A half-dozen goose eggs rolled onto the MLS slate this weekend, as three goalless draws bogged down the proceedings a bit and dragged the Week 21 goals-per-game average south of 2.0 (19 goals in 10 games), rekindling memories of the goal-drought that hit the early part of the season.
But outshining the few lackluster outings were a youth-inspired comeback in LA, a rejuvenated midfielder in Chicago, and a stoppage-time rally in New England – not to mention Chivas USA’s first win since March 30.
And the week’s most anticipated game generated its biggest story as the MLS conference leaders, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, squared off in an explosive match at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The hard-fought game featured some questionable refereeing decisions, an ejection, a last-gasp winner, and a 2-1 result that left RSL fans and coaches fuming.
But did they have a legitimate gripe?
Let’s take a look.
Before the top-of-the-table clash, Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis told his players to be prepared for a physical match. Sporting Kansas City, the league leaders in fouls committed, were going to initiate contact, Kreis believed, and he told his players they would “have to keep focused, move on from decisions that are tough and move on from getting fouled a lot and try to keep your focus in the game.”
Considering how the game began, it’s not hard to imagine what else might have been said during RSL’s pregame chatter. Perhaps there was talk of matching SKC’s physicality, of making sure not to be intimidated or pushed around by the visitors.
Starting with a Bang
Whatever the specifics of the team’s pregame message, it seems that Real Salt Lake defender Chris Wingert took the “be prepared for a physical match” advice a little too much to heart.
WATCH: Wingert smashes Kamara early
In the fifth second of the game – two passes after the opening kickoff – Wingert body-checked Sporting attacker Kei Kamara, throwing his shoulder into Kamara’s head and whiplashing him to the ground.
The sheer earliness of the infraction seemed to work in Wingert’s favor, as even the most experienced referee (which this one was not, but more on that shortly) is often unprepared to show a red card on essentially the first play of the game.
But that’s what this ref, Matthew Foerster, should have done. Go look at the replay. Wingert makes no attempt to play the ball, and while he may not have meant to deliver a head shot to Kamara, that’s exactly what he did, and Kamara stayed down for more than two minutes. Foerster and his assistant on the side where the play occurred both had a good view of the hit and Wingert played on, receiving only a yellow card.
Tooth and Nail
True to expectations, the game that followed was an intense, physical affair. There were eight bookings and 26 fouls. Foerster, refereeing just his 16th professional game, had a rough outing. He failed to set the proper tone in response to Wingert’s Ray Lewis imitation, and then struggled to establish it all night, his performance plagued with inconsistencies.
RSL took the lead in the 56th minute when Sporting KC 'keeper Jimmy Nielsen spilled a high ball in his box and Robbie Findley headed it home.
WATCH: Wingert sent off for second yellow
Ten minutes after that, Wingert grabbed Kansas City forward Soony Saad by the waist as Saad eluded him near the touchline. The SKC player went down (a little easily, sure, but Wingert gave him the opportunity), the linesman’s flag went up, and Foerster produced a second yellow for the RSL defender, who finally got the ejection he deserved in the game’s opening moments.
Less than a minute after Wingert’s second yellow, Sporting tied the game, with Saad swiveling skillfully to pound a loose a ball into the net from six yards out.
With the score tied 1-1, the officials indicated there would be five minutes of stoppage time. During that period, there were two further delays – first Javier Morales stayed down after a challenge from Oriol Rosell, then an altercation in the RSL box between center back Nat Borchers and SKC defender Aurélien Collin (whose professional foul just minutes earlier had gone unpunished by Foerster) led to a small scrum.
As Foerster attended to that, Collin’s teammate Ike Opara sailed in and shoved an RSL player – with no response from the official. After the players were separated, Sporting won a corner kick and Opara headed in Graham Zusi’s cross to send RSL to a gut-punch 2-1 defeat.
The game’s final minutes were chaotic, and betrayed the ref’s lack of experience, but there were moments the officials could point to as justification for extending stoppage time.
Kreis spent the bulk of his media session after the match – which ended RSL’s unbeaten run at 11 games – criticizing Foerster, saying that in his view, “the referee owns this game” and later interrupting his assessment of his third-string goalkeeper, Jeff Attinella, to volley another unsolicited shot at Foerster.
WATCH: Kreis sounds off on "poor" officiating
When asked about the second yellow to Wingert, Kreis said, “I just watched the replay because I wanted to come in here with facts rather than just opinions. It’s a poor decision – an incredibly poor decision against us. Chris barely touches the player, who falls down. Then he's given his second yellow card.”
The coach’s proclamation about watching the replay begs the question of whether or not he watched the replay of Wingert’s first booking.
The RSL side will complain, with reason, about the referee’s inexperience and his inconsistency, but the truth remains that the man in the middle’s shortcomings worked in RSL’s favor in a huge moment in the very first seconds of the game.
If the ref had gotten it right on that decision, the home team would have been down to 10 men not just for 24 minutes, but for close to 90.