The New York Red Bulls lost the first leg of their Eastern Conference Final to an offside goal scored by a player who should not have been on the pitch.
And they still have no one to blame for it but themselves.
If this was Thierry Henry's last match at Red Bull Arena, please do your best to forget it. This was not a good game. Not one for the ages, not a masterful display of all that is wonderful and thrilling about this sport that 25,000 crammed into RBA to see.
Instead, the full house in Harrison witnessed a well-executed game plan from the visiting team: foul early and often, throw the hosts off their game, strike on the break whenever possible. And a stuttered riposte from the home side, which struggled to achieve any fluency, still found sufficient opportunities to win, but lacked the finishing touch required to make the opportunities count.
The game turned on RBNY in a 20 minute stretch either side of half-time. Bradley Wright-Phillips headed over the bar with the net unguarded in the second minute of first-half stoppage time. In the 52nd minute, Bobby Shuttleworth spilled a long range shot from Thierry Henry, and Lloyd Sam poked the rebound the wrong side of the post.
In the 58th minute, BWP did very well to make room for himself, and did even better to make a shot with his weaker foot powerful and accurate. But Shuttleworth parried and there was no Red Bull around to challenge for the second chance. Two minutes later, Dax McCarty put a powerful header on target - straight at the 'keeper.
Those weren't the only chances, merely the best of the most sustained period of attacking superiority the Red Bulls mustered during the match. If any of them had gone in, we're probably talking about this game as a bullet-dodged rather than a stake through the heart of RBNY's 2014 playoff campaign.
All told, RBNY fashioned 18 attempts on goal - with seven on target - from 60% possession: often the statistical signature of a dominant win.
Not this time.
The Red Bulls lost to the Revs at home for the first time since the Arena opened. For RBNY, this has been a season of record-breaking and hex-lifting: BWP's goals, Thierry Henry's assists (he's the club's all-competitions, single-season record holder in that category), Eric Alexander's unparalleled durability and versatility, the first ever playoff win at RBA, the second ever playoff win at RBA, and beating New England in New England for the first time in 12 years. It was, unfortunately, past due that an opponent got a chance to break a hoodoo of their own.
There have been a lot of highs this year, despite the team struggling for consistency. What it had apparently resolved recently was the problem of dropping games at home. The Red Bulls surged into the playoffs on the back of seven wins in their last eight home games of the year. On the road, they remained pretty terrible: one win from their last six away matches.
This was, therefore, the formula they hoped to ride to what would be - most likely - an agonizing blow out on the road in the MLS Cup final in either Seattle or LA. It was the formula that saw them ease past Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United in the earlier rounds of the playoffs: win at home.
And now it has been squashed by the New England Revolution, who produced something close to the perfect road performance in a league where few teams are ever comfortable on their travels. The first part of such a performance: do something exceptional. Teal Bunbury took care of that with special goal in the 17th minute.
You want to say Ambroise Oyongo should have done better? Take your hindsight outside and talk to it sternly. There is always something a defender could have done better on a goal, but Bunbury did everything right.
He received the ball out wide, with the option to dart down the flank and try to cross in - this appeared to be what Oyongo was expecting. Bunbury declined the invitation, probably because he saw Dax McCarty looping behind the left back to cover the space on the wing. Instead, the once-and-maybe-future-if-keeps-this-sort-of-thing-up USMNT prospect took himself and the ball straight at Oyongo. The left back stood his ground, daring the winger to make a move. Bunbury cut inside. He had one step on Oyongo, and the defender was closing that ground down fast, but the shot was fired from outside the box just at the point when hesitation would have eliminated the opportunity.
It was an exquisite shot: curled wide around the defense and into the top corner of Luis Robles's goal. To suggest it was scored because of a defensive error is an extraordinary denial of credit to a man who made a series of good decisions and executed them perfectly.
Hat tip to Teal Bunbury. He might just have scored the best goal by an opponent we've seen at the Arena in 2014, and he did it in the most important game of his year to date.
A single moment of brilliance isn't necessarily enough to win a game, certainly not when the other team is getting 60% of possession. To survive that sort of onslaught, a little luck is required. Luck is the second part of the perfect road performance, and the Revolution got a lot of it.
First, in keeping with apparent MLS policy for these playoffs, referee Allen Chapman took an indulgent view of fouls in the early exchanges.
In fairness to Jay Heaps, fouling RBNY's skill players early to shake them out of their comfort zone is a tactic that has been deployed often this season by teams lining up against the Red Bulls. For a while, it was the reason Peguy Luyindula was consigned to the bench: he was getting bullied out of games and didn't seem to have an answer.
