Flashpoints marred the final two regular season games between FC Dallas and Vancouver, but a controversial decision from referee Mark Geiger provided the decisive talking point in their last bruising meeting of the season.
Michel converted a penalty six minutes from time to give FCD a 2-1 victory over the Whitecaps and send the home side through to face Seattle in the Western Conference semifinals.
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The veteran midfielder made no mistake from the spot, but the decision will prompt frustration in Vancouver for some time to come after Geiger called Kendall Waston for handling. It looked a difficult verdict in live time and a harsh one on replay as a throw-in bounced up awkwardly after landing on the surface and hit the towering Costa Rican on the arm.
“Waston deliberately handled the ball, hence the PK was called,” Geiger wrote in a response to a pool reporter after the match.
Vancouver protested vehemently, but their appeals went unheeded. The ensuing goal erased the stalemate created by Tesho Akindele’s first-half opener and Erik Hurtado’s second-half reply and left the visitors furious at the final whistle.
"Well, we don’t want to go on about the decision," Whitecaps defender Andy O’Brien said. "It was a big decision given the magnitude of the game. I don’t think it was a blatant handball, but these are things that happen. Even for somebody my age, the game kicks you between the legs sometimes. That’s how it feels tonight, but we wish Dallas all the best and good luck."
Sebastian Fernandez received a red card for making apparent contact with Geiger after the final whistle. Several of his teammates swarmed the officiating crew, but their anger would not alter the fact that FCD is now booked to open its two-legged tie with Sounders FC at Toyota Stadium on Sunday.
"We have to take care of the players, they have to take care of the calls." FC Dallas coach Oscar Pareja said after noting he did not see the call. "Sometimes, it comes on your side. Sometimes, it comes against you and you have to deal with it."
The previous two meetings between the teams involved plenty of extracurriculars and plenty of fouls. Only the latter trait remained during a disjointed first half pockmarked by necessary whistles and wasteful touches in the middle third.
Vancouver entrenched inside its own half for long periods and thrust long ball after long ball forward in a bid to catch out the home side over the top. The dynamic restricted FC Dallas’ ability to break quickly through midfield and forced the home side to work the ball deftly through midfield to create opportunities.
Even the return of Mauro Diaz could not provide the inspiration required to slice through the organized Whitecaps in possession. FCD threatened occasionally through a procession of Michel set pieces, while the visitors largely settled for long-distance drives from schemer Pedro Morales in the absence of any extended or incisive sequences on the ball.
The state of play led to a rather stop-start affair with an emphasis on situational defending, but FCD altered the calculus when it took the lead four minutes before halftime.
It rather appropriately came from sloppiness in the Whitecaps back four rather than a magical sequence. Diaz jinked through the missteps as Andy O’Brien and Waston veered away from their berths and slotted Akindele through into space on the right. Akindele placed his shot inside the far post to give the home side a precious and somewhat unexpected halftime advantage.
Vancouver nearly mustered a response in the early stages of the second half. Mauro Rosales bent a free kick off the crossbar from nearly 25 yards as the Whitecaps pushed out their line and tried to engage the game higher up the field.
Whitecaps boss Carl Robinson replaced the fading Morales with the lively Kekuta Manneh 10 minutes into the second half. The tempo increased correspondingly and prompted an uptick from the visitors. Their endeavor and their improvement ultimately led to the equalizer just after the hour.
Rosales created the initial danger with a teasing free kick toward the penalty spot. FCD failed to properly clear at the first attempt and struggled to do much with Manneh’s effort back toward goal. Hurtado collected the deflection at the far post and turned his effort into the net with the aid of a substantial Victor Ulloa touch.
The goal confirmed the shifting balance of the proceedings and created more space vertically for the Whitecaps to exploit. Manneh cut inside from the left and curled his effort just wide of the far post as the Whitecaps – buoyed by their increased energy and the improved combination play after the break – pressed for a winner.
The decisive goal arrived, but it fell for the home side in controversial fashion. FC Dallas took a throw from the right sideline. Koffie and Blas Perez challenged it in the air without making substantive contact. The ball bounced off the surface behind them and hit Waston in arm, according to replays.
Geiger blew the whistle and pointed to the spot to the shock and the horror of the Whitecaps players. Their dissent went unheeded as Michel dispatched the spot kick and sent FCD through to face Seattle this weekend.