COLUMBUS, Ohio—Just seven minutes into Sunday’s MLS Cup final, Columbus Crew SC trailed the Portland Timbers by two goals.
The match started with a Steve Clark error that led to one Portland goal, and just moments later another odd play resulted in a second.
Aiming for fullback Alvas Powell, Portland’s Diego Chara misplaced a pass that appeared to go out of bounds before Powell’s lunge to keep it in. The ball bounced to Crew SC midfielder Tony Tchani, who took a touch in what seemed an attempt to push the ball back out for a throw-in.
But Darlington Nagbe took advantage of the lull, taking the ball from Tchani and finding Lucas Melano, whose first-touch cross found a streaking Rodney Wallace for a header and the eventual game-winning goal as Tchani looked on in disbelief.
“I kind of just let him go," Tchani said. "I [thought] they’re probably going to give the ball back. And then they went and scored against us and I felt pretty bad. … I just don’t get it. The ball was on my feet; if the ball is at my feet, I’m not going to stop if it wasn’t out. It was probably a yard out.”
Tchani wasn’t the only one confused by the lack of a whistle from referee Jair Marrufo or an indication from his assistant.
“It’s pathetic that the linesman didn’t make that call,” Justin Meram said. “I was right there. I saw it. But that’s part of the game; what can we do? We can’t blame the officials. He didn’t see it. We have to be more in-tune and play until we hear the whistle. Essentially, it’s on us. It’s just one of those things. We were just on the wrong end of it.”
From the other side of the field, Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter didn’t have a great vantage point. And after the match, he said he still hadn’t seen a replay of the incident:
“I have absolutely no idea what happened. In professional sports, you play until either the ball is out of bounds or there is a whistle. We have to keep playing. From my viewpoint, I couldn’t see a thing.”
Even Melano acknowledged he wasn’t quite sure what happened.
“The truth is I didn’t see [if the ball went out],” Melano said. “Alvas was there on the play, I was looking to get forward quickly, I had my back to the play, I didn’t see it. But I continued with the play and I remember that Darlington had the ball. I opened up so he could pass it to me and he did.”
Marrufo was asked after the match if play should have been stopped when Chara’s pass seemed to go out of bounds. The referee stood by his team’s decision.
"If the ball had clearly crossed the line, a throw-in should have been given,” he responded. “However, the assistant referee did not see the ball leave the field of play."
The explanation was more than Tchani received, according to the midfielder. He said the linesman didn’t respond to his questions, and was baffled yet again by Marrufo’s explanation.
“I went and talked to [the linesman] and he didn’t say anything,” Tchani said. “I talked to the ref and he told me nobody stopped. But obviously everybody stopped. And he told me nobody stopped.”
Ultimately, the goal was a gut-punch for Columbus.
Even as a team that was no stranger to comebacks this season, Kei Kamara admitted that the early 2-0 deficit allowed for some doubt to creep into his mind.
“To be honest, it was tough,” Kamara said. “It was tough to really see [the scoreboard]. It was one of those where – never say never – but you’re like, ‘We’ve done it so much this year. Maybe this time it’s not going to be that one time you actually get back into it.’”