There is a greater point to this column, and that is to explain referee decisions from the vantage point of a referee. Do I have a unique perspective as an entry level Grade 8 USSF referee, writer and soccer fan? Not really, but I will always try and explain why certain calls were made.
This week, there are two that I can't. But first things first, the controversy surrounding the goals from this past New England Revolution - New York Red Bulls game from last Sunday.
First, I think Jermaine Jones is level with the ball as it's played so there's not a lot to go into for me here aside from the fact the AR is slightly behind the play a couple of yards. Could it have affected his ability to make the call? Perhaps, but regardless I think it's the right one.
Now, Bradley Wright-Phillips' goal on the other hand is interesting on so many levels.
I do not remember ever seeing a potential offside call that involved a sliding, on the ground goalkeeper as the second defender. This is by far, one of the hardest plays I've ever seen as far as calling offside and that's after looking at replays and photos. Live, this play is pure chaos. Peguy Luyindula ends up hitting the ball twice further confusing things with an onrushing Bobby Shuttleworth making the initial save.
So what do I think. Classic ruling on the field territory here, I can't say this is a bad goal. Phillips is just inside the top of the six as Shuttleworth is sliding forward, and it's impossible to know for certain where he is in relation to BWP. But the real challenge of this play, is what part of Shuttleworth are you using to determine offside? His head that's closest to goal, his backside that's on the turf, somewhere in between?
When I'm looking across the field as an assistant referee, I usually judge offside by center mass but there's a lot of interpretation. There are a lot of referees who call it tighter and just as many who will give the benefit to the attacker. So if your nose is offside but the rest of you is level with the second to last defender, that's fine by me. In this case, it's entirely plausible that Shuttleworth's head is level with BWP at the top of the box which means the flag stays down and the goal rightfully stands. But that is a certifiable nightmare to process in a split second through traffic on the far side of the field from where the assistant was.
Next, we have two plays that as far as I am concerned are straight red cards.
First, Richard Eckersley for this hard challenge on Kelyn Rowe. The angle sucks, but this looks like studs into the ankle and it's beyond late. In the regular season we saw several of these types of tackles draw straight reds from referees for endangering the safety of an opponent. Now, am I hoping mad Eckersley wasn't sent off, nope. Because 20 minutes before there was a worse tackle.
Because this is mid-air scissor challenge from Jones on Dax McCarty that is just inexcusable to not issue a red for. We details Dax McCarty's epic reaction to this yesterday, but funny enough, he's got one of the best photos of the incident as well. And I know that Jones is getting grabbed, but he's smarter than that. I know he's an aggressive and skilled player but about a minute before this he committed a foul that was probably worthy of a yellow card and this is challenge at midfield that he doesn't even need to make. Red Bull fans have a legitimate gripe here (as do Revs fans with Eckersley but Jones' being suspended would affect New England more) but there's another call New York is upset about and I can't understand why.
That's the Wright-Phillips yellow for encroaching on Shuttleworth in the second half but stupidly stepping in front of him as he released a rolling ball out wide.
Why is it stupid? First, and most importantly, BWP is suspended for the return leg at New England, something that apparently he and Mike Petke were not aware of despite going through a similar saga with Roy Miller that led to his suspension for the entire series. Secondly, because every time you challenge a goalkeeper for releasing the ball, it's a foul and usually a yellow card.
From a 2010 USSoccer.com article describing a play from a D.C. United-Philadelphia Union game.
A goalkeeper is considered to be in the process of "releasing the ball" from the first moment when he or she has clearly taken hand control of the ball until the moment when the ball has been clearly released into play. This includes any time when the goalkeeper is:
bouncing the ball,
running with the ball
in the process of dropping the ball in preparation for kicking it
throwing the ball
During the time the goalkeeper has control of the ball and is preparing to release it into active play, an opponent may not stand or move so close as to restrict the direction or distance of the goalkeeper's release.
There's a video there that shows then DCU striker Jaime Moreno "ghosting"/"stalking" then Union keeper Chris Seitz that forces Seitz to drop the ball and Morena to score. What should've happened was a foul and a disallowed goal, and then probably a yellow to Moreno for trying to be clever but more on that in a second. The reason you aren't allowed to challenge the goalkeepers while they're punting the ball is the same reason you can't run into/rough the kicker or punter in the NFL: those specialized players are in an exposed position and can't react to defenders while in the act of punting.
