Stunning displays of officiating and a league office faux pas took plenty of attention away from the players during an action-packed Week 24 in MLS:
1. Eyes on the man in the middle
As D.C. United coach Ben Olsen marched out of the media room in the bowels of RFK Stadium Sunday night, he jokingly asked reporters to leave some cash to cover the fine he will surely receive for his cathartic comments regarding the performance by referee Mark Geiger during his club's 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union. At least he can keep a sense of humor and levity about things while major decisions that can potentially affect the outcome of the postseason race are made with little accountability.
It is easy for players and coaches to point the finger at the official when things don't go their way, but Sunday's instance in Washington was pretty dire. When players are "baffled" and "appalled" and claim the referee is "confused" (all words that emerged from the D.C. locker room, and the same sentiments were echoed by Union players), that's hardly an encouraging sign, especially when the stakes are high. Geiger, one of two CONCACAF officials who worked the men's Olympic tournament and the reigning MLS Referee of the Year, has unfortunately been at the center of controversy on a few occasions this season, and his three red cards and two questionably disallowed goals were at the epicenter of the match between a D.C. team looking to regain a stable foothold in the playoffs and a Philadelphia one desperately trying to give the end of its season more meaning.
"It's the Geiger Show," a typically candid Olsen said. "He wants to make the big call to change games. It's what they do. Coming back from the Olympics, it was his show tonight. His show. Not about the players."
Much stemmed from Geiger's failure to take any action when Philadelphia had players walk slowly off the field while exiting the game on two occasions. That slowly evolved into emotions boiling over and players clashing physically as chaos ensued.
"If you do that over and over and over, eventually it's going to boil up, and that's what I'm talking about," Olsen said. "The managing of the game. Players see that, and it's frustrating, it's helpless."
Added Dwayne De Rosario, who was forced to retake a converted penalty after a light encroachment call in the waning moments of the match and ultimately missed: "When you start to lose the game like that, the first thing the referee should do is call the two captains and say, 'Listen, control your men, or else I'm going to start handing out cards.' There was nothing like that. It was just frustrating. (The officiating) needs to be better."
Geiger wasn't the only referee with suspect decision-making, as in the New York-Portland match that followed the D.C.-Philadelphia appetizer, Jasen Anno blew a play dead for a handball in the box before eventually allowing the goal that followed on Tim Cahill's shot in the run of play, much to the shock and dismay of the Timbers. Would the Red Bulls have gone ahead and scored on the ensuing penalty? There's a good chance, but that doesn't make the call any more reasonable.
"We can't get an answer out of the referee, he won't tell us," Timbers general manager and interim coach Gavin Wilkinson said. "And then you can see the replay very clearly, that he's blowing the whistle well before the ball has gone into the back of the net. Unless I had a different view to everyone else, the staff, and the players, the whistle was blowing. The whistle was blowing before the ball went into the back of the net, and then the decision was changed."
As long as referees don't have to explain their decisions and there is no public acknowledgement or disclosure of any officiating mishaps leading to demotions or punishments, the lack of accountability makes them an easy target for criticism. The fact that there was a pool reporter at Red Bull Arena to question Anno's decision about the Red Bulls' equalizer (Anno actually said he blew his whistle after Cahill's follow-up shot went in the goal. Replays show otherwise.) is certainly a practice that should be used regularly and would lend more insight to players, coaches and spectators for why a decision went a certain way.
Between the two Sunday night matches and the bizarre double red card given by Armando Villarreal in Montreal to Impact defender Hassoun Camara and San Jose forward Steven Lenhart that resulted in a penalty kick for the Earthquakes, former English referee Peter Walton, head of the new Professional Referee Organization charged with improving the level of officiating, will have his hands full with game film this weekend.
"The referee has got to realize that everything is a fight for the playoffs right now," De Rosario said. "They've got to be 100 percent with their calls, and as players are stepping their game up, they have to step their officiating up."
2. Robson's suspension fiasco
Some discipline is in order for the MLS Disciplinary Committee.
The fact that the MLS DC issued a one-game suspension to Vancouver Whitecaps Designated Player Barry Robson for kicking a ball in the direction of a referee Wednesday night is perfectly defensible and falls in line with past punishments this season for such an offense. That the committee waited until the night before the Whitecaps' next match to inform the club of the decision and then announce the decision publicly just hours before Saturday's afternoon game (which had a 1 p.m. start on the West Coast), however, is nothing short of irresponsible and makes for a PR mess that gives cause to those questioning the legitimacy of the process.
According to the Seattle Times, Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie said he didn't know Robson was suspended until 9 p.m. Friday, and Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said he didn't know until the morning of the game, both times at which long-thought-out game plans and lineups are set. The Disciplinary Committee's mission to clean up the game and hold players to a higher standard of gamesmanship on the field has been executed to a pretty successful degree, but there really is no excuse for the short notice, and the committee should hold itself to a higher standard when deciding taking action that has a direct impact on league results. More notice is necessary. It's as simple as that.
3. Wondolowski resumes quest for goal mark
By Chris Wondolowski's lofty standards, he had been in quite the slump. After all of the talk started to snowball of his assault on Roy Lassiter's MLS single-season goal record, one that has stood since the league's inaugural season in 1996, Wondolowski failed to score in four straight games and in six out of seven contests. The four-game drought doubled his longest scoreless stretch this season, but with his penalty kick conversion in Montreal Saturday night, he is set to resume his quest to become the new single-season goal king.
Wondolowski, who has tied his career-high with 18 goals, had not scored since having a converted penalty kick taken off the board after fellow MLS All-Star Justin Morrow was yards offside and correctly whistled for encroachment, so with nine games remaining, Wondolowski is charged with doing what he does best: Finishing a season strong. With eight goals in the last nine games last season and 10 goals in the final eight games of 2010, Wondolowski has a track record of closing out a season in style. He'll need to turn in another Usain Bolt-like dominant final leg of the season to catch Lassiter's tally of 27, though. Of San Jose's nine games left, three come against two of the Western Conference's most goal-prone defenses, Portland and Colorado. There is still hope for Wondolowski, but time is no longer on his side, and breaking the record is far from the certainty that it seemed more than a month ago, after his hat trick against Real Salt Lake had the 30-goal mark seem like a realistic possibility.
4. Zakuani inches closer to return to form
In a weekend where so many different stories and developments managed to grab headlines, one of the more redeeming accounts took place on the reserve level Sunday night, when Seattle Sounders winger Steve Zakuani scored twice in a match against the Los Angeles Galaxy to continue his comeback from a broken leg that nearly ended his playing career.
For Zakuani, the goals were his first in more than 16 months on any level and are perhaps a sign that he may yet be able to contribute to the Sounders' first team this season. Although he has made the substitute's bench a number of times and made one appearance that was one of the moments of the season to date, it has been a mostly frustrating fight back to fitness and form. The Sounders have taken an understandably cautious approach with bringing him back, yet with the club poised to make noise in the MLS postseason for the first time in their brief history, there is still the looming possibility that Zakuani emerges as a meaningful piece of the puzzle for Seattle this season. With his comeback continuing and the addition of on-loan Honduran Olympian Mario Martinez, Schmid is becoming flushed with attacking options in support of Fredy Montero, Eddie Johnson, Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Bill Gaudette (New York Red Bulls)
Defenders: Leo Gonzalez (Seattle Sounders), Darren O'Dea (Toronto FC), George John (FC Dallas)
Midfielders: Lamar Neagle (Montreal Impact), David Ferreira (FC Dallas), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders), Chris Rolfe (Chicago Fire), Sal Zizzo (Portland Timbers)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy), Kei Kamara (Sporting Kansas City)