before Di Vaio snuck inside the 18 and hung Reis out to dry. Making matters worse, he was fooled by Di Vaio not once, but twice, in stunningly similar fashion within a span of 10 minutes (see: Di Vaio, 45+2′ and Di Vaio, 55′). True, it’s tough to judge a center back’s performance against the best striker in the league. Nobody’s perfect, especially when pitted against a dangerous foe. But with Reis suspended for Saturday’s game, and McCarthy, who plays well in front of Bobby Shuttleworth, chomping at the bit, Soares might have to have an especially impressive week in training to avoid being left off the lineup on Saturday.
3. The penalties didn’t help, but Di Vaio was the one who thrust the dagger. For all intents and purposes, Sunday’s game was still very much competitive even after Bernier banged though his second penalty of the evening. And the Revolution knew it. All they had to do was stop the bleeding (i.e. stay away from their own penalty area) and make it to halftime within one. Well, it was a nice thought, at least. A thought that Di Vaio ripped right out of their hands when he brought down a Hassoun Camara long ball and hit it into the back of the net during first half stoppage time. And then he did it again in the 55th minute for good measure. Now, the penalties obviously shifted the dynamic of the game, especially that first one. The percentages of stealing a point after going down a man and conceding a penalty with 85 minutes to go can’t be that great. But it was rarely-onside striker who effectively closed the door on any comeback bid.
4. Perhaps the most astonishing part of the two penalty calls (other than the timing of each) was that they were caused by two of the Revolution’s savviest players. Let’s be honest: neither foul was particular smart, even though Reis and Goncalves have some of the highest soccer IQs in MLS. More often than not, we’ve seen Reis command his area well, whether it’s cutting down an attacker’s shooting angle or coming off his line at just the right time. And yet, here he was on Sunday, cutting down Di Vaio barely five minutes into the match. Then, there’s Goncalves, whom we’ve seen use sound positioning and smart tackling on countless occasions. But he had to know that, after Reis was sent off, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to foul Martins in the area, even after he admitted that the Montreal midfield had been flopping all night. If he knows this, then why risk it? On its face, it’s not surprising that a team as young as the Revolution would commit immature fouls in a high-stakes game against one of the best clubs in the conference. That is, until you consider that two of their smartest players were the guilty parties.
5. Sunday’s game showed a much more mature side than the one that fell to another first place team not that long ago. It would be an understatement of the highest order that the Revolution’s 3-0 loss at Sporting Park on August 10 was a humbling experience. One that can send a team’s season into a dark alley. Between the two Kei Kamara headers, the two ejections, the loud Sporting Park partisans, and, yes, even a Benny Feilhaber goal, it was a nightmare of a match for the Revolution. But on Sunday, with the chips stacked against them right from the start, the Revolution didn’t fall victim to frustration in the midst of an unwinnable game. With the young guns leading the way, they scored two shorthanded goals, and probably could’ve had two more had Andrew Farrell and Lee Nguyen found a way to improve their aim at the near post. Sure, the late cautions to Rowe and Chris Tierney may have signaled that the Revolution were starting to unravel late. Yet, the Revolution did well to fight through the adversity. Heck, even Imbongo managed to keep his name off the misconduct summary.