Sending your team out to be disruptive when you are somewhat confident the referee will let you get away with it is judgement, not luck. The Revs executed their game plan perfectly, and got a helping hand from the referee, who apparently only saw fouls committed by players in white shirts for the first 15 minutes or so. (You want a reason why Oyongo gave Bunbury space? The Red Bulls were getting whistled for everything in the first segment of the game.)
They got an even greater slice of luck from the fact Chapman's biggest soft spot was for Jermaine Jones, who hurled himself around for the first 30 minutes with reckless abandon. If you want to be charitable, tell yourself this was merely misplaced exuberance - Jones doesn't often get to play on a well-maintained grass surface these days - rather than cynicism.
Whatever his motivation, Jones went too far when he hacked down Eric Alexander mid-way through the first half. He should have been yellow carded, but wasn't. A few minutes later, he hacked down Dax McCarty with a two-footed, mid-air, scissor tackle. He should have been sent off. He wasn't.
Definitely not a red card pic.twitter.com/3LFW25Li4i— Dax McCarty (@DaxMcCarty11) November 24, 2014
Jones did get a yellow card for the latter challenge, and he did calm down after the caution. But the damage was done. Players are human. They nurse grudges over injustices, real or imagined. Jones's tackle - and the lack of appropriate disciplinary action from the referee - seemed to flick a switch from which the game never recovered. Both sides took whatever opportunity they could find to settle scores, and Chapman finished the game having issued 10 yellow cards.
Not all of them were deserved. Lee Nguyen half-heartedly tried to drag Peguy Luyindula down in the 83rd minute, failed to do much of anything, and Jose Goncalves stepped in to make sure the RBNY playmaker went down. Chapman made a hash of the call: having played advantage, he denied the advantage that was won - Goncalves's foul was on the edge of the box - and pulled the free kick back 10 yards to the site of Nguyen's original effort to break up the play.
The referee showed no sign he was actively playing advantage. Ignoring Goncalves's heavy challenge in favor of Nguyen's unsolicited back massage was bemusing to fans and infuriating to the players.
There were a lot of bad tackles in this game: Henry clattered into Scott Caldwell; Richard Eckersley flipped Kelyn Rowe with surprising ease - both were entirely warranted yellow cards. But one suspects the Red Bulls might not have been quite so gung-ho in the tackle if Jones hadn't been let off so lightly for his challenge on McCarty.
As for Chapman, he seemed hung out to dry by the tortured logic of MLS's apparent determination to let players take chunks out of each other because the playoffs apparently deserve to be refereed by the "just let 'em play" standard one is more accustomed to seeing in non-professional levels of the game.
Once he got through the seemingly mandatory "rile 'em up and watch 'em go" period of the game (during which two plausible RBNY penalty appeals were waved off), he started handing out yellow cards more as a way of reasserting himself than for any discernibly consistent interpretation of the rule book.
Ten cards between the 23rd and 83rd minutes is an average of one booking every 360 seconds. It was a chippy game, but it didn't have to be that way. If Chapman had been quicker to reach for his whistle and his pocket earlier in the game, and if he'd sent Jermaine Jones off, the subsequent card-fest might have been avoided.
A.J. Soares (unclear whether he tripped BWP or simply happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time), Tim Cahill (victim of a comical Jones dive) and Lee Nguyen (booked more for wanting to foul than any effective impediment to play) have a right to feel aggrieved over their bookings. BWP, who will be suspended for the second leg because of yellow card accumulation, has particular cause for frustration with the referee.
He was booked for obstructing the 'keeper. This is a common enough infraction: Manchester United's Chris Smalling was recently sent off for picking up a second yellow for an illegal attempt to interfere with Joe Hart's ability to kick the ball out of his own area.
BWP didn't do what Smalling did, which is to say he did not jump in the way of a 'keeper who was in control of the ball. Instead, BWP tried to intercept Shuttleworth's attempt to roll the ball out to one of his defenders.
The ball is out of Shuttleworth's hands - and BWP is clearly interested in the trajectory of the ball, not obstructing the 'keeper - when it it clips the forward's outstretched leg.
FIFA, however, is clear on the rules governing this part of the game. Official advice to referees on the subject of Law 12 (which is the pertinent part of the rule book on this matter) states: "a player must be penalized for playing in a dangerous manner if he kicks or attempts to kick the ball when the goalkeeper is in the process of releasing it."
Chapman was acting per the standard interpretation of the rules of the game in cautioning BWP, and it is not an egregious failure of judgement to decide a foot or two away from the 'keepers' hands counts as still "in the process of releasing it".
It does look as though the ball may have bounced before it hit BWP, but we'll let it pass. Referee's tend to give 'keepers the benefit of the doubt. BWP tried to be a little too clever in front a referee who wasn't handling the simple aspects of the game particularly well, which isn't very smart.
