Such was the case Saturday when Ugo Ihemelu brought down a ball -- expertly it must be said -- with his left arm in the 87th minute of a game tied 1-1 between Colorado and Houston.
Rapids head coach Fernando Clavijo held his head in disbelief, perhaps because referee Tim Weyland had waited a second before blowing his whistle and pointing to the spot, or maybe because from the sideline the handball wasn't obvious.
But a close-up replay clearly showed Ihemelu using the upper portion of his left arm to bring down the ball, which had been crossed into the middle. This was not a case of a ball blasted into a player's arm from close range, or a rebound or ricochet he had no chance to avoid. Ihemelu trapped the ball with his arm, plain and simple.
Dwayne De Rosario converted the penalty kick to give the defending champion its first win of the season.
Referees are wired to communicate with their assistant referees and the fourth official to handle situations where the man in the middle may not have a clear view of an incident. Regardless of the process and a brief delay, the match officials got this one absolutely correct.
VAUGHN RECOVERING. You won't see many injuries nastier than the kick to the face suffered by Chivas USA defender/midfielder Lawson Vaughn in a 0-0 tie with Houston May 3.
Just about every bone in Vaughn's nose was either cracked or broken when De Rosario leaped to volley a cross dropping into the penalty area as Vaughn lunged to head the ball clear. De Rosario's right foot slashed open a gash on Vaughn's face that required 32 stitches to close. He has undergone two surgeries and will need at least a month to recover.
De Rosario was cautioned for dangerous play (official citation in the match report is for a reckless foul) but should his punishment have been stiffer, or should the league review the incident and possibly impose a fine?
A red card isn't mandated unless the referee believed De Rosario was guilty of serious foul play or deliberately trying to injure an opponent. De Rosario and Vaughn were close together as they went for the ball and Vaughn was in a much better position to play it. As he heads it, De Rosario attempts a very ill-advised bicycle kick and catches Vaughn in the face with his right foot.
Though De Rosario was attempting to play the ball, his chances of doing so without injuring Vaughn were slim. This wasn't a case of two players with a roughly equal chance of playing the ball getting entangled; Vaughn had a clear path to reach the ball before De Rosario, and did.
(Later in the match referee Jozef Batko sent off Chivas USA defender Claudio Suarez for tripping Houston midfielder Brian Mullan just outside the penalty area as he dribbled toward goal. Denying an opponent a scoring opportunity is punishable by a red card and that is what Batko did.)
MLS has fined players for reckless fouls in the past and could certainly do so in the case of De Rosario. Determining whether he should have been sent off is trickier.
The rules stipulate a player can only be sent off for violent conduct if the player "uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent while not challenging for the ball." However, the referee is empowered to send players off for serious foul play while challenging for the ball, and showing the studs while going over the ball or throwing elbows will often warrant such decisions. The referee is also directed to caution a player who plays in a dangerous manner "if the action is made with obvious risk of injury."
Batko interpreted De Rosario's attempted kick as dangerous foul play, which is usually the case in such circumstances, rather than serious foul play.
That won't speed Vaughn's recovery or mitigate the possibility of a fine, but the rules back up the ref.