Nine minutes into D.C. United's game Saturday against the Miami Fusion, referee Rich Grady pulled out his first red card of the evening. It proved to be only the first of four red cards and seven yellow cards he would issue in United's 3-2 shootout victory at Lockhart Stadium.
Miami's Nelson Vargas was ejected for saying something to the officials as he left the field for a substitute, but the other three red cards could have been yellows or just nonbookable fouls in other games.
"Right off the bat, the game got out of hand," Fusion midfielder Henry Gutierrez said.
Besides the cards, Saturday's game featured a United goal that was called back and Eddie Pope's game-tying goal in the 86th minute. A penalty kick was awarded -- and saved by United's Mark Simpson -- in the shootout. Fans threw trash on the field. A player did, too.
But it started with a red card given to Fusion defender Leo Cullen, which Grady issued with no hesitation and little provocation. Cullen, a former University of Maryland defender, slid to get the ball from United's Roy Lassiter and got it. He made little contact with Lassiter, but was carded because he came in from behind.
Did Lassiter agree with the call?
"No, I really didn't," he said. "He was coming from behind . . . but he was going for the ball."
With a man advantage, United dominated the rest of the first half and seemed to get its reward in the 45th minute. Marco Etcheverry laced the ball into the net after Fusion goalkeeper Garth Lagerwey dove and deflected it out. But with Lassiter between Lagerwey and the endline, referee's assistant Chip Reed raised his flag for offside. Instead of a goal, Etcheverry got a yellow card for arguing the call.
The second half began with United forward A.J. Wood heading Lassiter's cross off the bar. United continued to get chances -- Wood even had a tricky chance on an open net in the 87th minute that could have won the game -- but Miami threatened too.
United Coach Thomas Rongen has said that if United is to play to its potential in the season's stretch run, defense will be key. But with 10 and then nine men on the field, the Fusion used quick counterattacks to test the defense.
"It all comes back to not being able to be clinical enough in the [offensive] third," Rongen said. "We've got to make sure we organize better away from the ball. Mentally . . . we've got to stay more focused."
The red cards appeared again midway through the second half. Miami's Jay Heaps was ejected in the 65th minute. Some of the 11,097 fans began to throw trash onto the field in protest, but perhaps they were taking a cue from Lassiter. The United forward had been ejected two minutes earlier, and he tossed bits of athletic tape and wristbands onto the turf as he left the field.
When the curtain rises on a rematch between the two teams Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at RFK Stadium, Lassiter and the three red-carded Fusion players will have to sit out. But Fusion forward Eric Wynalda is practicing again after a tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in March, so he could make his return at RFK.
It's certain that both teams will come in with motivation. After leading 1-0 and having a man advantage nearly the entire game, United players said they should have earned three points for a victory in regulation, instead of one for the shootout victory. Miami Coach Ivo Wortmann and his players said they thought they deserved at least a point -- after scaring United so, it only seemed fair.
They weren't alone in that assessment.
"This is a great example of why there should be ties in this league," Rongen said. "For [the Fusion] to walk away with no points is a travesty."