The issue is that in the context of MLS's "playoff rules", where Jermaine Jones can try to bisect Dax McCarty and stay on the pitch, the idea BWP will be suspended for sticking out a foot to block a throw is hard to take. If you're relaxing the rules, MLS, you still need to be consistent.
In the other Conference final played this weekend, Omar Gonzalez complained the league's tweaking of the accepted rules of the game was explicit:
Omar Gonzalez talking about the officiating of Stott and his unwillingness to give a second yellow. (Via @mattpentz) pic.twitter.com/gJAghk34j3— Adam Serrano (@LAGalaxyInsider) November 24, 2014
If the league is actively trying to keep the best players in the game - and to hell with the rules - then you don't suspend the Golden Boot winner for what was little more than an act of impertinence.
Small wonder both sets of players struggled to find much time to play a game of football with the increasing weight of a rapidly multiplying burden of grievances on their shoulders.
Nonetheless, a game happened. And the Revs won it.
The Red Bulls conjured a goal in the 27th minute that perfectly summarized their afternoon: great build-up play, really ugly finishing.
It started with Ibrahim Sekagya, Jonesing himself into a 50/50 challenge and winning the ball on the ground as Bunbury went flying over the top of him. He flipped a pass out to Oyongo, who managed the extraordinary feat of a one-two with himself to get around Nguyen. The left back's next touch sent the ball into the box, aided by a simple screen from Henry. Luyindula ran on to the pass, had his heel clipped by Soares, but managed to get a shot off as he fell. Shuttleworth saved, Luyindula - lying on the grass at this point - stabbed a leg at the bouncing ball, and hit the bar.
A lucky bounce carried the ball beyond Goncalves and to BWP for a simple header into an empty net.
No, he was not offside.
The draw would have been a fair result. As many good chances as RBNY missed, Jones skewed two opportunities he'd back himself to at least get on target more often than not.
Mike Petke made one substitution - Tim Cahill for Eric Alexander in the 76th minute - to try to break the tie. It wasn't a terrible idea. Alexander had played well, and some have suggested the change created the space the Revs subsequently exploited en route to their winner. But it seems futile to try to make serious tactical points about a game that had degenerated into an argument with the referee occasionally interrupted by some soccer.
Also, this was all-or-nothing time. Cahill is not as effective in midfield for RBNY as Alexander, but trying to win your last home game of the season in front of a sell-out crowd is exactly what one would hope to see. Settling for the draw would have been a lower risk proposition, but it seems oddly harsh to second-guess a coach for bringing on a recognized goalscorer to try to take control of a home game.
It didn't work out, but that has a lot more to do with the assistant referee than Mike Petke.
The Revs got a late winner in the 85th minute when a counter-attack resulted in Bunbury finding an offside Jones in front of goal.
An offside goal scored by a guy who shouldn't even have been on the pitch at the time.
But the Red Bulls didn't take enough of their chances, and the Revs did.
The result is New England take a 2-1 lead into the second leg, secure in the knowledge that they will be playing in the MLS Cup final as long as they avoid losing by any score that sees the Red Bulls pick up two goals or more. Even a 2-1 loss would merely send the series to penalties.
Away goals, the much-debated tiebreaker in the 2014 playoffs, are not a great factor in this contest after this game. The only difference they will make is if RBNY wins 1-0, and therefore is eliminated because New England scored more goals in Harrison than the Red Bulls managed in Foxborough. This does not seem any great injustice.
Being bounced out of the playoffs by a blown offside call is a much greater source of frustration.
And, right now, one has to count the Revs' as favorites to progress to the walloping it is expected either the Galaxy or the Sounders will deliver to whichever team stumbles onto their home field to challenge for MLS Cup.
The Red Bulls are dreadful on the road. Yes, one of their few away wins of the regular season was in New England. And it was by a score (2-0) that, if replicated, would see RBNY through to the final round of this tournament. But that result was achieved back when MLS was hewing more closely to the standard interpretation of the rules of the game, and before the Revs received the boost to their form provided by Jones.
To get to MLS Cup, the Red Bulls will have to do it not so much the hard way as the hardest way: beat the form team in the East, at its fullest strength, without the services of BWP, on the road.
This is fitting. Because the only thing harder than beating New England in Foxborough will be beating LA or Seattle on the West Coast.
The Red Bulls started this season not very good. Progressed to OK. Found a route to at least being very good at home, and better than a fading Sporting Kansas City on the road.
Now, courtesy of the last of a series of tit-for-tat refereeing errors going against them, RBNY's season hinges on something they haven't managed to be all year: very good away from home against very good opponents.