It was the wrong call.
In the 81st minute of this game, with the New York Red Bulls leading 2-1 and doing a better-than-usual job of holding on to a lead, Chris Duvall stooped over a bouncing ball in his own penalty area, and controlled it with his shoulder.
Referee Ismail Elfath called a penalty. He was wrong.
Call it "controversial"? Call it "questionable", by all means. Don't call it a mistimed clearance: Duvall knew what he was doing - he was leaning over the ball, tapping it down with his chest, and hammering it out of danger. It was a deliberate, controlled movement.
And to call it a foul was wrong.
The laws of the game are not too detailed on the subject of handball. It is defined as "a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm." Simple. That is what Elfath thought he saw (he mimes a pretty clear re-enactment of his opinion: bicep-to-ball.) and that is why he called a penalty. He could have thrown in a yellow card if he wanted to - indeed, he should have thrown in a yellow card, since the laws state a caution is "required" when a player "deliberately handles the ball".
Everything Duvall did was deliberate. Everything Elfath did in response was wrong. The ball hit Duvall's shoulder, not his arm. And if Elfath thought otherwise, it was as deliberate a handball as you will ever see and Duvall should have been carded.
Referees do difficult jobs. They have to make decisions in real time, without replays. They are, inevitably, influenced by a crowd and players who want nothing more than to win an advantage for their team. Everyone, at one point in the game or another, is against the referee. I have no personal issue with Mr. Elfath. I do not think he turned up to work on July 4 intending to make a mistake.
But he did. One can see why he made a mistake: a shoulder is quite close to an arm. There was, perhaps, an incremental amount of Duvall's arm in contact with the ball. And the laws don't say any more than quantifiable amounts of arm need be involved. Elfath detected trace amounts of arm, Elfath called a penalty, Elfath altered the outcome of the game on...help me out here...oh, yes...a "dubious technicality".
This was the phrase the Professional Referees Organization published on its website in defense of the last refereeing blunder in MLS: last week's free kick scored by Toronto FC's Gilberto on a play that involved stretching the passive offside concept past its breaking point.
This appears to be where PRO/MLS refereeing has reached: any excuse to allow a goal, or award a penalty. We saw it against Colorado, when Jamison Olave was found guilty of barging for bracing himself for impact. We saw it against Chicago when Mike Magee was effectively doing exactly what Jackson was doing last week for Toronto.
It is too simplistic to say each of those incidents cost RBNY points. This team can fall asleep and get itself in trouble at a moment's notice - as it did in this game: Jamison Olave took a knock, and Armando's only meaningful contribution to the game was a poor clearance in injury time that gifted Omar Cummings a shot at an open goal. He missed, but he'd probably tell you he scores from there more often than not.
All we know is all those goals were conceded under circumstances that would not have been controversial had the referee not awarded a penalty or disallowed a goal. Let's give the Chicago and Toronto games a pass: the Fire punched in four goals in the second half; TFC's goal was ultimately cancelled out by an equalizer, albeit a fortunate one.
But this game and the Colorado game represent four points dropped in a tight Eastern Conference race. The season is scarcely at its halfway point, but RBNY sits in the middle of a congested table: just six points off the bottom and five points off the top (before DC, KC, Chicago and Montreal have played this week).
Fifth place in the East is good enough for the playoffs, but it will likely be a close finish this year, just as it is most years: in 2011, RBNY was three points ahead of Chicago for the fifth and final playoff spot; in 2012, Houston nicked fifth from Columbus by a point; in 2013, Montreal went to the playoffs ahead of Chicago on tiebreakers.
If this is going to be a win-some-lose-some regular season for RBNY, without any real contention for one of the better positions in the league, then the team is scrapping for the one or two points extra that will separate the playoff-qualifiers from the also-rans.
