By Paul Gardner
Writing before MLS Cup, I picked out either Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales or Kansas City’s Aurelien Collin as MVP candidates.
It was a close run thing: Morales could have made sure of an RSL win -- and of his MVP award -- with a superb moment of skill in the 73rd minute, when his lovely chip caught KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen out of position ... but the ball hit the far post and did what never seems possible -- rebounded across the full width of the gaping goal without going in.
Just three minutes later Collin applied his own skill with an almost picture-book leap and a thumping header that leveled the score (another out-of-position screw up -- how come there wasn’t an RSL player guarding the post -- isn’t that considered standard practice at corner kicks?) Later, Collin scored a vital goal in the shootout -- another picture-book display of skill -- and the MVP crown was his, and a minute later MLS Cup belonged to Kansas City.
Justice done? As far as the result of the game goes, I really don’t know. This was a tight, scrappy, unattractive game -- as one had feared it would be -- without any obvious superiority for either team. Superiority in what, anyway? It would not have been in soccer, for so little real soccer was to be seen. Maybe it was in grittiness, or aggressiveness, or in fighting spirit or maybe it came down to the mother of all cliches, simply “wanting it more.”
I could detect no advantage to either team on any of those counts. So a shootout it would have to be, where luck assumes a much larger role in separating the inseparable. KC won the toss and kicked first -- and we know that is already a substantial advantage. With some bumps along the way, KC eventually made the most of that advantage. As we must, it seems, resort to the shootout to decide tight games, then KC were the fair and square winners.
But ... I have to seriously question whether this game should ever have reached the shootout stage. My problem is with the refereeing of Hilario Grajeda. In particular, with his lenient treatment of Collin.
Before Collin scored that crucial tying goal, he had committed sevenfouls, and been yellow-carded. OK -- that is my count. The official count -- Grajeda’s count -- is four fouls and one yellow card. Grajeda did not call fouls in the 5th minute when Collin kicked Morales while making a late “tackle” that never got anywhere near the ball; nor in the 22nd minute when Collin kicked -- at knee level -- Robbie Findley’s legs out from under him -- again, no contact with the ball; nor in the 28th minute when Collin flattened Findley from behind -- there was questionable ball-contact in this one.
For me, those were clear fouls. Grajeda, well-placed to clearly see, did not call any of them. The foul on Findley in the 22nd minute was particularly bad, a yellow-card foul, yet Grajeda ignored it.
So we come to the 69th minute. Findley again - dribbling towards the KC penalty area, beat Collin with insulting ease -- so Collin belatedly and cynically tripped him. No doubt about the foul -- just about as obvious as you will see. And from a player already carrying a yellow.
Grajeda whistled for the foul ... and then chattedto Collin. No card. So Collin stayed in the game. When he should have been given a second yellow and ejected.
His foul was worth a yellow for tworeasons: it was reckless (automatic yellow), it was tactical (automatic yellow). To that can be added “persistent fouling” (automatic yellow) -- by my count, that was Collin’s seventh foul, but even by Grajeda’s much more lenient math, it was his fourth, which should be enough.
But no, Grajeda preferred a cosy little chat. So Collin played on. Eight minutes later he scored the tying goal, much later came his vital shootout goal. Two key contributions from a player who should not have been on the field.
Maybe Kansas City, playing with only 10 men, would have found a way to win this game anyway. We’ll never know. But my point here is not to pick on Collin so much as to criticize referee Grajeda. When he had to make the one big call of the game, he blew it. By chatting.
I have been asking, for decades now, for someone -- a player or a referee -- to let us know exactly what it is a referee says when he lets a player off the hook like that. Perhaps we could be allowed to know this time?
There was plenty that was good about Grajeda’s refereeing, but I still found it disturbing. He chose to ignore physical fouls early in the game (by both sides), which is never a way to encourage good soccer. So we got a battle. A possible mitigating factor here is the fact that this was a final. It was always going to be tense. And, at a final, referees will always be under pressure -- some of it self-inflicted -- to keep 22 players on the field. Fine -- but they should not flagrantly disregard the rules to achieve that end. That is what Grajeda did.
Well, we’ve seen this sort of refereeing before. Refereeing that allows physical play to become the norm, refereeing that is reluctant to punish dangerous fouls, referees who prefer to chat rather than to issue a card.
That is pretty standard English Premier League refereeing. It is quite likely to distort games. I think it clearly did so here.