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Vancouver - Salt Lake Post-Game: Justice Comes In Many Forms (Even Unjust Ones)

Oh, yeah. The Dragon entered.
Oh, yeah. The Dragon entered.

Those were two awful hand-ball calls, weren't they?

First, Collen Warner, after getting tangled up with a Vancouver Whitecaps attacker (arguably a foul but never mind), is laying prone on the plastic when a shot hits him in the shoulder. Bad luck, but referee Chris Penso misses the call, sends Warner off, and awards the Whitecaps the penalty... which Camilo Sanvezzo duly converts.

In the second half, a shot from the Whitecaps deflects off Chris Schuler's hand. It was definite contact and, with Schuler's arm parallel to his right leg, it was easy to see the contact was in the box. Of course, as I just mentioned, Schuler's arm was parallel to his right leg: for my money it was clearly ball to hand. Chris Penso misses the call, doesn't send anybody off, but awards the Whitecaps the penalty... which Camilo Sanvezzo duly converts.

Missed calls but understandable ones, as Warner was sent off in the midst of a scrum where the ball hit Warner very nearly on the arm and prevented a Whitecaps goal. The second penalty, at game speed, I certainly thought was a penalty. Both calls were wrong but reasonable; advertisements for replacing referees with robots but not condemnation of this particular referee. If I were a Real Salt Lake fan I'd feel damned hard-done-by but I wouldn't burn Chris Penso's house down.

So why justice? Because the Vancouver Whitecaps deserved to win. Playing against a third-rate Real Salt Lake team, the Whitecaps found themselves facing next-to-no pressure and, for once, exploited it. A variety of little-used players came through and Real Salt Lake stumbled around like the backups they were, having no answer to a Whitecaps attack that was short on skill but long on enthusiasm and speed, getting battered by so many runs and passes that it was only a matter of time before the Whitecaps banged one in. When Nizar Khalfan buried that hellacious, legitimate half-volley with time ticking down... that was justice. Seldom has a game mostly decided by the referee been so richly deserved.

First, a word to any Real Salt Lake fans reading. You're not going to like this. You're probably going to be upset about the refereeing and, if I were in your position, I certainly would be. I will say, however, that Penso missed (or, more likely, deliberately overlooked) a clear second-half penalty against Long Tan, as well as declining to award Camilo a penalty early in the game for a shoulder charge that I thought was a dive but could have gone either way.

Was the refereeing perfectly equitable? Of course not, but it didn't decide the game.

The game was partially decided back in July, when a rained-out game at Empire Field was rescheduled to October because that was the only time it could be fit in. Real Salt Lake was victimized by international callups and the Whitecaps weren't; an utterly sub-standard Salt Lake midfield then got its ass handed to it by a far more energetic, far superior Whitecaps front six.

Still, in the final assessment Real Salt Lake has nobody to blame but themselves. What were they thinking? In the last desperate fifteen minutes Salt Lake proved that even with a weakened lineup they could widen the field, move the ball, and pressure the Whitecaps. So their utter passivity for most of the game is mindboggling. Gershon Koffie and Long Tan were utterly outstanding simply because Salt Lake gave them too much time to indulge their native skill and creativity. With Tan and Camilo up front the Whitecaps were a little undersized, but even with a referee reluctant to call physical fouls against either team Salt Lake didn't exploit their advantage and pound the Vancouver forwards into oblivion.

A red card isn't a reason, a red card is an excuse. Real Salt Lake spent 43 minutes with eleven men on the field and, for their trouble, earned zero scoring chances while barely holding possession in the Whitecaps' half. Real Salt Lake actually saw more of the ball after they went down to ten men, passing it around aimlessly and barely coming close to threatening with a few half-hearted shots going high or wide and Joe Cannon making two easy saves.

Vancouver was vulnerable defensively. Carlyle Mitchell was making his Major League Soccer Debut and Jeb Brovsky is still Jeb Brovsky. But Mitchell looked great because Salt Lake didn't give him much to do: he was able to play straight defense, keep tracking one man, and deal with the ball if that one man got it, which any professional centre back can do in his sleep. Brovsky was turned a few times but Salt Lake barely exploited him. Only late in the game, when Salt Lake was desperate and Vancouver sloppily defending a big lead, did Real Salt Lake prove they could have gone on the attack if they had wanted to, if they hadn't been so spooked by a weak roster and a red card that they let defeat come to them instead of fighting it off.

Did Vancouver have a lot of energy? I thought Jordan Harvey, playing out of position, was lethargic as usual, made to look better only by Alain Rochat's fine play and Salt Lake's passivity. John Thorrington was effective and made it very hard for Salt Lake to build through the middle but he was hardly energetic, and Gershon Koffie didn't seem so much "revved up" as "given way too much room." The regulars did what was expected.

The irregulars came through. Nizar Khalfan has hardly played under Tom Soehn but he grabbed this chance with both hands: Good Khalfan came thundering onto BC Place's hallowed pitch after a long hibernation and tore Real Salt Lake to pieces. They never seemed to have an answer for him, and the rough, physical play which can so often knock Khalfan off his game was never displayed. His goal, a magnificent half-volley, gave the Whitecaps a goal in open play to hold over the heads of aggrieved Salt Lake fans as well as a potential Goal of the Week nominee.

As for Long Tan, well, he alternates between turnovers and tremendous plays so often I'm losing track of whether I think he's good or he's bad. The thing with Tan is that he looks like so fundamentally limited a player but he gets the ball more-or-less where it has to go. I don't think I've had a consistent opinion on him for two consecutive weeks and now isn't the time to start: he was tremendous but error-prone and I wonder what he'd have done against a competent defensive scheme. Still, he was remarkable.

Mitchell is difficult to evaluate, for he was seldom challenged. I can hardly complain about his debut, though. He wastes time like a champ, we know that. He's also solid and lives up to the Trinidadian league's reputation for tough customers who'll make forwards pay if he gets too cute. Outplaying Cody Arnoux isn't exactly difficult, but Mitchell passed a modest test with flying colours and I'm willing to give him a chance.

Real Salt Lake made it pretty easy for the Whitecaps, but Vancouver grabbed the opportunity. That's what's been missing all year.