COLUMBUS, Ohio – For half an hour, Fabián Espíndola had bitten his tongue. He'd been getting an earful from Columbus Crew fans all half, and it had gotten under his skin.
In the 31st minute of D.C. United's 1-1 draw with the Crew on Saturday, Espíndola made a run down the far sideline and found himself on the end of a perfectly weighted through ball from United midfielder Nick DeLeon. The Argentinian made no mistake, smashing an angled shot into the roof of the net.
Espíndola knew just where to go to celebrate his strike, sprinting 70 yards up the sideline to gesture towards his hecklers, raising both his hands to his ears as if to say "I can't hear you."
"Normally, I don't like to do stuff like that," Espindola told MLSsoccer.com after the match. "But frankly, they were disrespecting me, so I did."
The gesture only served to rile the Crew faithful up even more, but then again, Espíndola may have designed it that way. His scrappy, physical play was crucial to United's efforts on Saturday evening, serving not only to acerbate the crowd, but to frustrate the Crew's players as well.
In wrestling terms, Espíndola most certainly played the role of a heel.
After the match, a wry smile came over United head coach Ben Olsen's face when he was asked whether he'd taken note of his striker's penchant for getting under his opponents' skin.
"Yes, I've noticed that," Olsen said. "He works his tail off. Honestly, he's not a lot of fun to play against. It's a good thing."
Espíndola was all over the place against the Crew, and though he could've done better with a pair of chances in the second half – including one that directly preceded the Crew's equalizer – his role was bigger off the ball than on it.
During the mass confrontation that followed Giancarlo Gonzalez's takedown of Eddie Johnson in the 71st minute, Espindola again took the opportunity to antagonize, getting in a shoving match with Crew midfielder Bernando Añor.
Just minutes later, a clearly agitated Añor would earn his marching orders, flying in with a rash, two-footed challenge on D.C. midfielder Perry Kitchen. Though impossible to know for sure, one can certainly imagine that the challenge was retaliatory in nature.
"Fabi is a special player," added Olsen. "He's going to continue to make special plays for this team. We're still figuring him out, and his teammates are still figuring him out, but I'm extremely happy we have him.
“He's proving to be the game-changer we thought he was."