Sporting KC's Peter Vermes on controversial VAR decision: 'There’s no doubt it’s a handball' (2024)

Riding a lone first-half goal from defender Franco Escobar, the Houston Dynamo beat Sporting Kansas City 1-0 on Sunday evening to advance to the Western Conference finals. Houston will meet either the Seattle Sounders or LAFC, who square off later tonight.

The result puts the Dynamo just 90 minutes from their first MLS Cup appearance since 2012.


“It was just a fun night,” said Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen. “We played at such a high level for most of the night. We didn’t reward ourselves with that second goal but certainly got plenty of looks. … It was as well as we’ve played (all season, but) there were still a few moments of resiliency that we needed to see out that game.”

On the other side, Sporting Kansas City’s season is over after a surprising second-half run that included a shock upset over regular season conference champions St. Louis City SC.

“I thought we had the better of the chances in the game,” Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes said after the match. “They finished on a set piece … Outside of that, they didn’t really have much. They scored on a corner. We had the better chances. Anytime you go out of the playoffs without winning you’re frustrated obviously. Credit to Houston, they played a solid game, but like I said, I think when you look at the chances, the opportunities that we had we just didn’t finish.”

Here are our takeaways from the match:

Héctor Herrera is Houston’s MVP

Throughout 2023, everything the Houston Dynamo has done well has hinged on Héctor Herrera. This was once again evident on Sunday.

It makes the Texan team something of a rarity in MLS’s version of team-building: a side truly built around a central midfielder rather than a player in the attacking third. As most teams divvy their designated player slots between strikers, wingers, and number 10s, Houston decided to kickstart its rebuild in the heart of the pitch, bringing the Mexican international closer to home after routinely featuring for Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. The sales pitch: being the heart and soul of a team that could finally galvanize one of America’s largest cities behind its MLS team, especially given Space City’s considerable Hispanic population.

Sporting KC's Peter Vermes on controversial VAR decision: 'There’s no doubt it’s a handball' (1)

It didn’t come immediately. After a win in June brought the Dynamo’s home record to 7-1-1, Herrera admitted that, during the dour final weeks of a lost 2022 season, he “wanted to go to hell” after trading Champions League soccer for crowds of a few thousand on a bottom-dwelling side. Ben Olsen’s installation as manager and a triumphant run through this year’s U.S. Open Cup made Houston seem like a very different kind of afterlife for the El Tri legend. He put in an MVP-caliber season in all phases of play, even if the bulk of awards voters didn’t get the memo.

What a delivery by Herrera 🎯
What a header by Escobar 👏@HoustonDynamo // Audi #MLSCupPlayoffs

— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 27, 2023

After overcoming a strong challenge from Real Salt Lake in the first round, Houston returned to Shell Energy Stadium knowing no matter the result, playoff seeding ensured this would be its final home game of 2023. Through the first 38 minutes, both teams wanted to keep the game close and backed themselves to find a breakthrough closer to the game’s culmination. Herrera had other ideas, perfectly placing an inswinging corner just between the penalty spot and the six-yard box to find Franco Escobar between a pair of Sporting marks.


For the majority of the last 10 seasons, Houston struggled to conjure the spectacular from seemingly nothing, instead feasting on transition play when at its best. Herrera’s brilliance shone through in a cagey first half, further validating ownership’s investment in the 33-year-old and giving another standout moment in a season of many such highlights.

− Jeff Rueter

Houston midfield drives win but cuts it close

Herrera, as Jeff eloquently described, is the heart and soul of this Dynamo team. He leads a midfield trio that has driven Houston to their best season in a long time, winning the U.S. Open Cup and now advancing to the Western Conference final.

Houston held 63% possession, and Herrera led the game in both touches (123) and attempted passes (102). Artur led all players in recoveries (11). The midfield trio, and creative attacker Amine Bassi, controlled the game.

One issue for the Dynamo is that, once again in these playoffs, they were unable to convert that control into a comfortable lead. Their lone goal came from a corner kick, while forward Corey Baird missed a one-on-one opportunity on Tim Melia in the second half. Nelson Quinones, while dangerous, couldn’t create a goal either.

It nearly cost them in round one of the postseason, needing penalties to beat RSL in game three despite being the better team across the series. The final 15 minutes against SKC were unnecessarily stressful and needed Steve Clark to come up with a big save on Daniel Salloi.

For now, the Dynamo will gladly kick this concern down the road as they celebrate advancing to the Western Conference final.

—Tom Bogert

Another controversial no-call

For the second time in as many nights, the chief talking point surrounding an MLS Cup playoff match was the officiating. More specifically, one particular call.

In the 41st minute, Sporting KC designated player Alan Pulido’s attempt on goal was parried away directly into the path of teammate Daniel Salloi. Salloi, who had Houston keeper Steve Clark beat, struck a driven effort from the far side of the box that was only kept out of goal by Dynamo defender Erik Sviatchenko on the goal line.


At first glance, Sviatchenko appeared to handle the ball in the process. After a brief review by the video assistant referee, play continued. Several of the angles available on the broadcast were by most accounts inconclusive, either shielded by other players or too blurry to be usable. The angle that the broadcast provided from directly behind the goal, however, appeared to show Sviachenko, at minimum, making contact with the ball using his arm.

VAR says no handball. If it's a handball, it's also a red card.

I guess the argument is his arm is in a natural position? It looks like it's out a little… #SportingKC #HOUvSKC

— Chad Smith (@PlayFor90) November 27, 2023

Things get trickier when you start trying to interpret whether Sviachenko intended to handle the ball, or whether his arm was in an unnatural position when the ball struck it. Neither of those things can be conclusively proven from the footage, so in the end, video assistant referee Carol Anne Chenard’s decision not to send the call down for review probably makes sense, not that it mattered to SKC head coach Peter Vermes.

“It’s not a hard decision to make when you have replay,” said Vermes. “When a player picks his arms up to make himself a little bit bigger he saves the ball with his hands. I’ve seen the replay already, there’s no doubt it’s a handball. It’s actually a handball and a red card.”

Ben Olsen was a lot less bothered.

“I haven’t seen it,” Olsen said after the match. “And I don’t really care.”

—Pablo Iglesias Maurer

Was that it for Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza?

Sporting KC legends Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza each subbed on late in the match as their side chased an equalizer that never came. It was Zusi’s first appearance since June 1, recovering from an injury and then staying on the bench behind Jake Davis. Espinoza appeared off the bench in each of the previous three playoff matches this season.


Zusi and Espinoza are both 37 now. Sporting KC has club options for 2024 on each. At their age, and reduced role, questions about retirement will be raised. If that was it for either or both, it’s the end of a hugely successful era.

Both players were added to the roster in the MLS SuperDraft, with Espinoza joining in 2008 and Zusi in 2009. Both were crucial to the success SKC has had over the last 15 years, including one MLS Cup victory and three U.S. Open Cup triumphs (though Espinoza wasn’t at the club for one of the three).

Zusi has made 406 appearances with SKC, Espinoza 396. Who knows if it was their last.


(Photo: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports)

Sporting KC's Peter Vermes on controversial VAR decision: 'There’s no doubt it’s a handball' (2024)
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