Sunday, August 27, 2006

It's the Saturday Night Soccer Report -- DC United comes apart: I want my money back -- refunds should be in order after this turkey tonight. Allegedly, there was a professional soccer game at RFK tonight, but I saw few signs of it. Of course, I arrived about ten minutes late, and apparently missed some early, inspired play, by the L.A. Galaxy. The Galaxy served United a real drubbing, winning 5-2 in a match that, in some ways, wasn't as close as the score might suggest.

I suppose, if you're a Galaxy fan, you can take some heart from the result. The Galaxy has really struggled to score all year, though they have shown signs of improvement, lately. Though they did not turn in a commanding performance tonight, the Galaxy showed they are still the finest counterattacking team in MLS. Pluto may have been demoted from planetary status this week, but the Galaxy is serving notice that they are a team on its way back to the top echelon of the league.

United, the team with the best record in MLS, turned in a desultory performance, which will surely be remembered, along with last year's ignominious effort in exiting from the playoffs against the Fire, as one of the worst games United has ever played. In fact, United had the better of the possession, by far, with most of the game played in the L.A. end. After one-half of play, D.C. and L.A. were tied, at 1-1. Yet, United was never particularly dangerous. Their first goal was actually an own goal scored when an attempted clearance deflected off L.A. defender, Chris Albright, into the Galaxy net (Albright later tallied to put the Galaxy in the lead to stay). It wasn't until midway through the second half that D.C. finally scored on its own, when Facundo Erpen was able to get his head on the end of a Christian Gomez free kick and redirected it enough to elude the L.A. keeper, Kevin Hartman.

I can't even give Erpen too much credit, since, I believe, it was he that may have made the worst play of the game. In stoppage time, Erpen took a quick restart near midfield, and kicked directly at the feet of Galaxy substitute, Herculez Gomez. Gomez, no doubt, was surprised to find the ball at his feet, but not so surprised that he couldn't lift a ball over the United defense for Landon Donovan.

If Erpen's play wasn't the worst, then that honor might have to go to goalie Troy Perkins, who tried to defend against Donovan by going to the ground, before Donovan even hit the box. Donovan, then, probably had the easiest run at goal he's ever had, as he went past Perkins, who had time to get to his feet and dive yet again, but by that time Donovan was past him and had an easy chip into the undefended net. In Perkins' defense, his strangely timed dive might have been an overreaction to his earlier poor play, when he sprawled far too late at the onrushing Quavas Kirk, and took Kirk down, resulting in a penalty shot that Donovan powered through Perkins attempted save.

As scandalously bad as United's play was, I must point out that the refereeing in this game was an ever greater scandal. Most of the crowd booed lustily after Perkins was called for his foul in the box, myself included, but replays confirmed that this was a correct call -- one of the last in the game. Trailing now 3-1, United pressed forward, and saw some result. Joshua Gros tried to take a ball in from the wing with a rush towards the box, and he was hooked down from behind. Despite the flagrant tackle from behind, no card was given, though a foul was whistled. The ensuing free kick did result in D.C.'s only goal, and United was back in the game, but the failure to issue a card, for a flagrant tackle from behind, was an omen of bad things to come.

With the score again close at 3-2, D.C. fans entertained thoughts of their heroes rallying for at least a tie. United, though was done in by the deadly Galaxy counterattack, and excruciatingly weak officiating. Everyone in the stadium except the linesman and the referee seemed to see that Kirk was offside as the pass came to him on the wing. Kirk had Perkins dead to rights, but the goal was officially called an own goal by D.C.'s Brian Namoff. I can only surmise that Kirk's shot deflected off a sliding Namoff. Up to that moment, Namoff had been one of the few bright spots for United.

Done in by their porous defense, and bad officiating, D.C. gamely tried to reestablish itself, when they were truly finished off by one of the poorest referee's decisions in a long time. United's third and final substitution, Domenic Mediate was taken down by a totally reckless challenge, by Ugo Ihemelu, a vicious sliding tackle from behind. The referee's only reaction was to wave play on, as D.C. maintained possession. Now -- I have argued in the past that it is O.K. for a referee to play the advantage -- that is, to let play continue after a foul, if the team that was fouled maintains possession and is in the midst of an offensive rush. To do otherwise, could actually reward the offending team for its foul, by having the referee stop an attack that the fouling player was not able to do.

There is nothing that prevents the referee from issuing a caution (yellow card), or even a red card to the offending player at the next whistle. I have heard some commentators suggest that the system be formalized, like hockey, where the referee would signal a foul, but play would continue until the possession was lost. In hockey, the whistle isn't blown until the guilty team controls the puck, and then the delayed penalty is enforced, at that time. This could work in soccer, or the referee could wait, until there is a natural break in the action, before issuing his card.

In this case, with the foul on Mediate, a red card probably should have issued to Ihemelu. At the very least, a yellow caution was needed, but I felt that the foul called for an ejection. Instead, because Mediate was unable to return to play, having his ankle iced, D.C. was forced to play a man down for the final 15 minutes. Any chance of a comeback was effectively ended at that moment. It seemed clear that the referee realized that control was slipping away from him, as he issued a series of questionable yellow cards. I say questionable because none of those fouls compared in dangerousness to the two fouls discussed above -- the fouls suffered by Gros and Mediate, neither of which resulted in cards. The referee, Mark Geiger, has a lot of questions to answer about this game.

