With a steady rain pouring on him, Sporting Kansas City forward Johnny Russell stood 35 yards from goal with the ball on his patented left foot. On a night in which the refereeing had taken center feature, Russell shifted gears.
As he stared down at the ball, readying a pass, Russell instead juked one defender, then another, then another and then one more — all to set up his left foot.
A breakthrough finally ensued.
With a strike in the 83rd minute, Russell salvaged Sporting KC a point with a contentious 1-1 draw against visiting LA Galaxy late Saturday at Children’s Mercy Park.
It was satisfactory for an eighth consecutive consecutive playoff berth for Sporting KC.
It did not satisfy Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, who spent his postgame press conference railing on the officials, specifically center referee Jair Marrufo, for decisions throughout the match.
He focused on two specific plays: An early penalty kick awarded to LA, which the Galaxy used to score its only goal. And the lack of a call late in the game, when Galaxy keeper David Bingham appeared to strike Sporting KC forward Diego Rubio in the face. Neither play was reviewed.
“Unfortunately we were playing against not only the other team but unfortunately the referees on the field,” Vermes said. “That kind of performance by them is unacceptable at this stage in the league.”
LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, making his much-anticipated first appearance at sold-out Children’s Mercy Park, broke the scoreline with controversy. Galaxy forward Ola Kamara attempted to receive a pass from teammate Roman Alessandrini. After getting to the ball, he hurdled Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia, who had charged off his line to challenge. Marrufo immediately signaled to the spot. Ibrahimovic buried the penalty kick.
Responding to a pool reporter’s questions, Marrufo said he whistled Sporting KC captain Matt Besler for tripping Kamara in the penalty box.
“I got nothing to say about that play,” Besler said. “It’s obvious when you look at the replay, the correct decision was not made. I feel bad for us and for all of the fans that came out.
“It ruined the game.”
Marrufo paused the game momentarily and held his finger to his ear, a signal that he was communicating with the video assistant referee about the play. But after that conversation, he elected not to take an additional review.
The call stood.
“First of all, terrible decision. Hundred percent terrible decision,” Vermes said. “And I’ll say it this way: When you have a live game at the speed in which the game is being played, there is absolutely chances for making mistakes. But when you have a replay to look at, that tells you the incompetence of the people that are actually viewing it.”
Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke, apparently watching the game, tweeted after the call, “Absolutely Atrocious PK call.”
That lit the flame.
The last action of the game fused another reaction.
Seeking a potential game-winning goal, Rubio leaped for a header and won the ball. Then Bingham’s right fist connected with his head as he was attempting to punch the ball away. After the match, Rubio received a yellow card for screaming at the referees about the lack of a call.
That play was also not reviewed.
“Of course we have our opinions. We cannot say too much about that or we’re going to get fined,” Rubio said. “Sometimes you need to criticize the players because we don’t score. And sometimes the media needs to criticize the ref because of the decision they make (can affect) the future of the playoffs, the future for a team if they play at home in the first game and everything.”
The one time Marrufo did elect to utilize review, the ensuing call worked in Sporting KC’s favor. LA added a second goal before halftime, but it was waved off after Daniel Steres was deemed offside on the replay.
“When the offside goal is scored, he then goes and checks it because he knows that was a decision the linesman’s supposed to make,” Vermes said. “So he goes and checks it and corrects it based on VAR.”
Vermes has never been shy about his critique of referees, but he made a point two seasons ago to quiet his public remarks about them. He had mostly stuck to that, presenting a tamer approach.
That changed Saturday.
When asked if he plans to take further action about what transpired Saturday, he replied, “What can I do? I can’t do anything with the league. It’s not me. It’s up to them. They have all kinds of evaluators and all these other people. I mean if you sit back and evaluate that game based on what I just said, it’s obvious. It’s obvious. What I am disappointed (about) is when I look at our team, I look at the work our guys put into it, the way that we play — to have the points taken away from them based on (the referees) performance is what I have a problem with. And I will stand up and defend that every single day, every single game that we have for this club as long as I am here.
“I will not stand for that. Because we expect high standards of our players. We expect a higher standard of play. And we expect the same thing from the league and (Professional Referee Organization). And right now, that’s not happening. That didn’t happen tonight.”