The New York Red Bulls bring a point home from LA, which is nice. But the circumstances of this 2-2 draw make the result difficult to celebrate. Not, as has been the case for most RBNY road results this season, because the Red Bulls did a lot wrong - but because the team (and, in fairness, its opponent) fell victim to one of the most incompetent performances by a referee it has suffered this season.
Hilario Grajeda didn't conjure one or even two poor, game-changing decisions. He spent the entire match making terrible decisions. To their credit, the players found a way to play in the space allowed between the center ref's delusional antics.
Three thoughts on RBNY's extraordinary encounter with LA Galaxy and a very bad referee.
1. It was a heroic performance
The Red Bulls have been dreadful on the road all season, and the facts of this match fit that pattern: it was another lead blown away from home; more points dropped to late goals conceded. But there are other facts to consider.
First, the fact LA is in good form at the moment: seven games unbeaten heading into this match - a streak now extended to eight. A point on the road against such an opponent is a point well won.
Then there were the injuries: RBNY lost Damien Perrinelle to a knock in the 30th minute, and it would have been sooner but he seemed to force himself to stay on the pitch until Aurelien Collin had sufficient time to warm up. No sooner had Perrinelle left the field, then Connor Lade went down with what might turn out to be a quite serious injury.
From that moment, the Red Bulls were on the back foot. Two subs deployed before half-time, and LA suddenly resurgent after having struggled a little to contain the RBNY press. At half-time, the score was somehow still 0-0 and a point seemed like it would be a miraculous achievement for the Red Bulls.
And then Bradley Wright-Phillips pulled up in the first minute of the second half. On came Gonzalo Veron. RBNY had Mike Grella already looking visibly tired, Kemar Lawrence playing just his second game since returning from a long injury lay-off, and 45 minutes to get through without any further help from the bench.
A point seemed the very best one could hope for.
But Gonzalo Veron delivered the sort of confident finish we had been hoping to see from him since he arrived last year.
Gonzalo Veron gives RBNY a 1-0 lead! pic.twitter.com/0KOnh2c9dh— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 8, 2016
And Sean Davis did something even more wonderful.
Sean Davis with his first MLS Goal! RBNY have a 2-0 lead! pic.twitter.com/gl4wJzwZOV— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 8, 2016
Two goals up with about 15 minutes to play: of course you want three points from that position. But the Galaxy still had a say, and found a way to get two back. The point was a disappointment given the extraordinary work RBNY had done to achieve its unlikely lead, but the draw was no less heroic an achievement because it came from a lead lost rather than one overturned.
RBNY was the favorite to lose this game at kick-off, a certainty to lose it at half-time, and an incredibly unlikely winner for 15 minutes of the second half - until Ashley Cole banged in LA's equalizer.
Cole equalizes late! pic.twitter.com/ARRLdx1YYI— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 8, 2016
But this was still a point won, even if it felt like a point lost.
2. It was a game ruined by an inept referee
There will be a lot said about Hilario Grajeda's performance in this game. There has been a lot said already.
#LAvNY has been crazy entertaining but once again, refereeing is atrocious. Standard in this league unfortunately.— Cristian Nyari (@Cnyari) August 8, 2016
Hilario Grajeda has missed three obvious penalties tonight - one for LA, two for NY. Worst ref outing I've seen in MLS in quite some time.— Thomas Floyd (@thomasfloyd10) August 8, 2016
And it is not unwarranted. Grajeda had a very, very bad night. He set the tone early, seeing nothing when Kemar Lawrence clumsily barged into Steven Gerrard early in the game:
Gerrard goes down. No call. pic.twitter.com/WwmXqYQpxV— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 8, 2016
And then he turned down two of the more compelling penalty shouts we will see all season:
Muyl goes down. No call. pic.twitter.com/gzXn280rID— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 8, 2016
Veron goes down in the box. No call. pic.twitter.com/5FsEdEmHcY— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 8, 2016
Those were merely the most egregious of Grajeda's missed decisions. He let a number of fouls go uncalled, or unpunished by cards. If RBNY fans feel particularly aggrieved, the lopsided foul count - the game finished with LA called for seven fouls and the Red Bulls called for 14 - supports the view that the home team was allowed more leeway than the visiting side.
Usually, when one criticizes a referee, it is for inconsistency. In this case, Grajeda was frustratingly consistent: consistently awful. At best, his work looked like a transparent effort to manage the game by a set of principles not covered by the rule book: "don't let cards decide the game", "don't let penalties make the difference". At worst, it was embarrassingly incompetent.
Whether it was incompetence or smug indifference to the laws of the game, the referee affected the result. Both teams were affected. But a draw was a fair result only in the sense that it was the score before Grajeda blew his whistle to start the match, and started his 90-minute reign of error.
3. RBNY is banged up again
The Red Bulls now have six days to measure the longer-term impact of this game. Because they have six days before they play again.
With Perrinelle, Lade, and BWP all withdrawn due to injury, the first question is how many of those players need more than six days to recover. There is also cause for concern about Kemar Lawrence, who took a heavy knock in the second half, and had no choice but to play on.
Marsch and the Red Bulls are furious with this challenge by Larentowicz. pic.twitter.com/FRnglvvtIS— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 8, 2016
After seeing one dreadful call too many, Jesse Marsch will be suspended for RBNY's next match - at home against Montreal. But the bigger question is how many of the players he had in the squad to play LA will be watching L'Impact from the stands with him.