|Lionard Pajoy of D.C. United has words with Luiz Camargo of the Houston Dynamo after a hard tackle in the second half during Leg 1 of the MLS Eastern Conference final in Houston on Sunday. Referee Ricardo Salazar was blasted by DC United head coach Ben Olsen for a controversial play. (AFP)
Referee Ricardo Salazar was blasted by DC United head coach Ben Olsen for failing to deal with a moment that influenced the first leg of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference final in Houston Sunday afternoon.
Up a goal and in control in first-half stoppage, United’s Lionard Pajoy beat Andre Hainault to a ball clipped in behind Houston’s defence and appeared in alone on goal. But Hainault had other ideas, grabbing Pajoy’s arm and dragging him down with a scissors tackle outside the area.
The ball? It continued rolling to Houston ‘keeper Tally Hall as the over-capacity crowd of 22,101 listened for Salazar’s whistle.
Shockingly, Salazar swallowed it following a game-changing play that should have seen Houston reduced to 10 men.
Asked to address the non-call that had a big say in his side’s 3-1 opening-leg loss, Olsen was more or less speechless.
“Which play? That one? That’s unbelievable,” he told NBC sideline reporter Kyle Martino.
Minutes after the break, Hainault added fuel to the fire when he finished off a cross from Oscar Boniek Garcia to even the match.
Olsen, a fiery customer, eventually marched onto the field at full-time to lambast Salazar’s crew.
A side that looked somewhat poised to snap Houston’s 27-game home unbeaten run was snakebitten Sunday by a moment of madness and must now score at least three goals at RFK Stadium to knock off last year’s MLS Cup runner-up.
As for Salazar, he likely won’t be seeing the field again in these playoffs.
The league simply can’t risk making a mockery of its one-off final on Dec. 1.
EAST: MINUTE BY MINUTE
Pegged as the more monotonous of the two finals, the East offered plenty of highlights and head-scratchers -- moments that will influence the return leg at RFK … Before the 10th minute, United watched its brightest attacker, Chris Pontius, hobble off with a groin injury … At the other end, it was Houston midfielder Adam Moffat who was replaced in the 25th minute after a collision with DC’s Robbie Russell rattled his frame … Playing on the counter, DC got the goal it deserved before the half-hour mark when Lionard Pajoy’s shot from a tight angle came back off the post to a waiting Nick DeLeon, who hammered it past Houston’s Tally Hall for a 1-0 lead … Five minutes before the half, Mac Kandji nearly pulled one back for Houston when he cut in from the right side before lacing a low drive that forced DC’s Joe Willis down to his left … Following Hainault’s leveller five minutes after the break, things went from bad to worse for Olsen when his starting centre back, Brandon McDonald, hobbled off … Refusing to stop pushing forward, DC’s Raphael Augusto had a header cleared off the line by Bobby Boswell in the 66th … Two minutes later, Houston found the go-ahead goal when Moffat’s replacement, Giles Barnes, raced along the goal line before pushing the ball across, where Will Bruin cleaned up Willis’ untidiness … With fatigue wearing on the visitors, Houston padded its aggregate lead with a third 10 minutes from time. Following a miss-clearance off a corner, Houston’s Kofi Sarkodie collected a through ball before planting his first-timer in the corner.
Hainault and Dejan Jakovic, the two remaining healthy Canadians in these playoffs, were involved in match-changing plays throughout Sunday’s opening leg in Houston.
While Jakovic did well to protect DC’s goal advantage through the first half, fatigue punished the 27-year-old down the stretch. Remember, a freak winter storm forced DC to play the second semifinal leg in New York just two days before Sunday’s game.
After surviving a first-half red card scare, Hainault was near perfect through the second stanza, scoring the home side’s equalizer and kicking off the march back from a goal down.
WEST COAST FINAL?
After appearing in its fifth conference final since entering the league in 2006, Houston is poised to return to MLS Cup for a second straight year — something the league is likely hoping for.
For the first time, MLS will hold its championship game at the highest remaining seed’s venue. As a result, Houston, the fifth seed in the East, is the only remaining side that’s ineligible to host the Cup.
Out west, the fourth-seeded L.A. Galaxy played host to the third-seeded Seattle Sounders Sunday night, meaning second-seeded DC United will host if it manages to fight back from 3-1 down next weekend.
But if Houston hangs on, the winner of the Galaxy-Sounders series will host MLS Cup, providing the opportunity for the league to host its marquee event near the City of Angels or in front of a packed house of 70,000 at CenturyLink Field.
That’s not to say DC’s RFK can’t provide a respectable atmosphere, but it would certainly take away from the spectacle of an event that’s growing year-after-year.