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Instant Reaction: How Lukasz Szpala lost control of the game

A non-call against Toronto FC's Sigurd Rosted allowed the defender to remain in the game, and set the stage for the post-match scuffles that had both teams mixing it up.

© Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

First, let's acknowledge the importance of the result: New York City FC won their first road game of the year by beating an in-form Toronto FC on a cold, rain-soaked night at BMO Field.

Just as importantly, NYCFC did it by playing their game. A heavily-rotated side fought to keep the ball and pass their way out of trouble — and into Toronto's goal. It worked. New York City earned all three of the goals they scored, and they deserved the win.

But the contest grew testy as the minutes ticked by, and things turned outright ugly after the final whistle was blown. Both teams mixed it up on the field. One of the flashpoints was between Toronto goalkeeper Sean Johnson, formerly the captain of New York City, and NYCFC defender Strahinja Tanasijević, who joined the team this year.

It's hard to tell from the footage available from Apple TV, but in the clip above you can see the two face off and rush each other. Then you can see Johnson dodge his teammates, run down Tanasijević, grab him around the chest, and seemingly head-butt the defender.

We won't know what happened on the field after the end of the game until the MLS Disciplinary Committee issues their findings next week. But it seems to us that the heightened emotions on the field were the result of a game that wasn't properly managed by referee Lukasz Szpala.

We're the first to acknowledge that reffing is a tough gig, and that you shouldn't take cheap shots at the professionals who officiate these games. But sometimes a well-intentioned decision can throw off the equilibrium of a match and generate the kind of tension that carried over through the end of this game.

In this case, it was arguably the non-call from Szpala in the 58th minute when Toronto defender Sigurd Rosted took out New York City's Malachi Jones when he had the ball outside the penalty area. Rosted stepped into the path of Jones and sent him flying — it would have been a yellow card on any other day, but the defender was already on a yellow, and it seemed that Szpala didn't want to send off the player and possibly determine the result of the game. He whistled a foul — New York City had the ball, but Rosted remained in the game.

The New York City players gathered around Szpala to voice their frustration, but the ref held firm, and Toronto continued with 11 players.

Rosted would foul Jones one more time, and land another knock that forced the New York City player to leave the game. Then Rosted was subbed off for Raoul Petretta, who went on to score for Toronto in the 89th minute.

But it was less about who scored than it was about Szpala holding Toronto accountable for their play. The ref didn't do his job. Rosted should have been sent off in the 58th minute, and shouldn't have been on the field to foul Jones again. Toronto should have been reduced to 10 players, and forced to chase the game.

But that's not what happened. The butterfly effect of Szpala's non-call was that Toronto head coach John Herdman could make attack-minded substitutions. He not only brought on Petretta, he subbed on forward Lorenzo Insigne, and made two more changes in the midfield.

More to the point, Szpala's non-call gave license to Toronto: He let them know they could get away with it. That, in turn, created frustration in the ranks of NYCFC players, who knew they weren't protected.

The emotional intensity grew as seven minutes of stoppage time stretched into nine minutes of playing time, and the game ended with a yellow card shown to New York City's Adrés Perea and a second yellow shown to Toronto's Frederico Bernadeschi. That aggression carried over into the post-match mix-up on the field. The confrontation between Johnson and Tanasijević was the clip we watched on Apple TV, but it looked like there were other tussles happening elsewhere.

Did Szpala refuse to call that second yellow on Rosted because he didn't want to interrupt the flow of the game? Only the ref knows. But by allowing Rosted to continue playing – and to continue fouling Jones – Szpala helped set the stage for the on-field scuffles that had both teams mixing it up after the end of the game.