As does DC United and coach Peter Nowak -- They need to find answers to questions raised by their recent poor performances. They have stunk in league play throughout August. Their offense has been ineffectual and the defense occasionally vulnerable. Tonight, their offense seemed to really miss Freddy Adu and Christian Gomez, neither of whom started, reportedly because of ailing knees. In their place, Jamil Walker and Clyde Simms ran mostly aimlessly, especially Simms. Gomez’s absence was especially glaring. He does so many things for this team. For DC to play more consistently, they will need a healthy Gomez.

One solution that may present itself immediately is a lineup switch. After tonight’s effort, all-star goalie Troy Perkins may have played himself out of the lineup. Nick Rimando hasn’t started a league game yet, this year, but he was victorious in both of his U.S. Open Cup starts. I would expect to see Rimando in goal when D.C. United takes on surprising Chivas USA next Sunday (leaving open the question of who will tend the net in Chicago on Sept. 6th, in an Open Cup semifinal).

Speaking of Chivas USA, my night is concluding with a late broadcast of a tilt between Houston Dynamo and Chivas USA. Ante Razov has had a nice game for Chivas. He's one of a handful of players who, rather mysteriously, have never been taken seriously at the national team level, despite their obvious talent for scoring goals. For some reason, the U.S. national team coaches have preferred other players, even though the U.S. has always struggled to score. While there are many skills that make for top-level, world-class talented soccer players, goal-scoring is itself a rather unique skill, or talent. Anyone who ever saw Giorgio Chinaglia play should understand this. And yet, the U.S. coaches consistently undervalue the top goal-scorers in MLS. Sometimes, it seems that the more a player scores in MLS, the less seriously he is viewed as a national team prospect. Sure seems bass ackwards to me.

Speaking of bad officiating, Edwin De Rosario was taken down in the box in stoppage time, with Houston trailing by one goal. He was clearly in the box, moving towards goal, and the foul could not have been more obvious. This was no dive. He was taken down by a sliding defender, who made no play on the ball. If the referee though De Rosario had taken a dive, then he should have issued a card to De Rosario. Otherwise, he had to award a penalty kick. From the replays, it's clear that a penalty kick should have been awarded, and Houston should have had the chance to gain a tie. As hard as it is to believe that the referee could decide there was no foul by the defender...if he did make that decision, it is hard to understand why he wouldn't caution De Rosario for a dive. It had to be one or the other. One has to wonder if the referee was trying to atone for for a bad call in awarding a penalty kick to Houston earlier in the game, when the Dynamo player not only took a dive, but had no chance of getting to the ball in the first place.

As bad as Mark Geiger's officiating was, at RFK, tonight, this was even worse, because the game was on the line at that moment. You will never see a more glaring failure to award a penalty kick. This foul was a thousand times worse than the phantom foul that Oguchi Onyewu allegedly committed in the box at the end of the first half of the U.S.-Ghana game, during the recent World Cup. I was in the front row, for that one, and I gave the German referee the business for it, at the half. I could not have been more upset at what I thought was a bad call to give a PK -- taking the game away from the U.S.

With the Houston-Chivas game tonight, I couldn't care less who won, so I didn't get very excited. But, when I see how obvious the foul was, and I consider the timing and circumstances (depriving Houston of the opportunity to take a well-earned, game-tying penalty shot, in stoppage time), this may have been the worst refereeing decision I have ever seen. No surprise that Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear (former U.S. national teamer) blew a gasket after the game.

By the way, who said there's no scoring in soccer? Not true in the MLS this Saturday night. Los Angeles' two teams won by 5-2 and 3-2 scores tonight. And the Red Bulls beat Real Salt Lake 6-0, playing almost the entire game with a man advantage (sorry, BardGuy).

The day started, for me, with a bunch of English (EPL) soccer. I love Saturdays. Tim Howard's Everton squad turned in a brave effort, beating Tottenham 2-0, despite playing a man down. I'd like to say that Howard superbly kept his team in the game, but he wasn't really tested. Later, Manchester City upset Arsenal, despite being badly outplayed. Henry and Fabregas looked dangerous but they could not convert several excellent chances. It's funny, but it seems to me that City is much more successful when Claudio Reyna sits. No one seems to doubt that he is a great player, but since he left Scotland, he doesn't seem like a winning player.

Finally, in thinking about Tim Howard's future with the national team, it's interesting to note a comment reported in yesterday's Washington Post. The Post, ran a story previewing the upcoming season for the defending collegiate national soccer champion Maryland Terrapins. According to Steven Goff's piece, the key for the Terrapins this year may be "sophomore goalkeeper Chris Seitz, whose precocious play last year helped earn him a starting job on the U.S. under-20 national team this summer and put him on a fast track for a pro career." Maryland's coach, Cirovski, said of Seitz: "He's a special guy, and he's going to be playing in some World Cups." Good to know. Keep an eye out for him. Here's the link:

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