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MLS Weekend Review: Referees and woodwork take over the spotlight

Monday 9th April 2018

In the first full slate of matches last week, Major League Soccer’s players dominated the storylines. This week, it was more about neutral parties, as in the referees and woodwork. Let me catch you up on the weekend’s events.

Three Stars

3. Nemanja Nikolic -- Zack Steffen is a young goalkeeper. The Columbus Crew netminder was born the year before MLS began play. When you’re 23, you often think you're more clever than you are. Such was the case for Steffen as he backpedalled in the 28th minute of the match between his Crew and Chicago Fire. He was drawing Fire winger Alan Gordon in, with the intent to pass it beyond him to Will Trapp when Gordon came too close. The real trap was sprung when he did. Nikolic sprinted over to cut out the pass drift wide and slot behind the exposed keeper. At the writing, there is no word on whether Pep Guardiola sent encouragement.

2. Richard Sanchez's woodwork -- Chicago did not deserve their first win. Gyasi Zardes rang his shot off the bar when in on Sanchez for the second time. Sanchez saved the first. Later, though, the 24-year-old Fire keeper watched Mohamed Abu’s curler lose its battle with the upright. In all, Columbus attempted 21 shots to Chicago’s five but only put two on target. The Fire managed one and it went in. Between them, Nickola and Sanchez proved you must take your chances when they come and that the posts are a young keeper’s best friend.

1. Kevin Stott -- Even if you follow MLS, you might be asking, “Who?” That’s because match officials are expected to be anonymous, VAR officials doubly so. Stott had the mouse instead of the whistle for Orlando City v Portland Timbers 24 hours after the video review debacle that was Atlanta United v LAFC. Stott promptly displayed the reason VAR exists. On the quarter-hour, the Timbers worked the ball around the Lions box. A deadly through ball found Sebastian Blanco who used his first touch to move into the six-yard box. Mohamed el-Monir took his legs out from behind. Referee Baldomero Toledo’s position was such it appeared a dive to him. He showed Blanco his second yellow and sent him off. Stott provided Toledo with a view from behind the goal, and the referee corrected his error. Diego Valeri converted the resultant penalty. Stott saved fans from a one-sided match and set the stage for a remarkable fight-back that is a story for a bit further down.

Cry Unkel

One person on the pitch who didn’t deserve a star this week was match official Ted Unkel. In the first minute between Atlanta United and LAFC, the referee gave Atlanta centre-half Chris McCann a straight red card for a hard challenge on the Wings’ Benny Feilhaber. Replays showed McCann coming in hard, arriving first, getting the ball, keeping his studs down, and only clattering with Feilhaber on the follow through, well after the ball had left the vicinity. After consulting VAR, Unkel allowed McCann back on the pitch, exchanging the red for a yellow.

It was a dubious start to the match, but the end was literally twice as bad.

On 84 minutes, Atlanta were in control, up 2-0. Miguel Almiron charged into the box from the left. Walker Zimmerman timed his tackle perfectly, sticking his right leg in to knock the ball over the end line. Almiron tripped over Zimmerman’s leg and rolled almost the entire way to goal. After VAR, Unkel awarded the ridiculous performance with a penalty. Almiron converted.

A minute later, United had a free kick from just outside the box. Kevin Kratz drove it at the LAFC wall, directly towards Joao Mouthinho’s face. The Portuguese raised his forearm instinctively. Unkel awarded a penalty on a play that should have been ruled ball to hand with a corner given. Almiron converted again.

With Moutinho sent off for a second yellow, United piled on the misery, making it 5-0 through Romario Williams.

It’s easy to blame VAR for this performance, but the responsibility lies solely with Unkel. He made the wrong call to start the match but corrected it after review. He then ruled Zimmerman’s excellent tackle a foul after reviewing it and certainly should have changed his mind on Moutinho after realising there was nothing for the player to do but protect himself. Technology can help the game. The human overseeing it must be competent, however. On this day, Unkel was not. He had LAFC crying his name.

Carpentry denies Galaxy

After a thrilling MLS debut, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was less impactful in his second match stateside. The Swede provided his team at least one chance to get back in the game against Sporting Kansas City, but the Wizards had too much help from the goalposts. Three times the uprights denied the Galaxy, handing three points to the Western Conference’s top side.

