By IAN WALKER
Forget Redrum. Red card is more like it.
Vancouver Whitecaps players, coaches management and fans were crying bloody murder after Martin Nash's season came to an abrupt end on Saturday night. The Whitecaps captain received a straight red card for a hard tackle on Roberto Brown in the 52nd minute of a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Impact in the first-leg of the United Soccer Leagues First Division championship at Swangard Stadium. The penalty carries an automatic game suspension. And seeing that next weekend's game is the second of a two-game finale . . . well, you do the math.
Brown stayed down for several minutes following the play and had to be stretchered off the field. It was a wonder his wrists and ankles weren't burned from the straps upon his return — he was back in the game that fast once he reached the sidelines.
"It's disappointing, I let 29 guys down on the squad, it's never nice to do that," said Nash, about the undisciplined play on his behalf. "He fouled me seconds before. I went in for a tackle. I don't think there was much in it. He cried like a baby and the referee bought it. She bought into his squealing."
The fact Montreal's second goal was very close to being offside — along with a yellow card to Marlon James for excessive celebration after he tied things at 2-2 — didn't help temper emotions inside the Burnaby stadium.
"I think it was ridiculous call on Martin, especially when you see the guy jump up and he's on his feet right away," said Whitecaps head coach Teitur Thordarson, who wasn't done there. "As for Marlon, that's something I didn't see. I don't know if he pulled his shirt off or something, but it's totally ridiculous. I think the officiating here today destroyed the game a little bit."
Whitecaps fans weren't nearly so kind as their team's coach. The standing-room sell-out crowd of 5,886 peppered referee Carol Anne Chenard with boos for most of the second half while saving their loudest taunts for the end of the game, when she and her officials needed a security escort to get from the pitch to the tunnel.
It's a shame, too. The second half was one of the most exciting stretches of soccer to be played at the Burnaby stadium. Ever.
Trailing 1-0 at the half, Vancouver rallied around the fallen leader with a goal in the 56th minute. Marcus Haber's right footer from 18-yards out was a thing of beauty, capping a brilliant individual effort by the reining USL-1 rookie of the year. The 20-year-old Vancouver native capitalized on a turnover at midfield then turned Impact defender Cedric Joqueviel inside-out with a slippery step-over before beating Matt Jordan to the goalkeeper's left.
Peter Byers restored the Impact's lead in the 63rd minute, scoring 5-hole on Jay Nolly from a sharp angle, but again Vancouver countered with a man down. Wes Knight's perfect cross set up James's header to deadlock the game in the 65th minute.
Nolly made his presence felt on wild sequence deep in the Whitecaps box with the game tied at 2-2 and in its 71st minute. Brown started the play by heading a shot off the crossbar that Eddie Sebrango followed up with a header of his own. The ball was clearly going in, but somehow the Whitecaps goalkeeper managed to punch it out of harms way while on his back, lying on the goal line.
Nolly made another acrobatic stop with the game in the final minute of regulation, but Sebrango wouldn't be denied a second time. Nolly was good to stop Rocco Placentino's initial shot, but couldn't control the rebound, which the former Whitecap headed home for the eventual game-winner.
"This is huge, I wanted to do well against my former team, but more than that get the win," said Sebrango, who came off the bench in the 70th minute. "They are a good team and were playing well with only 10 men. I expect the second-leg to be a fight."
Still, the excitement didn't end there. James rolled a stoppage time shot just wide of the left goal post in injury time.
While the officiating took the shine off the game, the Whitecaps faithful offered a standing ovation as the team left the field.
"It was a brilliant second half," said Thordarson. "It was the first half was what got us into trouble."
Vancouver looked like a totally different team to start the game than the one which came out like a club possessed in its previous two first-leg playoff matches. The Whitecaps looked mostly disjointed through the game's opening 45 minutes, spending a large part of it defending rather than playing the attacking-style that the Swangard faithful has come to expect this post-season.
Vancouver was lucky Brown's volley from 15 yards out was high after Nolly collided with defender Luca Bellisomo in the eighth minute and again when Leonardo Di Lorenzo drilled a 20-yard shot just wide of the right post after a nice setup by Brown. The two Impact players connected again in the 24th minute, but this time it was Di Lorenzo with a dangerous cross that Brown just missed on a diving header. Brown's deflection of Di Lorenzo's free kick late in the 38th minute didn't miss by much and Nolly was forced to make an outstanding save off Byers from in close after a nice individual effort for the Impact striker in the 44th minute. Montreal's hard work paid off a minute later when Whitecaps defender Shaun Pejic headed it into his own net trying to clear Stephen Deroux's cross from the left.
"We weren't very good at the start, which was disappointing, but I think we can build off an excellent second half," said Nash. "There's a great spirit in this squad, a never-say-die attitude. It was a brilliant last 35-40 minutes and we're still in it."
Indeed they are. Even if the game was anything but a Shining moment for the officials.
-The two-game, aggregate-goal championship concludes next Saturday in Montreal. The Whitecaps may be without defender Lyle Martin, who left the game limping. Winger Ansu Toure, who missed the first leg with a thigh injury, could be back for the second-leg.
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