By Ridge Mahoney
During the Houston-D.C. United playoff game Sunday I could have sworn the ghost of Ronald Koeman had drifted into BBVA Compass Stadium and briefly taken over the body of Dynamo defender Andrew Hainault.
The Canadian defender scored a crucial goal in Houston’s 3-1 victory after escaping sanction for a takedown of United attacker Raphael Augusto just outside the Dynamo penalty area. Nineteen years ago, former Netherlands defender Koeman upended England attacker David Platt with a deliberate tactical foul that went unpunished, then later clipped home the free kick by which the Netherlands beat England, 2-0, in a 1994 World Cup qualifier. The Dutch made it to USA ’94, the English didn’t.
There wasn’t anything devious or sneaky about Koeman’s foul; he simply knocked Platt off the ball, gambling that referee Karl-Josef Assenmacher wouldn’t send him off. Koeman won his bet, and just two minutes after he was cautioned, the Dutch won a free kick near the English penalty area. Koeman – the scorer of more than 200 goals (he also took penalties for his clubs, including Barcelona) during his club and country careers – bent a shot over the wall that cleanly beat keeper David Seaman. Dennis Bergkamp scored a clinching goal 12 minutes later.
Hainault isn’t the goal machine that Koeman was. But he certainly had a good idea of where the referee was as he and Augusto raced for a ball the United attacker had clipped behind the Dynamo back line in the final seconds of first-half stoppage time. Referee Ricardo Salazar, staring directly at the backs of both players, didn’t blow the whistle for a foul.
A replay from behind the goal – where a goal-line official would probably have been positioned, hint, hint – showed Hainault grabbing Augusto's arm and dragging him to the ground. The replay also showed players and coaches on the United bench, located on the side of field it was defending, erupting and protesting furiously.
Those D.C. players in their defensive third reacted incredulously, but apparently neither Salazar nor assistant referee Craig Lowery had spotted the grab, and play continued. A few seconds later, the half ended with United leading, 1-0, and plenty steamed at not playing 11-against-10.
Thus reprieved, Hainault stormed through the United penalty area six minutes into the second half to smash home a feed from Giles Barnes, who’d been released down the left flank by a quickly taken Brad Davis free kick. The equalizer triggered a flurry of Dynamo attacks that yielded two more goals as United tired.
Salazar was permitted by MLS to provide his view of the incident, for which the league should be commended. He said from his point of view the shoulder-to-shoulder contact was fair on both counts, and thus no foul had been committed. Both players had also extended their arms to fend off the other, which again, the referee didn’t see as advantageous to either player.
Not so satisfactory is an explanation provided to match commentators Arlo White and Kyle Martino by refereeing czar Peter Walton. According to White, Walton said if a foul had been committed, it would have not automatically warranted a red card for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity, because another Dynamo player – Luiz Camargo -- was close enough to perhaps prevent a shot or block it.
Camargo is fast, but he’s not Usain Bolt, and would have needed that Olympic sprinter’s speed to get anywhere near Augusto in time to make a play unless the United attacker had veered into his path. Since Augusto was angling in the other direction while battling Hainault, and Camargo was barely level with the players as they dueled, that’s unlikely.
Only Salazar truly knows what he saw and whether he decided to swallow the whistle rather than issue a red card. His positioning in terms of distance – maybe 10 yards from the confrontation – was excellent, yet in the blink of an eye that it took for Hainault to grab Augusto and haul him down, his angle may have been obscured just enough.
If this is the case, he chose not to do what referees in MLS do far too often: make a guess at what might have happened. Missing calls is a major error, but manufacturing decisions based on unseen evidence is worse, and it happens in MLS more often than it should. Unfortunately, these situations are fairly common: players battling for the ball while running away from the referee and at a good distance from the assistant referee. The best remedy is a different viewpoint, which has already been implemented but is not yet common practice.
Goal-line officials are stationed to rule on scoring situations, yet they have the best potential view of incidents such as the Hainault-Augusto duel, or keepers diving at an attackers feet, or certain cases of handling, or players wrestling on a set play. They, too, could be compromised by a poor angle or blocked view, but they are well-positioned to see many crucial incidents.
It will probably be years until MLS seriously considers goal-line officials, but as long as NBCSN and other broadcasters station cameras behind the goals to provide stark evidence of what the officials might have missed, the controversies shall persist.
A goal-line official wouldn’t have affected the Koeman incident but a progressive league like MLS should take this option as soon as possible.