WASHINGTON – Of all the dramatic Atlantic Cup fixtures across 24 years of animosity between the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United, the July 2003 meeting at RFK Stadium known simply as the “Cheatin’ Bob” game stands alone in the realm of bizarre.
Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory for the Red Bulls at Audi Field came close, though. If they ever stop talking about the officiating, they may someday call it “Cramping Luis.”
With the visitors trying desperately to complete a win that would take them above D.C. into fourth in the Eastern Conference, Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles suddenly felt his calves go stiff.
Soon he was on the ground. D.C. players were livid, believing the 35-year-old was time-wasting. But as one of the league elders, Robles insisted he was ashamed.
“I don’t even run. How is this possible?” he lamented postgame.
He went on.
“I’ve got no dignity at the moment. I’m so embarrassed on the field. I apologized to the coach. I apologized to the players. I apologized to the ref. It was just a bizarre scene.”
It was a kooky final stage in a strange night that saw both Wayne Rooney and Amro Tarek sent off before halftime and the match decided by a controversial penalty, awarded when Ismail Elfath ruled Lucas Rodriguez tripped Michael Murillo.
“It’s the wrong call, and it’s a dive, and it’s a second yellow,” said D.C. coach Ben Olsen. “He doesn’t need to blow the whistle. VAR is there. Wait and then you can decide after that. But he gets himself in trouble because he blows the whistle.”
Red Bulls defender Aaron Long was happy his side emerged with the win, but also couldn’t remember an evening between these clubs quite as disjointed.
“Especially this last 45 minutes with 10 men each, penalty calls, all that. This was the most chaotic for sure,” he said.
Perhaps knowing his opponents were already fuming, Robles didn’t want medical attention, and worried he might have to leave the field. But unlike 16 years ago, when the MLS rulebook allowed for a fourth goalkeeping substitution -- which then-MetroStars head coach Bob Bradley exploited to bring on winning goal scorer Eddie Gaven in overtime of a 1-0 MetroStars win at RFK Stadium -- there would be no replacement.
So Robles took to the turf, despite warnings from Elfath that he would add the time.
“He was in there getting a full body massage -- he can’t even walk,” Long said, pointing back toward the dressing room. “Lately he’s been cramping in games, so we’ve got pickle juice right next to the post.”
Elfath was good to his word, and eight minutes were put on the fourth official’s board when the clock hit 90. That was enough time for Robles to recover and make a few key stops to keep his side in front, including a point-blank denial of Rodriguez.
“In the end it looks like a great save, but I’m just trying to be as big as possible. And I’m very fortunate that it worked that way, because it’s a big play so late in the game. And I’m also lucky that I didn’t cramp up again,” he said.
At 10 past 10, Elfath’s whistle blew one last time, bringing an end to a rivalry that still packs a punch.
“I love these games. I do,” said Robles, who has played in eight years’ worth of Atlantic Cup matches. “Just because there’s a lot of history there.”