MORELIA, Mexico -- As one press-box wit noted following L.A.'s loss to Morelia in a CONCACAF Champions League clash, there is a substantial crime rate in Michoacan.
The Galaxy learned this the hard way Tuesday night, when it was robbed of one goal -- and Morelia was possibly given another -- in a 2-1 decision that raised some extraordinary questions about CONCACAF's policy for assigning officials for its most important matches.
Robbie Keane's would-be winner in the 90th minute was waved off by a phantom offside call, flagged by Honduran linesman Oscar Velasquez, as a flurry of late decisions went against L.A.
It was, frankly, criminal.
“I really don't know what to say,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said to begin the postgame news conference. “I thought some difficult decisions went against us to decide the game. ... I thought we were on the end of some bad decisions at the end of the game.”
It snowballed over the final 10 minutes, when the Galaxy -- holding onto an edge supplied through Robbie Keane in the 52nd minute -- conceded an 83rd-minute equalizer to Adrian Aldrete, saw Keane's second goal wiped away, then absorbed another phantom call, a foul against Frankie Hejduk, that started the sequence leading to Miguel Sabah's stoppage-time winner.
The offside call on Keane was the most egregious of several questionable decisions, all favoring Morelia.
Omar Gonzalez, about 8 yards out, sharply headed Landon Donovan's corner kick. Monarcas goalkeeper Federico Villar made the save, and Keane deposited the rebound. Who knows what Velasquez saw -- or thought he saw.
When Gonzalez made contact with the ball, the critical moment in the offside ruling, Keane was at the top of the 6-yard box and was stepping toward the net. Gerardo Lugo was in the 6, about 3 yards off the goal line -- meaning Keane was about 3 yards onside.
“It didn’t look offside,” Keane said. “I didn’t think I was offside, but I have to look back [at the tape] to see that.”
He's done so. The Galaxy's videographer had footage of the play, which was popular viewing on the flight home. Nobody was pleased with what they saw.
“We were fortunate to get the second goal, but somehow it was called offside,” Arena complained in the news conference. “It was the difference in the game.”
ON THE LINE: The other decisive moment wasn't so clear-cut. Aldrete's equalizer came from a blast of about 25 yards, and it was misplayed by Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who had been exceptional to that point. The ball flitted between his legs, and he scrambled back as it rolled toward the goal, getting his hands around it as it reached the goal line.
Part of the ball was in the net, but all of the ball must clear the line for the goal to count -- and there's no telling whether that actually happened.
Replays, from several angles, suggested that it might have been a goal -- Saunders appeared to push the ball as he wrapped his upper body around it -- and the only opinion that mattered, that of Costa Rican linesman Marvin Ramirez, was that it counted.
“It's disappointing for us to come down here and give up two goals late,” Saunders said. “We worked really hard, and I feel gutted to have the situation that happened. Questionable or not, it was still a mistake by me. The ref made a judgment call to call it a goal. I say otherwise, but that's how the game goes.”
Saunders said he was “over the top of the ball. My head was in the goal, but nothing else was. It moved forward a little bit, but not the whole ball was over the line.”
Another issue with the goal was forward Rafael Marquez Lugo's positioning -- he was in an offside position -- and whether that mattered. He wasn't involved in the crux of the play: the shot, the miscue, the recovery at the goal line. But he charged toward the ball and tried to influence its path as Saunders grabbed hold.
Some among the Galaxy thought the flag should have been raised. Others disagreed.
Sabah's winner came from the third of successive corner kicks that followed the free kick awarded when Hejduk, shoulder to shoulder with Morelia's magnificent Joao Rojas, was whistled for a foul. Let's note that Rojas did not fall and had possession of the ball when Honduran referee Jose Pineda halted play.
Sabah slipped Chad Barrett's cover to forcefully head home Manuel Perez's cross, and the low shot skipped in front and off of Saunders, who was trying to get into best position to stop it, and into the goal..
“We were late organizing and getting markers, and one of our players got beat,” Saunders said. “That's how it goes.”
Should he not have made the save?
“I shouldn't have necessarily stopped it, but it's a possibility.”
LESSON PLAN: Playing in Mexico isn't easy, of course. The opposition is outstanding -- Morelia was quicker to the ball, moved it better and was sharper in tight spaces from start to finish -- the crowd provides a stirring, partisan atmosphere. Does that influence the officials? Perhaps. Is something more sinister afoot. We'd like to think not.
But CONCACAF's selection of match officials is problematic. A Mexican crew worked the Galaxy's victory three weeks ago over Alajuelense, and Juninho was controversially sent off. Now it's Honduran and Costa Rican officials and one of the worst offside calls in many months.
The Galaxy's Group A rivals are from Mexico, Honduras (Motagua) and Costa Rica (Alajuelense). There isn't the least effort to avoid the appearance of potential bias.
Welcome to CONCACAF. Consider it all a lesson on the vagaries of competition in a most dysfunctional confederation.
“I tell the guys: Expect the unexpected [when we travel to Latin America],” Donovan said. “There was a lot thrown at us tonight, in different ways, as far as the officiating, the atmosphere. ... There were a lot of things that went on, and we got to deal with them.
“It's a good learning experience if we apply it next week in San Jose [Costa Rica, against Alajuelense] and then in October [in Tegucigalpa, Honduras] against Motagua. We've got to make sure we learn from it. We're OK with it, but we've got to make sure we learn from it and get better.”