HARRISON, N.J. – Somewhere, the Soccer Gods must be laughing.
Because in all of the craziness that transpired in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between D.C. United and New York – from home venue swaps, to red cards, to a snowed-out match – United were awarded what can only amount to some sort of karmic retribution in the form of a call by referee Mark Geiger.
In the 72nd minute of Thursday’s match at Red Bull Arena, Geiger issued a straight red card to United goalkeeper Bill Hamid for his tackle on a streaking Kenny Cooper, who also was awarded a penalty kick as a result of the play in the box.
Cooper scored his first attempt, but Geiger called encroachment, forcing Cooper to try the kick again. His shot was saved by backup goalkeeper Joe Willis, and with that stop, so too was D.C.’s season.
“Watching the PK? [I had a] borderline heart attack,” United center back Brandon McDonald said. “It is what it is. Joe made an unbelievable save and I think this win just shows the character of this team.”
A nearly-identical situation played out in Philadelphia’s favor against D.C. an August match at RFK Stadium. United captain Dwayne De Rosario made his first penalty to give D.C. the lead, only to have Geiger wave the play off for encroachment. De Rosario’s second attempt sailed high over the crossbar and the match ended in a 1-1 draw.
Following that match, a livid Olsen called the events that transpired the “Geiger show,” and was later fined for his postgame comments. United’s young coach was far more complimentary of the officiating on Thursday.
“We saw that once before against Philadelphia, ironically,” Olsen said. “I thought he was good all night long. He controlled the game, he didn’t call a lot of silly stuff. He let the game go even though it was physical.”
As Willis, 24, jogged across the sideline and onto the field to a chorus of boos from the Red Bulls’ supporters, Olsen smiled and playfully kicked him in the butt. Willis, literally and metaphorically cold, then high-fived Perry Kitchen and stepped into the goal to face a player who was 10 for 10 on spot kicks in his MLS career.
“You don’t have a lot of time to think, you’ve just got to get ready and get out there,” Willis said.
Willis did, however, have enough time to remember a bit of advice goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad gave him before the match.
“We had a similar situation last year when we played in Portland,” Willis said. “[Cooper] took a PK, he went one side, it got called back and he went to the other side. I was lucky that Pat reminded be about that before the game and I was lucky that I made the save.”
United have been a little lucky, too, as they continue their run through the postseason – perhaps no event in D.C.’s campaign coming as beautifully full circle as Geiger’s call did on a chilly Thursday night in Harrison.
“We’ve had a little luck along the way, but who hasn’t?” Olsen said. “You need that and I just think we’ve got some guys with good character. You start to add enough guys up with character and things tend to go right for them.”