And this sort of game, against the Dynamo in Houston, is exactly the sort that separates winners from losers in the final analysis. Houston welcomed back its midfield starters - Ricardo Clark, Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia - and charged up the field to score pretty much immediately after kick off. Mike Petke's new-look defensive line - Chris Duvall, Matt Miazga, Jamison Olave, Ambroise Oyongo - had strayed high and narrow. Kofi Sarkodie took advantage of the space to get wide and send a cross to Giles Barnes's head. 1-0, not even a minute gone.
Don't believe the possession stats, which suggest Houston dominated, or the passing stats, or the attempts on goal: this was a relatively even game, once RBNY weathered the early Dynamo storm.
It was not a great performance. Peguy Luyindula stayed home with "toe injuries", so the lineup simply saw Tim Cahill slot into Luyindula's position in midfield, and the rest of the team was unchanged from last week. And it didn't really work.
Cahill is too much a team player, too eager to assert himself wherever the ball may be, to reliably get into the final third regularly when he's in midfield. And if he's stranded in his own half and Ibrahim Sekagya is the midfielder supporting the attack...something isn't quite right.
We had one glimpse of the benefits of Cahill in front of goal, in the 51st minute: Lloyd Sam overhit his cross, Thierry Henry chased it down and one-touched a back-heeled cross to the six yard box, Cahill channeled his recent World Cup with a first-time, left-footed volley...off the post.
A few sequences like that every game and a team will score a lot of goals. But Cahill was too often playing Dax McCarty at the back, and not often enough exploiting the space available among defenders nervously eyeing Bradley Wright-Phillips and trying to figure out wherever the hell it was Henry thought he ought to be playing.
Nonetheless, RBNY found two goals from open play and the Dynamo did not. In the 13th minute, Eric Alexander - who played well, cutting in from the left with the ball and looking occasionally like a player with confidence in his ability - punted a long ball over the defense, and BWP simply outran everyone and finished with aplomb.
He is in the sort of form it is easy to take for granted. His second was outstanding. Largely because Ambroise Oyongo, for the second game in a row, took the ball down the line and embarrassed his marker - Andrew Driver, in this case. Having humbled Driver with a this-way-no-that-way bit of trickery, Oyongo cut to his left and crossed into a crowded penalty area.
It was a good cross - high, too far away for the 'keeper to claim it, forcing the defense to take action. Most of the time, BWP (5' 8") doesn't get near such crosses, because a guy like A.J. Cochran (6' 3") or Eric Brunner (6' 4") or Warren Creavalle (5' 11") or Ricardo Clark (5' 10") gets to it first. But BWP's movement was perfect, he got the ball first, met it almost with his back to goal, and sent a glancing header inside the far post.
BWP has now scored 14 for the season: more than half of the team's total. His form, at least until or unless Cahill and Henry get back on the score-sheet is critical to RBNY. And Oyongo has shown us in these past two games exactly why he was signed in the first place: he gets forward very effectively, is not afraid to take players on, and can cross with both feet. He has also showed us why he has struggled to get into the lineup: his defensive positioning isn't great.
He did clear a ball off the line in the first half, but that was exactly what he was supposed to do as the man bolstering the goalmouth defense on a corner.
Fortunately, defensive positioning is not a matter of personality or ability. It is about training and knowing your role relative to the rest of the team, particularly the other defenders. He ought to improve significantly in this regard with more playing time.
Whenever Roy Miller is ready to return to the lineup, Oyongo will sit. But he can play with both feet, so he may become Chris Duvall's competition for the right back spot. And if he and Miller are fit, they should be able to spell each other through RBNY's crowded run of games once CCL starts up.
It should have been a scrappy, just-enough win to vindicate Petke's decision to let the kids play and welcome Cahill back from Brazil. RBNY didn't do great, but it did enough for three points.
Instead, one dreadful refereeing decision cost two points, and the Red Bulls are no closer to working themselves out of their precarious position in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack.
If we are lucky, the refereeing will improve over the second half of the year as quickly as RBNY's young defenders, and these struggles will be forgotten.
If not, it will be a long second half of the season.