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Re-visiting Sporting KC-Chicago: Was a lesser experienced referee affected by the Livestrong frenzy?

Chicago Fire v Sporting Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, KS - SEPTEMBER 28: C.J. Sapong #17 of Sporting Kansas City slides and knocks the ball away from Chris Rolfe #18 of the Chicago Fire in the first half at Livestrong Sporting Park on September 28, 2012 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

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If we look at the MLS schedule for round 30, we see three matches that mean so very much to both teams’ playoff ambition.

And we see that two of those contests happen to be high profile matches seen on NBC Sports Network.

So, the logical conclusion would be that better, more experience referees would be assigned by U.S. Soccer to these contests. Right? Especially on a Friday, with just one match scheduled (which means every referee was presumably available.)

Show me a match destined for weapons grade intensity, involving the league’s most physical and athletic team (Sporting KC), with the Eastern Conference crown on the line, and I’ll show you a match were a wiser, steadying officiating hand is required. Right? Or are we missing something?

Because I cannot figure out why Chris Penso, with a scant just 29 matches of MLS experience, would be assigned to Livestrong Sporting Park for last night’s fierce encounter.

Make no mistake, Penso had a rough night. In the end, I’m not sure we can say it affected the result – but it certainly could have.

Penso and his crew missed two clear corner kicks (and therefore two scoring opportunities in a tight match) that should have gone to Chicago. But that stuff happens, and no one should get too worked up over such “this or that” decisions.

But here’s the bigger problem: It looked like Penso was affected by the fever pitch frenzy of a high-tempo, highly charged evening. Chicago has reason to be upset, because almost all of the big decisions went the home team’s way. That’s where the experience factor comes in.

(MORE: Analysis of the match at PST)

Last night’s atmosphere was playoff-level intense on the field. And, since we are talking about the wonderful atmosphere around Livestrong Sporting Park, it was loud and raucous to the point of being potentially influential to the important decisions and to the match management.

That should never happen, of course, but it’s difficult to draw any other conclusions here.

Kansas City’s Paulo Nagamura absolutely eliminated the Fire’s Chris Rolfe on a big, early run toward SKC goal, clobbering the in-form attacker from behind. It should have been a yellow card for the Kansas City midfielder but there was never a word said. (As it was off the ball, Penso perhaps didn’t see it, In that case, of course, one of the assistants or the fourth official should have brought said “clobbering” to his attention.)

Later, SKC center back Lawrence Olum cleaned out Chicago Fire attacker Patrick Nyarko and should have been carded. When he wasn’t, Olum was supplied the latitude needed to go clean out Dominic Oduro, which Penso also inexplicably allowed. At some point, all this becomes a player safety issue when referees are remiss in doing what they are paid to do: police the game and protect the players.

There were a couple of other, later Chicago Fire appeals for fouls that were judgment calls. Again, those will fall one way or the other; that’s part of the game. The problem is when they start stacking up, with so many going against the visitors. That’s when it’s fair to question if the man in the middle is the right man in the middle for the job?

(MORE: Highlights, and breaking down the early goal)

The worst may have occurred late, when Fire outside back Gonzalo Segares was issued a second card for … well, for not much of anything. Kansas City manager Peter Vermes was standing nearby the incident, screaming for that card. (That really shouldn’t happen, by the way; it’s really high time MLS reign in the coaches who now regularly spend entire matches chewing on the referee’s assistant, the fourth official and the referee. It’s tiresome and quite unbecoming.)

In this case, it certainly looks like Vermes influenced a lesser experienced referee. And that’s an important point going forward, because Chicago is still trying to catch Kansas City for top spot in the East. Now, perhaps because one coach influenced a referee who was put in a bad spot by an inattentive assigner, his team has a little bit more of an edge in the race. (Because Segares will miss Chicago’s next match.)

Chicago manager Frank Klopas was so incensed by it all, he got himself thrown out.

Clearly, coaches and the booming voice of a crowd should not influence referees. In this case, it’s probably not Penso’s fault, per se.

U.S. Soccer (the federation assigns referees, not the league) did not do its job on this one.