It seems like we've gone the entire season so far without a poorly officiated match. I don't tend to make a habit of complaining about officiating, but I sure did do it a lot last season. That hadn't been the case for DC United though this year.
For the first 20 minutes of this match, tonight's referee failed to call a single foul, despite some very tough challenges. That set the tone of the match, and that's fine, as long as it's consistent. But then for a six minute period from 75' to 81', the referee called two very weak handballs in the box. Afterwards, he went back to calling nothing.
The first call that resulted in Luciano Emilio's penalty kick goal was difficult to see. But the second handball call came off a cross that hit Barry Rice's shoulder, while his arms were at his sides. If the referee hadn't made the first call, and Real Salt Lake hadn't complained so vociferously, there's no way the second call gets made. That was the classic case of a make-up call. And there's no room for that kind of crap in this sport.
Luckily for all of us, in the end, the two calls balanced out, and the match went into overtime anyway. I wanted to get into the officiating first tonight before diving more into the general aspects of the match because I feel like the poor officiating is going to get lost in the stories of other reporters, and forgotten by most fans.
There's a good reason for that. The reason is that something else happened in this match that we won't forget. There was a moment that every DC United fan watching is bound to remember for years to come.
Despite playing only 15 out of 120 minutes (12.5% of the match), there is no doubt that rookie midfielder Andy Najar was the man of the match. He came on the field at the start of the second overtime period and immediately started calling for the ball. It didn't take long for his teammates to get it to him. In the 107th minute, the ball found its way to Andy's feet, with two RSL players and a goalkeeper between him and the net. Najar cut, he spun, he danced, and he put the ball behind the two defenders, ran onto it, and knocked it past Kyle Reynish. It was one of those plays when the moment it happened, you knew it was historic. There are very few moments like that in sports. They only come about once every season. But this was definitely of them.
Troy Perkins went for much of the uneventful first half unchallenged, but he managed to turn away every ball, and made some crucial saves later in the match that were vital to United earning the victory.
The backline of Julius James, Barry Rice, Jordan Graye, and Devon McTavish did well to hold Real Salt Lake scoreless besides Will Johnson's penalty kick. James, clearly the leader, made at least half a dozen possession-changing tackles. Rice, while technically at fault on the penalty kick call, continues to impress with his ability to win headers, and made a possible game-saving clearance off the goalline in the second overtime period. Graye's speed was on display many times in this match on both ends of the field, and McTavish held his ground despite being frequently challenged by Fabian Espindola for the final 60 minutes.
Our central midfield pairing of Stephen King and Kurt Morsink worked hard throughout the match, doing exactly what was asked of them. Neither player was flashy, but both made an impact while playing the full 120. Similarly, Thabiso Khumalo had his best match of the season for United, often being the only player making attacking runs in the first 60 minutes of the match.
Other than his penalty kick goal, I didn't see a whole lot out of Luciano Emilio to justify keeping him around once his short term contract expires. He was like a black hole for much of the 90 minutes he played. Every attacking opportunity was slowed as soon as Emilio touched the ball.
Chris Pontius is allowed to have a bad night every once in a while. His frequent turnovers were discouraging. Let's hope that Pontius will be back to his normal form when given the start on Saturday night. He did well though once we took the lead to help waste time and kill off the match.
The most disappointing player tonight though had to be Jaime Moreno. He appeared slow and predictable, and failed to leave his mark on the match.
DC United is on once again to the US Open Cup's round of 16, where they will have to take on some lower division soccer clubs in the most important matches of their seasons. Always a dangerous situation.
In the mean time though, DC United now has three wins in a row in separate competitions, all coming at RFK Stadium. They'll get the chance to extend that streak to four later this week against the very same opponent. RSL is undefeated in five straight league matches, but United should be encouraged that they were able to shut out their opponents' three most talented attacking players in Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio, and Espindola. If they can do that again on Saturday night, the league will really start to take notice of DC's ascent.