WASHINGTON—There's a strong statistical case why D.C. United dropped their Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinal opener to the New York Red Bulls on Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium: They finished the match without a single shot on goal, and their passing percentage (54.5 percent) ranked among the league's lowest all season.
But the 1-0 loss was also dictated by a few “what-ifs” – none larger than a yellow card issued to Red Bulls defender Ronald Zubar in the 69th minute, a call that had D.C. players and coaches seeing red.
On a loose ball, Zubar charged away from his own 18-yard box, going to ground at full speed as United midfielder Markus Halsti embarked on his own challenge. Zubar missed the ball, but certainly not the Finnish international, who went down under the contact.
United’s players and coaches protested. Fans howled for a red, which certainly would’ve changed the complexion of the match. After a minute, referee Fotis Bazakos issued a yellow.
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After the game, United head coach Ben Olsen’s view hadn’t changed.
“That had all the ingredients as to what they’ve been saying is a red card in this league,” Olsen said. “That doesn’t matter all the time. It is what it is.”
In a hushed United locker room, others echoed Olsen's sentiments.
Forward Chris Rolfe: “That’s a red card. No doubt.''
Forward Fabian Espindola: “I think the way this league is managing things, that’s a red card. It doesn’t matter now.”
As for Halsti? The central midfielder said he hadn’t gotten a second look at the play, but expressed frustration at what he perceived to be erratic officiating, league-wide.
“I think it’s a little bit like a red card,” Halsti said. “It’s a tough game. What can I say: It’s the ref who makes the decision, and it was his decision. I haven’t seen it – I just saw he was coming, and I’m lucky that I’d just hit the ball and [already started to move out of the way.] It could easily be a red card."
Meanwhile, in the opposing locker room, New York head coach Jesse Marsch suggested the challenge might not have been a foul at all.
“It looked like he got ball,” Marsch said. “It was an aggressive challenge obviously, but you could argue that it wasn’t even a foul because I think he got ball.”
Zubar, responsible either way, seemed fine with the decision as it played on the field.
“I don't say it shouldn't be a foul,” Zubar said. “If the referee gives a whistle, then it's because for him it's a foul. But everybody came in screaming, 'Hey it's a red card! Red card!' I don't think it should be a red card.
"I just always try to play the ball … the ref said that because my speed was a little bit higher and I went too fast, maybe I might hurt the player, so that's why he gave me a yellow.”
Additional reporting by Charles Boehm