SEATTLE – Down three goals after the first leg, the Seattle Sounders needed everything to go right for them in their return encounter against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Inside of an hour they seemed well on their way, having scored twice and grabbing all the momentum. A comeback for the ages seemed in the offing.
But fate, not for the first time on this evening, smiled on the Galaxy. Seemingly hemmed in on the endline, L.A. forward Robbie Keane hit a hopeful cross in the 67th minute that struck the left hand of Seattle defender Adam Johansson, and then deflected off his right. Referee Mark Geiger duly pointed to the spot, and when Keane easily dispatched the spot kick past Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, the belief that had characterized everything the Sounders did in the match evaporated. With a 4-2 aggregate lead, L.A. duly closed out the match, and will now face the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup final on Dec. 1.
"We didn't play particularly well tonight, there's no question about that," said Galaxy manager Bruce Arena, who went to great lengths to praise Seattle's performance. "But we did what we came here to do, which is to advance to the MLS Cup final. That was achieved."
Yet much of the focus afterward fell on the penalty call, for the simple reason that it's the kind of decision that drives fans to distraction. Replays showed that while Johansson's left arm was initially extended, by the time it made contact with the ball it appeared to be down at his side. The Swede was also very close to Keane when the cross was struck, making the question of intent highly debatable. The incident also didn't look all that different from another handball in the first half that went unpunished, when Mike Magee's goalbound shot deflected off the right elbow of Seattle defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.
So was it the right decision? That of course, is in the eye of the beholder. A 2009 U.S. Soccer directive to referees regarding the interpretation of the handball rule instructed them to take three factors into account. One, was the defender "making himself big" by extending his arms? Two, was the arm in an unnatural position? Third did the player, usually the defender, benefit from the alleged infraction?
Despite this attempt at clarification, the call remains highly subjective. Yet when queried in writing afterward, Geiger referred to some of the aforementioned criteria when explaining his decision.
"Adam Johansson's handling offense: The hand was in an unnatural playing position, and he was making himself bigger by taking space," said Geiger in a statement delivered by a Sounders spokesman. "His arms were outside of his body. [Jhon Kennedy] Hurtado's arm was next to his body, he was not making himself bigger, and this was a case of ‘ball-to-hand.'"
The Sounders players were less charitable in their assessment, with defender Jeff Parke calling the Johansson decision "bogus". Seattle manager Sigi Schmid was a bit more circumspect, classifying the call as "harsh," all the while bemoaning his side's lack of luck, referring to a handball incident in the first leg when Sean Franklin's outstretched arm appeared to prevent a Zach Scott cross from entering the box in the 14th minute of that match. That Keane's position on the field didn't appear all that threatening made the call even tougher to take.
"All Keane was looking to do was draw a penalty, and try to get it into [Johansson's] hand," said Schmid. "He's a clever player, and he did well. By the same token, an intentional hand ball, is it taking away a goalscoring opportunity. What opportunity was there? There was no opportunity."
The relative quality of the opportunity is beside the point. All that matters is if an infraction took place, and along those lines Keane insisted he wasn't as clever as Schmid gave him credit for.
"It wasn't calculated," he said. "There's no way. You can't try to get a penalty in them situations. I was just trying to get the ball across. The referee gave a penalty; lucky for us."
Given how Seattle performed on the night, it was a bitterest of pills for the home side to swallow. The Sounders took the game to the Galaxy from the outset, and Eddie Johnson appeared to put the Sounders ahead in the 11th minute, only to have his effort wrongly ruled out for offside. That proved a mere respite, as Johnson latched onto Zach Scott's through ball a minute later, outmuscling Omar Gonzalez, and firing home past L.A. goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
Seattle remained well on top for the next 10 minutes, as L.A.'s central defensive duo of Gonzalez and Tommy Meyer looked very shaky. The absence of Landon Donovan, who was not even included in the 18-man roster because of a hamstring injury, was keenly felt, and the combination of wet conditions and the artificial surface hampered the Galaxy's efforts to control the tempo.
"If you watched the first 20 minutes, it was like we were playing on ice and they were playing on natural [grass]," said L.A. midfielder David Beckham. "It was very frantic, and they were passing the ball and keeping the ball and we wasn't. That's why we were putting ourselves in the situations and the troubles that we had."
But gradually the visitors gained a foothold in the game. Marcelo Sarvas dropped a bit deeper to help the Galaxy defense contain Johnson and Fredy Montero, and he began breaking up Seattle attacks and winning more loose balls as a result. That provided a platform for L.A. to begin stringing passes together and sustain more of an attack.
The second half saw Seattle reassert themselves, and when Scott scored off Christian Tiffert's 57th-minute corner kick with a glancing header, the Sounders seemed to have L.A. right where they wanted it. Then came Keane's moment of improvisation fused with good fortune, and with the insertion of Juninho in the 72nd minute bolstering L.A.'s midfield, the series was essentially over.
Not for everyone as it turned out. After the final whistle several Seattle players went over to remonstrate with Geiger, including Oswaldo Alonso, who was shown his second yellow card of the match, meaning he'll miss the first match of next season.
But when the Sounders' collective anger subsides, they'll no doubt come to the realization that this series was lost in the first leg, when a rampant L.A. side created the kind of cushion that only a perfect game could overcome. For that reason one can't begrudge the Galaxy advancing, although Arena was perfectly aware his team will need to show better than they did against an inspired Seattle side.
"We're back in the final, and hopefully we can have an improved performance from tonight, because the [Houston] team I saw play in D.C. today was a damn good team," he said.
With the Galaxy hosting the match, and with a two-week break allowing the champs ample time to heal up, a second consecutive MLS Cup is there for the taking.