The 2014 MLS Cup playoffs kicked off Wednesday night at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, where FC Dallas defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps, 2-1, thanks to a controversial penalty kick. Here are three thoughts from the Western Conference knockout game:
• The Geiger Show
He drew rave reviews for his work at this summer’s World Cup, but not everyone in MLS is a fan of referee Mark Geiger. Originally coined by D.C. United coach Ben Olsen, the term “Geiger Show” evolved from postgame rant to hashtag as the contentious, game-changing calls accumulated. It’s probably now a phrase Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson will be using for a while.
Vancouver appeared to be on its way to forcing overtime after coming to life in the second half. Then it all slipped away in the 82nd minute, when a Dallas throw-in bounced in the penalty area and then off the right arm of Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston. The Costa Rican’s August arrival helped key a stretch run that ended with four consecutive shutouts, and he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win on Saturday that sealed the West’s fifth and final playoff spot. And Waston appeared to do just about everything right as the throw came his way, holding his arms at his side and twisting to avoid it. But Geiger blew the whistle anyway, and FCD midfielder Michel coolly dispatched the ensuing PK.
"This was a handling offense in the penalty area. This would be called at any moment of the match," Geiger wrote following the match in response to a question from a pool reporter. "Waston deliberately handled the ball, hence the PK was called."
The Whitecaps certainly didn't see it that way and confronted Geiger both immediately after the call and when the match concluded. The ball did hit Waston’s arm, but it was in a natural position and the ball appeared to do all the work. It was a brutal way to lose a hard-fought match, but not one that’s unheard of. After all, there’s already a term for it.
• Deflections Set the Stage
It was an ugly game settled in ugly fashion. Although both teams can attack with speed and flair, Wednesday’s knockout match featured plenty of fouls (42, compared to an MLS average of 25), yellow cards (seven) and misplayed passes. Fittingly, the first two goals came via deflection.
FCD coach Oscar Pareja looked like a genius in the first half when two relatively surprising starters, Mauro Díaz and Tesho Akindele, combined to lift the hosts into the lead. Plagued by injuries for much of the season, Díaz, a shifty playmaker, hadn’t played in more than a month and hadn’t started since Aug. 9. His insertion meant a Dallas shift from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1, with Panamanian marksman Blas Pérez alone up top and Akindele, the Canadian MLS Rookie of the Year candidate, attacking from out wide. In the 40th, Díaz won the ball from two Vancouver defenders and froze a third before slipping the ball to Akindele. His shot skimmed off the leg of the recovering Andy O’Brien and found the far-side netting. It was Akindele’s eighth goal of the year.
Dallas (17-12-6) was unable to capitalize further on its possession advantage then fell to the back foot in the second half as the Whitecaps (12-9-14) pressured more efficiently and brought in some speed off the bench. The visitors came close on a couple of set pieces before a 64th-minute Mauro Rosales free kick led to the equalizer. FCD’s Victor Ulloa misplayed a loose ball in the penalty area and Erik Hurtado hit a quick shot back off Ulloa and in.
• Dallas Deserving
Based on the balance of the game, the Whitecaps certainly deserved another 30 minutes. But based on the balance of a season during which there were times FCD looked like one of the top four teams in MLS, the hosts deserve an MLS Cup quarterfinal shot at the top-seed Seattle Sounders.
Dallas and the Supporters Shield winners played three times in 2014 and combined for 12 goals. The Sounders claimed the first two games but FCD bounced back with a 3-1 win on Sept. 24. Dallas is capable, if not always consistent, and it now has rallied around Pareja to claim its first playoff victory since the Western championship run of 2010.
Only three teams scored more regular season goals than FCD’s 55. The club boasts young, exciting attacking talent like Díaz, Akindele and Colombian winger Fabián Castillo, who put on a couple of dribbling exhibitions on Wednesday and has 10 goals this season. Matt Hedges has emerged as one of the top center backs in the league. Dallas operates a bit under the radar but has players worth watching. It’ll be their job to remind everyone that they’ve advanced to meet the Sounders for reasons other than Geiger’s call.
FCD will host the opener on Sunday. The second match of the aggregate-goals series will be Nov. 10 in Seattle.