By Paul Gardner
Here we go again, alas, alas. And, for me, it really is alas, because once again we’ve got a good young American coach losing it and berating the referee. A few weeks back, it was John Hackworth and Caleb Porter. This time it’s D.C. United’s Ben Olsen erupting after his team’s 1-0 loss to Vancouver on Saturday.
In all three cases, the criticism is simply not justifiable. It can be excused, I suppose, as blind frustration having its say. A sudden release of pent-up anger which can have only one target. Referees are used to this sort of thing, they’d better be.
But these cases invariably find the referees accused of faults and crimes they have not committed, while the coaches end up looking unpleasantly embittered. Because these bursts of barely controlled anger nearly always focus on incidents that the referee got right. They are simply calls that the coach doesn’t like, calls that he feels robbed them of a goal, or presented the opposition with a goal. And the later in the game that the call comes, the greater is likely to be the coach’s departure from reality.
Of course Olsen is feeling the pressure -- D.C. United now has the worst record in the league. And the frustration in this particular game was cruel. D.C. did do enough, did play well enough, to win it. Instead they were defeated, and Olsen found it necessary, post-game, to bury referee Matthew Foerster with scornful criticism. Calling the officiating “a clown show,” Olsen told us “the joker in the middle did not do a good job.”
The second of the two complaints that Olsen raised during his rant concerned a very late 94th-minute non-call by Foerster.
D.C. should have had penalty, claimed Olsen, because Vancouver defender Brad Rusin handled the ball. But Olsen’s claim -- “If the ball hits a guy's hand in the box right in front of the referee, it's a PK” destroys his own argument. If the ball plays the hand, that is normally regarded as accidental contact, so no call. And that’s what happened -- there was very slight, incidental contact with Rusin’s hand -- even as Rusin was trying to draw his hand away.
The other injustice that Olsen went on about involved a first-half penalty that Foerster didcall -- against D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid for bringing down Vancouver’s Matt Watson. This is Olsen’s version: “If Bill Hamid touches the ball, and his follow-through tends to trip the guy, it's not a PK.”
That is more or less what happened -- Hamid did get the ball first -- and he did then wipe out Watson. Many will agree with Olsen’s interpretation, but many will not. Me, for one -- because I see the sort of challenge that Hamid made as certainly careless, and likely to be reckless, play. Both are fouls -- there is nothing in the rules that excuses goalkeepers from having to consider the safety of opponents.
But goalkeepers, aided and abetted by refereeing complacency, have become quite used to getting away with their careless challenges. Appropriately, it was Hamid himself who later gave us an almost perfect example of the way that goalkeepers feel that crunching into other players is an OK thing to do (you will have noticed that goalkeepers are usually the biggest guys on the field).
It was a desperate gimmick-play from D.C. -- to send Hamid upfield, hoping to get on the end of a last-gasp D.C. corner kick. Hamid did his job -- he did get his head to the ball (the D.C. claim for a hand-ball penalty followed) -- but the ball was partially cleared. Hamid saw another chance to head it -- and raced to meet it, crashing violently into defender Jordan Harvey, without getting anywhere near the ball. A dangerous foul for which Foerster quite rightly gave a yellow.
Getting back to the penalty kick call on Hamid, there is also this to consider. In getting his hands to the ball, Hamid did not push it very far away -- had Watson stayed on his feet, he would surely have reclaimed it very quickly. But thanks to Hamid’s demolition job, Watson was on his back, not his feet.
I have no sympathy at all for the goalkeepers in these situations. All they’re being asked to do is play the game according to the same rules as everyone else -- to show consideration for the opponents and not to make wild challenges.
The day before Hamid’s fouls, you may have seen an even clearer example of the problems that goalkeeper violence can cause. This was during the wonderfully exciting U-20 World Cup game between Mexico and Mali. At the end of the first half, Mali played the ball into the Mexico penalty area and, to punch it clear, goalkeeper Richard Sanchez raced forward ... into a crowd of players. What was immediately noticeable was that, as Sanchez leaped to get to the ball, his knee was raised in that menacing way that goalkeepers use to protect themselves from players who charge into them.
But no one was charging into Sanchez. Quite the opposite -- he was the one doing the assaulting, and his knee crunched heavily into the face of a player. The game was delayed for over 3 minutes until the player, looking understandably dazed, could be removed on a stretcher.
So a penalty to Mali? No -- the player whom Sanchez had clobbered was his own captain, Bernardo Hernandez. Luckily, Hernandez did come back into the game (whether, given the severity of the knock he took, he should have returned is another matter).
But the matter of the penalty kick is unresolved. The way Sanchez went for the ball -- which was absolutely typical of what allgoalkeepers do, and are repeatedly allowed to do -- was surely careless play.
Surely, it is irrelevant that it was a teammate who took the knee to his head -- that was sheer chance, it could easily have been an opponent ... isn’t that sort of random damage what “careless” means?
The rule book, defines three ascending categories of foul play -- careless, reckless, and using excessive force. For the reckless and excessive force categories it specifies that the danger or injuries must be to an opponent.
But for careless, as it happens, there is no mention of opponents. That “the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution.”
There is surely enough justification there for referees to penalize goalkeepers for these dangerous challenges,
What makes the challenges so frightening is that they are more likely than not to involve head injuries and concussions.I discussed this topic a few days ago, and suggested that MLS let us know what instructions its referees have been given on dealing with head injuries.
Not a word from MLS ... but this from Columbus coach Robert Warzycha after his team’s Saturday loss to Kansas City: “The referee [Juan Guzman] didn’t stop the play for a head injury ... You have a player with a history of concussions [Chad Marshall] go down. The play should have been stopped.”
MLS needs to clear this up. Quickly.
As for Ben Olsen, he will be fined, but I’m hoping his chastisement goes no further than that. He won’t look back on his rant as a shining moment, but I’m hoping he’ll get over it quickly and will persevere, will be allowed to persevere, through his team’s sticky patch.