On 35 minutes, Ashley Cole curled in a long cross to the far side of the eighteen. Chris Pontius rose to meet it cleanly, but his header rang harmlessly off the outside of the upright.

Eight minutes later, Cole collected a diagonal ball at the top of the 18. Turning to the outside, he curled a left-footed volley across goal. Whether or not Tim Melia got his fingertips to the shot before it bounced, then rebounded off the post, is for someone with better eyes than me to decide. It was easy to see that LA could have been 2-0 up, however.

Galaxy were made to pay in the second half. On 55 minutes, Daniel Solloi’s deflected shot found the twine during a poorly defended corner. Five minutes later, Johnny Russell chipped the ball between Daniel Steres and Ashley Cole, nimbly leapt after it, charged into the box, and calmly toe-poked past David Bingham into the far corner.

Ibra took the pitch to attempt another stunning comeback. The woodwork was waiting. On the counter, the Swede fed Ola Kamara. The Norwegian backheeled for Romain Alessandrini, whose 20-yard blast rocked the bar.

In addition, Zlatan put three shots on target after coming on in the 62nd minute but was unable to beat Melia.

Lions roar

Following Diego Valeri’s first-half penalty, the match between Orlando City and Portland Timbers calmed down until Jake Gleeson had to stop Justin Meram point-blank when the Iraqi international thought he had an easy back-door tap-in.

The woodwork made its presence felt in this match, as well. Two minutes after the restart, Portland worked the left side and found a way through only for Sebbe Blanco’s shot to hit the bar. Portland tried their luck on the left again, this time working the ball around to Valeri on the right. The Argentine’s shot against the grain evaded Joe Bendik but not the base of the post.

Finally, Bill Tuiloma’s backdoor header from a wide set-piece put Portland up two on the hour. Twenty minutes later, they were beginning to believe their first win of the season was coming. It wasn’t.

Christopher Mueller flicked a near-post header beyond Jake Gleeson to put Orlando in the match with 11 minutes remaining. With a flare’s purple haze still lingering over the goal, referee Baldomero Toledo somehow picked out a foul in the box after missing one with a clear sky in the first half. Toledo shouldered his way into the box, possibly saying “Excuse me,” while he pointed to the spot rather than the sky. Sacha Kljestan levelled terms.

Five minutes later, Dom Dwyer raced in from the right, slipped as he tried to Cruyff two defenders, kept his feet, hooked the ball back to the outside, then beat Gleeson near-post to steal all three points.

In the end, it was Portland who left in a purple daze. Orlando City had put a spell on them, turning victory into a third loss in their first five matches, leaving them only two points to show for the season.

What else could happen?

  • Saphir Taider's foolish, barging tackle on Luis Caicedo at the midfield touchline put Montreal Impact down a man after 13 minutes on Friday night. The New England Revolution took full advantage, scoring four through Teal Bunbury, Andrew Farrell, Diego “scoring for” Fagundez, and Wilfried Zahibo.
  • Alejandro Bedoya’s perfectly timed mad dash to the back door rescued a point for Philadelphia Union against San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday.
  • Christian Colman’s 89th-minute header saved FC Dallas’ bacon against Colorado Rapids in another one-goal draw.
  • Real Salt Lake scored one in first-half stoppage time and a second on 88 minutes, rendering Brek Shea’s 92nd-minute strike consolation in Vancouver Whitecaps loss at Real Salt Lake.

On tap

CONCACAF Champions League -- The semifinal second legs play out tomorrow night. New York Red Bull host Chivas Guadalajara down 0-1 from the first leg. Jesse Marsch, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Co must win by two goals to reach the finals while avoiding extra time and penalties.

Toronto FC journey to the fabled Azteca to take on Club America. The MLS Cup winners hold a 3-1 advantage in the tie, but the away goal complicates matters. Cancelling it out would put them on much firmer ground. Easier said than done at the Mexican national team’s fortress.

MLS -- The 2018 season’s first midweek fixture takes place on Wednesday. New York City FC welcome Real Salt Lake to Yankee Stadium. There are eleven more matches spread over a three-day weekend. We’ll have a lot to talk about in the MLS Grab Bag on Friday.

See you then.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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