MELEE UNTANGLED. In the two 2008 meetings of state rivals Houston and FC Dallas there have been 10 goals scored (including two stoppage-time equalizers), 49 fouls committed, and two players ejected.
By far the rowdier of the two games occurred Wednesday at Pizza Hut Park. That game produced 30 fouls and the ejections of Eddie Robinson and Andre Rocha after a scuffle broke out when Robinson shoved Marcelo Saragosa, who had barged into Robinson from behind.
Dallas play-by-play announcer Brad Sham cried out, "How is that not a penalty?" after Robinson's two-handed shove sent Saragosa to the ground as keeper Pat Onstad, who had collected a ball that Robinson had been shielding from Saragosa, tried to hurry the ball back into play.
Because replays of the scuffle were shown and re-shown during the next several minutes, during which a light but obvious slap to Robinson's face by Rocha could be detected, viewers weren't clear as to what referee Alex Prus had decided. But if they had seen play re-started by a Houston free kick at the spot Saragosa crashed into Robinson, they would have had their answer.
A penalty kick cannot be called if the ball is out of play, which includes stoppages for fouls or set plays, as well as the ball rolling into touch. That's why a player could be cautioned or even ejected while fighting for position in the penalty area awaiting a free kick or corner kick, but he can't be whistled for a foul and a resultant penalty kick.
Assuming Prus ruled Saragosa's push a foul, play would be restarted with a Houston free kick. Saragosa was cautioned, Robinson's hotheaded shove earned him a second caution and subsequent dismissal, and Rocha's foolish slap, benign though it was, resulted in a straight red, because in recent years FIFA has mandated a zero-tolerance policy for bickering players deliberately touching an opponent's face.
Remember that seemingly innocuous tap Chelsea forward Didier Drogba delivered to the chin of Nemanja Vidic in extra time of the Champions' League final? Minimal contact and negligible damage, yes, but still, off he went.
Only Prus, the assistant referees and the fourth official know if Prus blew his whistle for Saragosa's foul at about the same time Robinson was shoving him to the ground, or if he figured out what to do as he ran toward the melee.
KA-CHING. Houston equalized deep into stoppage time when Corey Ashe swung a cross from near the corner flag that defender Drew Moor seemed to have a bead on as it dropped into the goalmouth.
But with Houston forward Brian Ching right behind him, Moor failed to clear, and the ball bounced off him into Ching and ricocheted toward goal.
Keeper Dario Sala got enough of a fingertip on it to nudge it onto the crossbar, from whence it fell for Dwayne DeRosario to stroke it into the net.
Some replays suggested that Ching had shoved Moor just as he was about to head the ball, but one angle showed Moor lunging for the ball and making contact with his shoulder, not his head, and Ching not touching him until Moor had played the ball.
In any case, this wasn't nearly as clearcut as situation as a foul committed by Ching but not punished in the first meeting of the teams last month at Robertson Stadium. As a cross dropped into the box, Ching barreled into Sala, preventing the keeper from reaching a ball that Ching's teammate Franco Caraccio, stationed right behind Ching, headed into the net. Sala waved his arms incredulously, but referee Abiodun Okulaja let the goal stand.
That goal, too, resulted from a cross by Ashe. In Wednesday's game he scored Houston's first goal. In both games Houston scored late goals to snag a point, displaying the spirit and resiliency that has earned it two straight titles.
FC Dallas may have issues with the officials in matches against Houston, but it also needs to address closing out the final minutes, whether it's playing at home or away, or 11-v-11 or 10-v-10.