The Columbus Crew battled to a 2-2 draw against Liga MX side Monterrey in the first leg of the quarterfinal of the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday night. The match, played at historic Crew Stadium, was an exciting affair, with Rayados taking an early lead before the Black & Gold took control and, in the second half, battled back for a 2-1 advantage. But a late mistake at the back allowed for a stoppage time equalizer.
But the story of the game was not so much the play of either team but the officiating. Head referee Juan Gabriel Calderon called 25 fouls in the match, 19 of which were against the visitors, but handed out just three yellow cards, two of which went against the Crew. Columbus also had a go-ahead goal by Bradley Wright-Phillips wiped off the board by Video Assistant Review official Chris Penso — VAR was just put into the competition this week — for an offside call.
After the match, Black & Gold head coach Caleb Porter began his press conference by praising his players for the way they approached the game and thought the Crew was the better team in the match.
“I thought even though we didn’t get the win, it was a game where I felt like our team, players, club as a whole grew,” Porter said. “I think we gained confidence, I think we gained belief and I think we showed that we can go toe to toe with a very good team and not just match them but exceed what they were doing. I thought the guys deserved more.”
An emotional Porter then let his feelings be known about the officiating. He did not take questions. His full comments can be viewed and read below.
The sad part is the officiating. And I know everybody hates it when coaches talk about the officials but it’s a joke. It’s a joke. How Lucas Zelarayan gets a yellow card, no idea. They had six, seven fouls worse than the foul he had and no card and he gets a yellow card. Somebody explain that to me. Somebody explain to me how Gyasi’s play where he gets cleaned out by the keeper is not a penalty kick and not even reviewed. Can someone explain to me, please explain to me, go back and watch the goal that we scored, watch it? How is that clear and obvious overturned offside? I watched it. Every angle. I paused it. I stopped. I always try to be objective in these moments. It’s not off. How do they overturn that call? And then at the end, there’s a clear handball on the sideline before they score a goal.
It’s a joke and it’s sad. It’s sad. When you have a team like our club that has desire and ambition, that wants to win this tournament and advance and facing off against another quality team and it’s tainted. It’s tainted by a VAR last-minute decision thrown out there, not organized, clearly. There’s no — you have a guy in the booth that’s never worked with the officiating crew. I knew right when they said that it was going to be thrown together last minute that it was going to be a disaster. How can they do that? Shame on CONCACAF for that. That is absolutely ridiculous. You have an American in the VAR booth who’s never worked with the officiating crew. There’s no understanding, there’s no relationship. And that’s the other sad part is that we get screwed on two calls, a penalty, clear, and an offside that’s not offside that we score a fair goal, and it’s by an American. What would happen in Mexico if you had a Mexican in the VAR booth? I think we all know. It’s ridiculous.
But I’ll close with, I’m proud of my team, I’m proud of the way we played, I love our aggressiveness and even though we didn’t get the win, I’m happy with what they did today and they deserve more and I’m sad for them. And I can’t sit up here and say nothing because I watched this tournament for years and years and years, I’ve watched this league for years and years and years and everybody talks about how no American team has beaten a Liga MX to win the tournament, blah, blah, blah. Why don’t they get the frickin officiating sorted out? What don’t they get that sorted out? You’ve got good teams competing in a tournament, why don’t they get the officiating sorted out? It’s a joke.
The first play Porter referred to was a 12th minute yellow card on playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, who stepped on the foot of defender Sebastián Vegas while changing direction. While certainly a foul, it’s hard to argue, especially as Porter points out based on some of the other fouls in the match, that this early accident deserved a yellow card that will now see Zelarayan suspended for the second leg after picking up a card in the Round of 16.
The second incident referenced by Porter occurred in the 34th minute when Zelarayan whipped a cross into the penalty box that found forward Gyasi Zardes. While goalkeeper Luis Cardenas does collide with Zardes as he comes out in an attempt to make a save, the forward already got his shot away and the ball is going wide. Calderon did check with Penso on the play but no penalty kick was given.
While a play like this does get called in some instances, the fact that Zardes was able to get his shot off before any contact often gives the referee an out for awarding a penalty kick.
The offside controversy came after a Bradley Wright-Phillips goal in the 71st minute that appeared to put the Crew ahead 2-1. The call in question isn’t on the Black & Gold forward but on center back Josh Williams (top of the image), who headed Zelarayan’s free kick back across the goal for Wright-Phillips to then head home.
After listening to Penso, Calderon went to the VAR monitor and called the goal back. Offside is an ongoing controversy with VAR due to the different ways it is interpreted. As Porter said, VAR was supposed to be installed in soccer for “clear and obvious” errors made on the field. But some leagues, like the English Premier League, take a call such as offside (which a player either is or isn’t, technically there is no gray area) to the finest millimeter.
On the replay, Williams does appear to be just slightly offside when Zelarayan strikes the free kick but the angle of the camera does not make it clear nor obvious. Without a better angle, Calderon should not be able to determine with certainty that Williams was offside.
The handball on the Monterrey equalizer in stoppage time is harder to judge because it happened quickly and there was no clear angle shown on the television broadcast due to Harrison Afful’s positioning during the play. The ball does appear to bounce up and hit a Monterrey player’s hand and, happening 15 seconds before the goal, was certainly within the timeframe of VAR to go back and check the play. But there was little to no appeal by any Crew players on the field and the questions should turn more toward the Black & Gold defending of a cross, rather than the officials on this play.
A 2-2 scoreline certainly favors Monterrey, who heads back to Mexico for the second leg in a week’s time with the aggregate score advantage thanks to the away goals tiebreaker. The Crew now must win at Estadio BBVA to advance to the semifinal, while a second 2-2 draw would force extra time.
No amount of complaining will change the result, but Porter does make good points. For years, American teams have felt hard done by referees in these international tournaments — fans call it “being CONCACAF’d” — and Columbus is not the first nor the last to have issues with refereeing in this year’s Champions League.