Was it a handball?
Peter Vermes was unequivocal after Sporting Kansas City's 1-0 loss in their Western Conference Semifinal at Houston Dynamo FC, steadfast his group deserved a penalty kick – and man advantage – when Erik Sviatchenko appeared to handle Dániel Sallói's goal-bound follow-up shot in the 41st minute.
"There's no doubt in my mind. It's a handball," SKC's manager and sporting director said postgame. "Actually, it's a handball and then a red card because it's stopping a goal-scoring situation. But unfortunately, they didn't call it."
The flashpoint in question came moments after Franco Escobar's 39th-minute headed goal, the eventual game-winner that sent Houston into their first Western Conference Final since 2017. And Vermes was vexed that referee Guido Gonzales Jr. didn't go to the Video Review monitor for further inspection.
"It's not a hard decision to make when you have replay," Vermes said. "When a player kind of picks his arms up to make himself a little bit bigger, even if his hands are out to the side, it doesn't matter. He saves the ball with his hand. Normally speaking, a player will put his hands behind his back. His hands are to the side and up a little bit on the left."
SKC captain Johnny Russell echoed Vermes' assertion, while noting plenty else unfolded at Shell Energy Stadium on Sunday evening.
"I'm not going to sit and say that's why we lost the game. It's not," Russell said. "But in games as tight as this and in occasions like this, I don't understand why referees aren't 100% sure. He's saying it hits his chest. It clearly doesn't. So I don't know why you're leaving it to VAR."
For his part, Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen cared little that SKC didn't get an equalizing opportunity from the penalty-kick spot.
"I haven't seen it; I don't care," Olsen said. "I'm not really sure what a handball is anymore. It was by his side, I'm assuming, and they said it was part of his body. I'm not sure. It was probably one of those they could call or not. We got the, I guess, benefit of the doubt."
A sense of pride
SKC started the year winless through their first 10 games (0W-7L-3D), with supporters expressing frustration at the apex of the team's struggles. But Vermes' group responded en route to an Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs spot, earning the West's No. 8 seed on Decision Day.
"I know they [the fans] are going to be back behind us next year, and we just have to show what we've shown up until this point, especially after those first 10 games," Russell said.
"The fight-back we've shown, some of the play we've shown, some of the games that we've put on, especially at home, we have to do that all next year. And it has to be from the very start. We can't be playing catch up. That's two seasons in a row now that we've left ourselves too much to do."
Sporting, the West's best team since May, saw their turnaround run out of steam on Thanksgiving weekend.
"We showed a tremendous amount of grit, we showed a tremendous amount of belief in one another, from our staff to players and ownership. ... I don't want this result to take away from what we accomplished this year," goalkeeper Tim Melia said.
"We were able to overcome such a massive hole and that takes a lot of work, a lot of effort. We should, when we're able to kind of decompress and look back on that, that's something we should be proud of."