Everyone around D.C. United - the coaches, players, and fans - were all likely nervous about how long Fabian Espindola's suspension for shoving an assistant referee would be. Unfortunately, the news appears worse than expected, as Steve Goff of the Washington Post is reporting that Espindola will be banned for United's first six MLS games of 2015. It's worth noting that this suspension does not apply to any other competition, so Espindola will be available to face LD Alajuelense in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
The incident in question came in United's 2-1 win against the New York Red Bulls, a result that was not good enough to stave off elimination. By all accounts, Espindola was upset at assistant referee George Gansner for failing to call a throw-in for United in the build-up to what turned out to be the series-deciding goal. Simon Borg summed up the situation pretty accurately at the league's site in this video:
Espindola shoves Gansner after full time at 1:04 in the above video, and there's really no defending it. Even if the ball did cross the line, shoving Gansner was never going to solve anything and has to be considered unacceptable conduct.
Interestingly, this wasn't the only suspension handed out in these playoffs for this offense. Sebastian Fernandez of the Vancouver Whitecaps was given a four-game suspension after his side fell to FC Dallas in the first round. The difference in severity probably relates to two things: First, Fernandez made less obvious contact with referee Mark Geiger than Espindola did with Gansner. Second, Espindola has been before the MLS Disciplinary Committee before, and though they probably still owe him a break for failing to overturn the nonsensical red card Geiger gave him at Red Bull Arena in September, the DisCo doesn't tend to cut guys slack when they go after referees.
Six games is a long time in MLS. It's nearly 20% of the season. Here at B&RU, commenter itwasi posted a statistical analysis of a persistent truth in this league: The first six games of a given season have, in recent years, been a reliable indicator of a team's playoff hopes. As odd as it sounds, a solid majority of the eventual playoff teams make themselves known after just six matches. That means this suspension is potentially a bigger story than we might imagine.
Of course, MLS is going to expand the playoffs next season, so the path to a playoff spot is going to be slightly easier next season than it was in 2014. That's a positive. However, the fact remains that only one or two slow starters a season really recover and amount to anything. For the rest of the teams that get off to a bad start, the lost confidence tends to become a pretty vicious cycle.
"Winning is a habit" is a truism, and we can't always trust truisms, but it's not much of a stretch to note that the Black-and-Red got into the habit of winning in 2014 and as a result managed to sneak away with some wins that should have been ties and some ties that should have been losses. In 2015, it appears that United's early-season habits will largely be determined by what can be done without Espindola on the field.