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STAYIN' ALIVE: New York City 2, Vancouver 1

A splendid performance by New York City on the road to the top team in the West gets overshadowed by horrible officiating. But the Blues are still alive in the playoff hunt.

Back in the day, when Bill Simmons was "merely" the Worldwide Leader's "Sports Guy", he came up with the concept of the "Tyson Zone". Named after the mercurial heavyweight legend Mike Tyson, this is when something or someone is so crazy, so inexplicably bonkers, that it beggars belief. From the column:

Q: I think Ron Artest has entered rarified air now. He's officially a person who, if a friend said, "Did you hear that (fill in celebrity's name) just (fill in the insane behavior: urinated on a police officer, began breeding unicorns, etc.)?", I would have no problem believing it was true. I think this space is occupied by Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, Courtney Love, and the late, great ODB. Can you think of any others?

-- Brendan Quinn, Philadelphia, PA

SG: First of all, fantastic theory. I think we should call this "The Tyson Zone." Others who qualify: Dennis Rodman; Omarosa; R. Kelly; Landon from "The Real World"; Najeh Davenport; Suge Knight; Flava Flav; Brigette Nielsen; anyone in G Unit; Billy Joel; Andy Dick; Lindsay Lohan's Dad; Anna Nicole Smith; Margot Kidder; Tara Reid; Lil John; Gary Busey; Ricky Williams; the late Bison Dele; Liza Minnelli; Paris Hilton; and Henry Winkler.

To put it in context, some examples of qualifying behavior are: offering a zoo handler money to box a gorilla; threatening to eat an opponent's children; biting said opponent in the ring; saying you're ready to "fight Jesus"; or blowing $300 million on hookers, cocaine and an enormous collection of pigeons.

Mike Tyson, God love him, did all these things -- and then some.

Last night, referee Ricardo Salazar entered the Tyson Zone. The game was a fascinating, taut clash between two teams desperate for a win, with starkly opposed tactical and strategic philosophies. It was that -- and then some -- for 87 minutes. New York City were deservedly leading, but Vancouver was constantly threatening.

Then Salazar completely lost the plot. In the 87th minute, Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston scrapped for the ball in New York City's penalty area; Blues defender Angelino tried to deny him. Waston tripped over his feet and fell, then tried claiming that Angelino fouled him.


Except it wasn't. Not even close. Here, have a look:

That's not a penalty. Repeat after me: that's not a penalty. That's one of the weakest, flimsiest penalty calls I've ever seen given. And yet: Salazar gave it.

Pedro Morales stepped up. Took the penalty; scored the penalty. Game tied, 1-1. New York City had no choice but to press forward for the winning goal. This gave Vancouver plenty of chances to win the game themselves. Josh Saunders -- as he has so many times this season -- proved himself equal to the task, with save after save, as did the defense.

Time, and New York City's playoff life, ebbed away. Seconds, really, were left. New York City girded themselves for one final, frantic assault. Frank Lampard, who had staked the Blues to their original lead, drove into the box with the ball. Then this happened:

That's not a penalty. Repeat after me: that's not a penalty. That's the weakest, flimsiest penalty call I've ever seen given. It was a beautiful tackle in the box by Matias Laba. It's the kind of tackle that should be taught. And yet: it won't. It won't, because Ricardo Salazar gave the penalty. Why did he give the penalty? Because he gave it earlier.

In other words: he gave the Blues a makeup call for the one he blitheringly botched earlier.

David Villa stepped up. Took the penalty; scored the penalty. New York City won, 2-1. New York City stays alive in the playoff chase, just barely. Deservedly so, but in the worst of all ways.

Why am I banging on about this? Salazar's officiating over the final eight minutes of the game was incomprehensibly bad. It's the kind of officiating you wouldn't tolerate from your local weekend league; but it's the kind of officiating you see in MLS on way too regular a basis. Salazar isn't a rookie referee, either; he's officiated over 200 MLS games, which means that, presumably, MLS and PRO (the referees' organization) see nothing wrong with him calling games, despite the evidence otherwise.

It's one thing for MLS to bring in players like Seba Giovinco, Pirlo, Lampard, Drogba, Villa, and so forth in its bid to become a "top league" or "league of choice" or whatever term you want to use as MLS strives to join soccer's global elite. That's fine. There will be more coming; that's just the vanguard. If I'm a mid-table or below team in Serie A or La Liga, I'm casting nervous eyes at MLS. If I play for a Sassuolo or a Carpi or Las Palmas or Málaga, I look at MLS and I see a league where I get paid on time, the facilities are top-notch, and I can be a star.

But if you're going to bring in players like that, then they -- and the fans -- deserve equally elite officials. They deserve better than the hack job we saw last night from Ricardo Salazar, who really shouldn't be officiating any MLS games, let alone over 200 of them. It really says something that MLS fans have nothing positive to say about any of the league's leading game officials. It really says everything that the putative best official in MLS -- Mark Geiger -- is best known for turning games into the "Geiger Show" and for a raft of inexplicable calls; and that he can't officiate CONCACAF international games after a diabolical performance in the Gold Cup.

Two years ago, MLS made loud claims about reviewing the performance of its game officials, with the aim of overhauling it. It hasn't happened. If MLS -- and really, US Soccer and PRO -- is serious about this -- and it should be -- then it's way past time for them to hire Pierluigi Collina or Howard Webb, or at least someone on that level to oversee the performance of match officials.

It's a shame, because Salazar's performance, or lack thereof, overshadowed an excellent performance on the road by New York City. They started out well, controlling possession, passing the ball around well. The only problem was that, over the first 28 minutes of the game, they had no shots on goal. That was due, mostly, to Vancouver's defensive solidity. It frustrated the Blues in the final third repeatedly.

But it was only a matter of time before something would give way. It was the Whitecaps defense. In the 29th minute, Andrea Pirlo linked up with Angelino, serving him with a inch-perfect pass. The teenager then threaded a lovely ball to the onrushing Frank Lampard, who calmly slotted it home to score his second of the season, giving New York City a 1-0 lead.

New York City continued to control the game to half-time. The Whitecaps, though, made the necessary adjustments, and constantly pressured the Blues throughout the second half, threatening to score. Which makes Salazar's intervention all the more unfortunate; who's to say that Vancouver wouldn't have tied or won on their own merit? They looked all the more likely to do so late in the game.

Had they done so, the more interesting story would've been head coach Jason Kreis' curious substitute pattern. He waited until the 75th minute to use his first one, replacing Ned Grabavoy with Khiry Shelton, making his first appearance in months. It wasn't until the 90th minute that Mix Diskerud made way for Kwadwo Poku.

Curious, because it was clear in the minutes leading up to the penalty fiascos, that New York City's players were spent; heavy legs abounded, and it was all the Blues could do to get hold of the ball, never mind hold on to it. But we'll never know, and thanks to Salazar, Kreis escapes a modicum of criticism here.

Next up for New York City: a reeling DC United on Friday at RFK Stadium, who lost to Impact du Montréal 2-0 on Saturday. With the win last night, New York City climb to 37 points on a 10-14-7 record. They trail Orlando City (10-13-8, 38 points) by one point, and Montréal (12-11-6, 42 points) by five in the chase for the final playoff spot.