So the rule is quite simple, don't be near the keeper while he's distributing or attempt to block the punt in anyway. BWP violated this by being a yard away and deflecting the ball right as it leaves Shuttleworth's hand. And for those that went to the FIFA website and looked at the rule literally and think what BWP did was legal, then I have a simple question for you: Why don't players try and do that more often? Simple, it's not a legal play to interfere with the goalkeeper while before, during or after he's distributed the ball. If I can teach U10 players to back up from the keeper when he has the ball, professionals should do it as a second nature. Almost every time I've seen this play called at the highest level it's been followed with a yellow card. The only exception to this situation is the classic keeper puts the ball on the ground and attacker comes from behind and steals it. In that case, the keeper has clearly released the ball and it's in play but any other time the attacker must yield to the keeper as he gets the ball in play.
As for whether BWP deserves a card there, I will listen to your argument. He didn't endanger Shuttleworth in anyway since it's a rollout/throw and not a punt and yes, a simple indirect free kick could've sufficed. But I will say again, if you give a referee a reason to show you a card, he probably will. BWP shouldn't have been standing next to Shuttleworth and he certainly shouldn't have reached out to play the ball. Is he allowed to intercept the punt or throw and even take away a passing option by marking a player close to him? Of course he is, but you always have to allow the keeper to get the ball back in play and no, a foot back into play doesn't count. My rule of thumb, be at least 5 yards away from the keeper and never try and jump or block a punt. Intercepting throws and roll-outs is completely fine, but make sure you're far enough away to erase any doubt from the referee's mind that you're encroaching on the keeper.
Now, I understand that on the field, the referee's have an incredibly hard job to do just managing the game on the field, so that's why I don't have any idea what is going on over in LA. After the game, Los Angeles Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez says (I'm paraphrasing) that referee Kevin Stott said that he wouldn't issue a yellow card to Seattle Sounders defender Zach Scott for persistent infringement at the end of the game so that both teams would have all players available for the next game. PRO's Peter Walton had to respond to this story and said that Stott doesn't recall the conversation Gonzalez is referring to or that it was taken out of context.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid even says that his team was fortunate that Scott wasn't penalized for three fouls in the final ten minutes of the game. It's blatantly obvious to anyone watching the playoffs that referees are shying away from making big decisions and the MLS Disciplinary Committee isn't doing anything about it either. According to Revs head coach Jay Heaps, there will be no additional action taken as far as suspensions go, meaning Jones will be on the field this Saturday.
I've already called out the MLS DC in my last 3rd Yellow for not living up to their mission statement regarding player safety, and for the life of me I'll never understand why the only suspensions handed out this postseason are for violent actions that occurred after the game against the refereeing crew. And it's not one or two calls, there's been probably close to a half dozen plays betweeen just the three New England games that have deserved retroactive suspension in my mind since only a foul or yellow card was issued on the play. It's an alarming trend and while I don't believe in the conspiracy theories that Gonzalez is alluding too, I'd like to have more evidence to debunk them.
I'll close on this. No matter what the referee's do in the playoffs, they're going to be criticized by one side, it's just the nature of the game. No, Allen Chapman did not manage the game well and like many others before him in the playoffs he shied away from making big decisions that affected the first leg. As far as I can tell, aside from two red cards against the Columbus Crew (Ethan Finlay's straight red was rescinded on appeal) most of the referee's have had a let them play attitude.
We can debate whether or not this is a good idea, and it's probably not because too often you get games like Chapman had, using cautions to control a game that got out of hand early. They'll get blasted for not issuing reds and losing control of the game, just like Mark Geiger did for calling a late penalty in the FC Dallas-Vancouver Whitecaps opener.
And that was a stone-cold penalty. It's unfortunate, it wasn't intentional, but it's a handball and it happened in the box. Yes, it sucks to have a playoff game decided by an unlucky bounce but that was the rule, and Geiger correctly pointed to the spot. He was just named the referee of the year by the way, and I'd wager he'll be in the center for the MLS Cup Final.
But remember, we didn't like Gieger enforcing the rules and affecting the game in the Western Conference play-in match earlier this month, but now we're upset that referee's are doing enough. It's a thankless job those men in the center have, and it's one that they can't win.
But the fans can't have it both ways either.