It hasn’t taken Caleb Porter long to find his place in the hearts of Columbus Crew SC fans. The first-year head coach, who was officially appointed as the successor to current U.S. Men’s National Team boss Gregg Berhalter, had the fanbase excited following a 4-1-1 start to his first season in charge. But a four-game losing streak, starting with a 1-0 loss at the Montreal Impact on April 13 had many of the supporters souring on and questioning their new manager.
After Saturday night, there’s no doubt that Porter and the Crew fans are all on the same team. Despite the Black & Gold dropping to defeat for the fifth straight time, a 3-1 loss at D.C. United, Porter showed the kind of fire and passion for the club that he did in his previous stops at the University of Akron and with the Portland Timbers.
After starting the match brightly at Audi Field against a United side that captured a 1-0 win at MAPFRE Stadium just 10 days prior, Columbus thought they had the all-important opening goal of the match. Wil Trapp found an open Pedro Santos on the wing and the Portuguese player cut inside before finishing by United goalkeeper Bill Hamid for the 22nd-minute advantage.
But within a few minutes, the goal was off the board and the score was returned to 0-0 as video assistant referee Kevin Terry Jr. and center official Ted Unkel elected that Trapp committed a foul on D.C. forward Luciano Acosta near midfield in the buildup to the goal.
Porter, as well as anyone watching the game with black and gold allegiances, thought differently. Even for a neutral, it appeared that Unkel accidentally created the contact that led to Acosta falling to the ground.
“It’s a fair goal. 100 percent,” Porter said after the match. “Referee gets in the way. Referee fouls Acosta and then the referee goes and looks at the television to bail himself out. I’ve never in my life seen anything like that, ever. So everything was spot on out of our guys and that’s a fair goal and we should’ve been up 1-0.”
Five minutes after Santos’ shot hit the back of the net, United took the lead thanks to another call in which the visiting side did not agree. Once again, Trapp was called for a foul, this time near the top of the Crew defensive penalty area, and the captain was shown a yellow card. Once again, Trapp, Porter and others in black and gold, believed it was a fair challenge.
“I think the second call, on my foul, which results in the yellow card and ultimately the goal is another one which I think is a little bit debatable,” Trapp said candidly standing in front of his locker after the contest. “They’re going to say it’s a foul, I’m going to say I got the ball first, which I think I did.”
The free kick from Wayne Rooney led to the opening goal from Acosta after a Gyasi Zardes block fell to the Argentinean inside the 18-yard box.
Less than 30 minutes into the game, Columbus felt hard done to not have a goal on the board and how D.C. was allowed to create their opportunity. But the questionable calls were not finished.
Just a minute into first half stoppage time, and controversy began anew. A flick-pass from the top of the penalty box from Acosta deflected off Trapp and was cleared by center back Josh Williams. Rooney chased down Unkel, demanding the referee call a handball but play was allowed to continue. That is until there was a stoppage and Unkel again went to the review monitor, deciding Trapp used his hand to deflect the ball and awarded United a penalty kick that led to Rooney giving his side a two-goal advantage.
While it certainly could be argued that Trapp tryied to tuck his arm behind his body and the ball hits near his shoulder, the penalty was given. What made matters worse from a Crew perspective, was a similar play in the second half when a shot from fullback Hector Jimenez appeared to strike the out-stretched arm of a D.C. defender in the penalty box but no call was made. The next stoppage saw United score a third goal and, while playmaker Federico Higuain appealed to Unkel to go back and review the play, which he is entitled to do, no such second look was given.
In one instance, Rooney is able to get the review for his team while on the other, Higuain’s requests fall on deaf ears.
“We’re not getting respect at all,” Porter said. “That’s the thing that really bothers me the most. No respect at all. I’ve seen it in the league when I was with Portland for five years, it was the same. We didn’t have the big-name guys, so the referees often times would not give us the same treatment. It’s nothing new. I’m used to it.”
While the three calls all involved questions, to say the least, it is the first play that will stick with Porter, his players and the Crew faithful.
“It’s unbelievable guys,” the head coach exclaimed. “I mean honestly, it’s unprecedented. I don’t think this has ever happened. Where a referee literally gets in the way and then uses an excuse on the VAR to bail himself out for a fair goal that we scored, which was 10 seconds after the play. Ten seconds after the play! It’s bad that he got in the way, obviously, but even worse that he looked at the VAR, right? I’ve seen the same thing he saw. And the fact that he’s looking at the VAR and trying to bail himself out. I mean there should be massive ramifications for that.”
What makes the no-goal even more difficult to swallow is that scoring has been quite a talking point for the Black & Gold of late, better put, a lack of scoring. Columbus entered the match without a goal scored in over 200 minutes of play.
When Santos’ shot hit the net, all 10 outfield players joined the winger near the corner flag to celebrate and the relief of not only scoring but taking a lead was clear. Instead, the goal was wiped away, as was the energy among the Crew it created. Should the Black & Gold have responded better, clearing the free kick and keeping the game scoreless? Yes. How different might things have been if Unkel doesn’t take his embarrassment of running into Acosta out on Columbus? We will never know.
The Crew does know the team was not given a fair shake at Audi Field on Saturday, but this is nothing new. As a small-market side in the new era of Major League Soccer, which is becoming filled with bigger clubs and high-profile players, these calls aren’t going to be handed to them as they were United.
Porter knows this and he made sure his players now do as well.
“We have to fight for our respect because it’s not going to be given to a club like Columbus,” the head coach said. “It’s not going to be given to some of our players that don’t have the name. No one’s going to give us that respect, we have to earn it, we have to fight for it, we have to do it the old fashion way.”
No matter what the Crew says, no bemoaning the officials is going to change the result. The Black & Gold lost their fifth straight contest on Saturday and are in a tailspin not seen since the 2000 season.
After a weird stretch of games — one in which the team agrees it should have gotten results in at least three of the recent defeats — this controversial contest may be the bottom of the barrel and a galvanizing point for the group where the only way to go from here is up.
“Certainly I think it will be a rallying point for us,” Trapp said. “We have to embrace that underdog mentality... But the idea of no one’s going to feel bad, no one’s going to give you anything, that’s what we have to embrace and look in the eye. Because ultimately we can’t sit here and play victims and that was the message at halftime and it’s something that we have to continue to rally behind and work on.”