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The sport's trickiest call
by Ridge Mahoney, March 31st, 2008 8:45PM

TAGS:  mls


Players, executives, coaches and fans want the same thing on opening weekend that they want every week: preferably wins, but a tie if nothing else.

Joe Machnik and Paul Tamberino want the same thing every week also, but rarely can they and their colleagues settle for a tie. As overseers of the MLS referees, they - and the officials - usually have to come down on side or the other whether or not a referee, a referee's assistant, the fourth official, or all of the above got something right or wrong.

"Of course. All we talk about is offside, nothing else happens on the field," says Tamberino, chosen by U.S. Soccer as its director of officials. He replaces former FIFA international referee Esse Baharmast, who has taken a position with the worldwide governing body.

Tamberino exaggerates, but not much. Offside has always been the sport's trickiest call, and confusion, consternation and condemnation flare up time and time again regarding players in offside positions who are not involved in the play and should not to be adjudged offside .

In an ideal world, there would be clean, pristine performances by all concerned. By contrast, Week 1 of MLS 2008 included a hotly argued penalty kick that earned Galaxy defender Abel Xavier a caution and several very tough offside decisions.

"It is such a grey area, opinion comes into play like crazy," says Tamberino of offside decisions. "It's a wait-and-see policy. If the ball is played through you want to wait and ensure if that person is actually involved or touches the ball before we raise the flag for offside."

Coaches and players around the world scathingly criticized and questioned "passive" offside when that term came into use. FIFA has dropped it; however, the principle is still intact.

A general rule is to think of an evolving attack as a series of snapshots or still photos. Every time an attacking player touches the ball, deliberately or otherwise, the play is "frozen" at the moment to determine players in offside positions. Assessing involvement can't always be done at the same time; like a decision to play advantage, it takes patience.

Machnik says referee Ricardo Salazar was correct to ignore his linesman's flag when Ivan Trujillo scored Kansas City's first goal in its 2-0 win over D.C. United. From the left side, Michael Harrington chipped the ball to the right flank, and Jack Jewsbury one-timed it low to Trujillo at the edge of the goal area, and Trujillo poked it into the net.

None of the players were involved with the play while in an offside position, but the referee's assistant raised his flag - Machnik said the official might have thought Claudio Lopez was in an offside position - during the sequence.

"The hard part is when you get guys in an offside position and the assistant referee, with the referee, has to determine if they've been involved with the play," says Machnik. "If a player is offside and isn't involved in the play and someone else comes from an onside position and gets involved, the instructions are to allow that play to continue."

The "grey area" gets murkier regarding "involvement." Touching the ball is an automatic trigger but there are provisions about a player influencing the play by blocking or impeding an opponent, or shielding the goalkeeper's vision. Yet if a player doesn't actually touch the ball the interpretations about "involvement" still vary considerably.

"They don't even use the word 'passive' anymore but they've more clearly defined that the player who is in an offside position really has to play the ball to be deemed involved," says Machnik, who said two offside situations regarding Rapids striker Omar Cummings and one about FCD forward Kenny Cooper are also being reviewed. "If he doesn't, he shouldn't be deemed involved."

As of Monday afternoon, the Xavier tackle on Cummings that resulted in a penalty kick and fierce argument was still being reviewed and no decision had been reached.


  1. James Himes
    commented on: April 1, 2008 at 11:45 a.m.
    the other important factor in calling off sides is if the player who is offside but not actually involved in the play but by whose actions interfer with a defender who could affect the play.

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