No one saw this coming – not Missouri Comets coach Vlatko Andonovski, team captain Vahid Assadpour nor MASL scoring champion Leo Gibson.
Desperation, drama, accusations and violent actions left Andonovski searching for answers following a 10-7 season-ending loss to the Baltimore Blast in Game 2 of the Major Arena Soccer League's Eastern Conference Championship Series in front of an irate crowd of 3,862 Sunday afternoon at the Independence Events Center.
Comets forward Andre Braithwaite gave a vicious head butt to Baltimore's Pat Healey following the wildly competitive game that had Comets players crying foul from the second quarter through the ugly end.
It appeared Braithwaite was walking over to Healey to shake his hand, when he grabbed the back of Healey's neck and head butted the Blast star, who collapsed to the ground with blood pouring from a huge gash on his forehead.
Sixth attacker and All-MASL defender John Sosa was ejected in the final minute for abusive language and fellow all-league defender Brian Harris was ejected following an aggressive sliding tackle with 12 seconds left.
Arena staff and officials poured on the field after the game to separate players and coaches from each team, and anger boiled over in the hallway outside the two teams' locker rooms.
Blast owner Edwin Hale wanted Braithwaite arrested for the head butt, but an Independence police officer, who escorted the Missouri forward off the field during the postgame autograph session, told the media that actions that take place on the field are not subject to arrest – only the disciplinary actions of the team or the league.
The Comets said via Twitter that they had released Braithwaite after the game.
“I did not see it (Braithwaite's head butt),” Andonovski said immediately after the game, “but if he did, I sincerely apologize to the whole Baltimore organization and the league and anyone who saw it because that's not who I am or who this organization is. What you saw out there – that is not the Missouri Comets. Things got out of hand early in the game and spilled over when the game ended.”
Emotions also boiled over last year between the Comets and the Blast after Game 1 of the Major Indoor Soccer League Finals at the Events Center.
As Gibson walked off the field, holding an animated conversation with the officiating crew, he was struck in the face by a crushed paper cup intended for the officials.
“Throwing objects on the field is unnecessary,” Gibson said. “This was a great game, and I personally want to wish Baltimore good luck in the championship game. The game had an ugly ending and a very small number of our fans reacted in a fashion that surprised me. I would never expect our fans to throw something at an official. I am not happy it struck me, but I would rather be hit in the face than have an official struck in face by something thrown from the stands.”
Seconds after the game ended, with a wild Blast celebration taking place on the east end of the playing field, Assadpour stood with his hands on his hips seeking some answers to the insanity that was surrounding him.
“I don't mind losing in a fair game, but this was not a fair game,” Assadpour said. “I have a problem when a referee can directly dictate the game, and tonight the officials had a lot of influence with the result. It was not fair and square. We were down early 2-1 and had a breakaway and they issue a penalty that was not a penalty.
“It was clearly not a penalty on the replay (on the big screen inside the Events Center). Baltimore goes on to score and makes it a 3-1 game and we have to fight even harder to get back in the game. When the officials dictate a game, it gets to the players and they begin to take it out on each other.”
Andonovski was also concerned about a pre-game phone conversation he witnessed between Hale and crew chief Ryan Cigich more than an hour before the 3:05 p.m. kickoff.
“I don't care what they were talking about, it should not have happened right before our game,” Andonovski said. “They can be talking about anything but soccer, but that still should not happen. That influences people's minds.”
The Comets brought a 20-0 regular-season record into the postseason and improved to 21-0 with a convincing victory over Milwaukee Thursday night at home. They then bused to St. Louis, took a flight to Nashville – where they had a 1 1/2-hour layover – and then flew to Baltimore, where they played Friday night and lost 6-4 (in a game that featured the East Coast two-point-goal scoring system). Sunday's game was the third in four days for the Comets, while Baltimore had beaten Rochester 6-4 in Baltimore last Wednesday.
“Crazy things like you saw tonight after the game happen when the mind and body is tired,” Andonovski said. “I do not know why we had to play at Baltimore the night after we played Milwaukee at home. We played three games in four days – and we did that after we had 18 days off (because of the regular-season schedule and an opening-round playoff bye).
“I am not making any excuses for what happened. Sosa knows better. That was out of character for Harris – but the officials let the game get out of hand, and that's when those things transpire.”
The Comets took an early 1-0 lead on a first-quarter goal by Kiel Williams, but the Blast stormed back to take a 3-1 lead in the second. Alain Matingou and Sosa scored in the final 2:32 of the second to cut the deficit to 4-3 at halftime.
Missouri's Josh Gardner scored at 9:15 of the third quarter to tie it 5-5, but two minutes later Baltimore's Vini Dantas scored a goal that gave Baltimore a lead it never relinquished. Tony Donatelli followed with his second goal and Dantas completed the hat trick with his third goal to make it 8-5 with 10:05 left.
The Comets pulled goalie Danny Waltman and added Sosa as a sixth attacker, and Gardner followed with an unassisted goal to make it 8-6.
Gibson then scored off a restart to cut the deficit to 8-7 with 1:15 left, but Adriano Dos Santos Levin Houapeu scored in the final minute to seal the win for Baltimore and its berth into the championship round against the Monterrey Flash, who beat Las Vegas 7-6 and 7-4 in the Western Conference final series.
“I'm speechless,” Harris said long after the game had ended. “I don't even know what happened. I don't want to blame anything on the officials, but they dictated what happened in the game, especially that second period. We had a great season, but none of that means anything to me now. Maybe it will someday, but not today.”
As his Blast players left the Events Center through gauntlet of police officers, officials, security guards and ushers, Hale threw a parting salvo.
“You know why (Missouri was 21-0)?” the Blast owner bellowed. “Because they didn't (bleeping) play us.”