The crowds at PHP haven't been especially rabid, and incidents haven't been all that unusual, and yet on successive weeks Abby Okulaja and Mark Geiger have radically altered the playoff chase by their decisions.
Aside from a gambling scandal, what just about every league in every sport fears most is controversial refereeing decision at critical moments of crucial games. And given the tightness of the MLS playoff race, just about every game rates as crucial.
In the case of Okulaja, he whistled for a penalty kick when a ball caromed off San Jose midfielder Francisco Lima's chest on the nationally televised ESPN2 game Oct. 2; Geiger pointed to the spot Saturday after judging that Toronto FC defender Julius James had dragged down Adrian Serioux in the penalty area during a free kick.
In both cases, Kenny Cooper tucked away the penalty kicks to give FCD two valuable ties by the scores of 1-1 and 2-2, respectively. The two points lost in each game did little to help the causes of San Jose and Toronto FC, though both remain mathematically in the race as of this week.
Yet the cases of Okulaja and Geiger, though similar in their settings, aren't the same. Okulaja blew his whistle at what he thought had happened, that Lima had blocked a driven cross by Eric Avila with an outstretched arm, when in fact that ball had struck Lima's chest and rebounded back into play. TV replays showed the ball hitting Lima in the stomach just under the rib cage instead of his arm.
So agitated was operator-investor Lewis Wolff that he said he called Commissioner Don Garber to complain. Coach Frank Yallop, a week after the incident occurred, still couldn't believe it but said, "We have to move on, we can't do anything about it now."
Replays of the James' foul on Serioux revealed both players grabbing and tugging as an Andre Rocha free kick floated into the penalty area, and in fact an off-balance Serioux hit the ball with his arm as it passed over his head. Furious TFC players swarmed Geiger and Coach John Carver, never a mild sort, kicked something near the bench as he ranted at the officials.
Did TFC's rough-and-tumble reputation "encourage" Geiger to blow his whistle at such a crucial moment? Or did the pulling and jerking of Serioux's jersey exceed the boundaries normally proscribed for such a tense situation?
Geiger had incensed the Rapids the previous week by sending off striker Conor Casey for a crunching challenge on Dynamo defender Eddie Robinson as they dueled for an aerial ball. Casey, whose extended forearm caught Robinson in the face, earned his second caution of the match and thus had to sit out a one-game suspension Sunday when the Rapids faced the Galaxy at Home Depot Center, and Colorado's playoff hopes incurred serious damage in a 3-2 defeat.
If nothing else, Geiger did at least stick to his guns, in that Casey had picked up a caution in the 33rd minute by slashing an opponent's ankle. For many seasons, far too many cautioned players fouled and bickered with impunity, confident that MLS officials lacked the gumption to hand them a second yellow. Casey, already cautioned, went for a ball in his usual reckless, robust manner, and paid the price.
The same fate befell D.C. United defender Bryan Namoff, who got his second yellow against Houston when he elbowed Brad Davis as they went for a loose ball in the 73rd minute. Referee Baldomero Toledo added Namoff's name to the book during a rugged 20-minute spell during which seven players were carded.
"It was a completely accidental knock," said Namoff, who'd been cautioned for delaying a restart 11 minutes earlier. "Not allowing a 50-50 challenge at that point in the game with a 0-0 tie is a complete error. I don't think [Toledo] even knew that I was already on a yellow card."
Without exonerating the officials, either collectively or individually, one could point out that it is the players, not the officials, who are obligated to alter their behavior after a caution is issued. If Geiger and Toledo upheld their end of the bargain by being consistent, didn't they at least supply the element that players, coaches, and team executives desire most?
Tighter tensions and greater pressure are certain to bubble up over the last two weekends of the regular season and in the playoffs. The referees' task of controlling play doesn't absolve the players of controlling themselves, whether the calls go their way or not.