On a Saturday night in late July in the nation's capital, New England Revolution striker Saer Sene was bearing down on the D.C. United goal near the end of the match. The goal was open, Joe Willis having come into the opposite box in a last-ditch effort to score from a late corner. Sene took some heavy touches forward and crossed the center line, certain to score and put the result - already a 2-1 victory for the Revs - beyond doubt with an insurance goal.
Then, curiously, Dave Gantar blew the final whistle. The fourth official had previously indicated a minimum of four minutes of extra time, which had passed, but it was right in the middle of a clear goalscoring opportunity. Whistles don't usually get blown in the middle of a clear goalscoring opportunity.
Sene put the ball in the back of the net regardless. There was little doubt that it was going to happen anyway, but it appeared that Sene wasn't aware of the whistle until he'd already slotted it home. The goal wasn't counted.
It didn't affect the outcome. But it might affect the Revs' playoff chances.
Goals scored are the first tie-breaker in MLS this season. If the Revolution end up tied on points for fifth place, it will come down to whether or not they scored more goals than the next team. And while the Revs' have a potent offense now, their early-season struggles have put them behind several other teams in terms of attacking output. That goal could be crucial.
For head coach Jay Heaps, though, his biggest issue wasn't the goal being disallowed. It was inconsistency in officiating.
"I thought the decision was a little bit - well, not a little bit, but it was very harsh. It's just tough because, you know, we're trying to play it consistently every week and you want the refereeing to be consistent because that's the only way that we can manage who's going to be refereeing our game. Throughout every game we've had this year, injury time has just been, for me, one of the areas that has been so inconsistent. So, nevermind four minutes going up, or three minutes going up, that target to me has never felt consistent. And so for it to end with eleven seconds on the clock after the four minutes when we were told it was going to be a minimum of four, you just scratch your head. Obviously it's disappointing, goals for are a key, but if it comes down to one goal then shame on us."
It's typical of Heaps to take that cavalier attitude about the one goal, but he's probably right. It's the same argument that gets made when people blame wins and losses on a single refereeing decision - if you did your job right, the referee wouldn't matter.
His comments about the officials are more telling. If I may be so bold, I believe that the single greatest issue and threat facing MLS in modern times is inconsistency in officiating. Note that I didn't use the word "incompetence" - certainly also an issue - but "inconsistency." The truth is that inept officiating can usually be dealt with when it's evenly applied; an official may let a game get way, way too physical, but if he's going to let the same calls go all the time, you can adjust. It's when an official lets the play go and then suddenly overcompensates with unreasonably tight calls that games get out of hand and people get upset.
Heaps apparently feels that this issue of consistency can also be applied to stoppage time. His complaints are warranted. Sene's non-goal may turn out to be completely irrelevant come season's end, but if coaches can't reliably count on stoppage time - or, more accurately, times and situations when stoppage time ends - to be handled consistently and evenly in each match, there will inevitably be controversy. Controversy has a tendency to hamper winning efforts.
The call itself came in what should probably go down as a match to forget for Dave Gantar. He missed several obvious calls for both sides, including penalty shouts at both ends that most people on both teams would agree should have been called. If there was any consistency in his work that evening, it was that he was consistently poor in his judgment.
In the meantime, Gantar will likely officiate matches every week for the rest of the season, with varying assignments. There has been no word on whether or not MLS or the PRO have taken a look at Gantar's decision to blow the whistle, at his stoppage time decision, or at anything at all in the match, for that matter.
Heaps and the Revolution will continue to hope for referee consistency. It's unlikely they'll get what they want.