It was the talking point of the post-match press conference, a moment that took focus away from Nashville SC's convincing 3-1 win over New York City FC in a clash of Eastern Conference powerhouses Friday night at Nissan Stadium.

And that moment, a melee that resulted in red cards to Nashville’s Dax McCarty and NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez, was “very avoidable,” according to Nashville SC boss Gary Smith.

Smith said much of the blame was on the shoulders of referee Tim Ford for managing the game, and especially the moments immediately before the double sending off in the 45th minute, saying Ford “needed to take control of the situation a little bit stronger.”

“The referee was vague about what should be done,” Smith said. “And there were things that went on before that that started to boil over. A team goes two goals down when they started the game well, it can have an impact on players as well.”

Tempers boiled over just before halftime when Ford called for a drop ball, though Smith said there was confusion from his side on what the referee actually directed. Ford placed the ball at McCarty’s feet and, after a second of inactivity, Moralez escaped with the ball. McCarty chased down Moralez, bungling him over, and that’s when the confrontation ensued.

“I wasn’t quite sure what he was asking the players,” Smith said. “Of course, I’m not next to him, but it seemed like he was saying ‘OK, you’ve got the ball, but where are you going with it?’ Dax was surrounded by three or four New York City players. OK, are we playing on? Are they allowing us to restart from the goalkeeper? It looked like it should have been a foul and it wasn’t. To give a drop ball, which is really what that is, I think Dax was bemused from his actions as to what the next steps were. Maxi, understandably, took advantage of that and said well, 'OK if you’re not going to play I’m going to get going.'”

While not condoning the skirmish, Smith also said there wasn’t much there – “handbags,” he called it – and was “bitterly disappointed” with his 34-year-old captain’s sending off, the first straight red card of his career.

“It’s a shame for him because he missed a game through suspension and now he’ll serve another one,” Smith said. “My hope is, just to sort of close the book on this, that maybe the Competitions Committee have a look at it and it’s not as bad as we all thought it was. I know there were players that are coming off the touchlines, and it’s not acceptable, but the actual actions and conflict on the field was, I’m hoping, was far more passive than maybe we thought to begin with it. There was a lot of huffing and puffing.”

The incident took the focus away from a decisive win for Nashville SC, one in which they absorbed early pressure, took a two-goal lead into halftime and iced what had become a cagey affair, on Hany Mukhtar’s second goal of the game.

“I think it soured what was an incredible result for us with a lot of players missing, we continue our home form here against a very, very good team,” Smith said. “Certainly I’m not saying they didn’t deserve anything out of the game, but tonight we found the more important moments.”