HARRISON, N.J. – Is it possible that one whistle could push the Philadelphia Union from first place in the Eastern Conference down to a wild card spot when the regular season ends this weekend?
That’s the tune Philly manager Peter Nowak was singing after the Union’s disappointing 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on Thursday night, in front of a sold-out crowd that included at least 1,000 Union supporters who made the trip up the Jersey Turnpike.
Nowak praised his team’s effort in the regular-season finale but lamented the offsides call that took what would have been the game-tying goal off the board in the 67th minute.
“We live in a country that you can criticize everyone, including the president and the federal government, but we cannot criticize the referees,” a frustrated Nowak said after the game. “This is a bad sign going into the playoffs.”
The play in question came when Sébastien Le Toux hit a long free kick into the box toward teammates Carlos Valdés and Danny Califf. The ball took a bounce between the two and into the net, perhaps grazing the diving Valdés’ head.
It was a source of some debate whether Le Toux or Valdés scored, but it became a moot point when the offsides flag was shown. Replays show both Califf and Valdés right around Red Bull defenders when the ball leaves Le Toux’s foot but it’s hard to tell for certain if either one of them made their run too early.
Nowak and the Union players, however, were convinced it should have counted.
“I didn’t see anything wrong with the goal,” Califf said. “Considering we didn’t get any calls all night and for him to take one away that really wasn’t offsides was a bit frustrating and disappointing.”
“At the beginning, I just thought it was a foul on Carlos,” Le Toux added. “I only heard after by the coaching staff that it was offsides.”
Of course, the Union may have still suffered the defeat, even if that goal had stood. Either way, because of the loss, Philly can no longer supplant Sporting Kansas City for first place in the Eastern Conference and could fall from its current perch in second.
If Columbus and Houston both win their final games this weekend – against Chicago and the LA Galaxy, respectively – the Union will drop to fourth in the Eastern Conference and play a wild card game either next Wednesday or Thursday. If either Columbus or Houston lose or draw, the Union remain in second in the East and move directly into next weekend’s conference semifinals.
“It’s frustrating,” Le Toux said. “But we have to move on and think about the playoffs.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.