By Paul Gardner
It seems likely to me that Portland Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts is the bulkiest, heaviest -- simply the largest -- player in MLS.
That is not a comment on his abilities -- though being 6-foot-4 tall is presumably helpful to a goalkeeper. I wouldn’t know whether weighing in at 215 pounds is a good thing for a goalkeeper or not. What I do know is that Ricketts’ sheer size makes him a tremendous intimidatory presence. Challenging, colliding with, a goalkeeper that big is likely to be a painful experience, something that must definitely help Ricketts by frightening off opponents when, for instance, he comes out to snare high balls and crosses.
If that were the end of the matter, all would be well. But, of course, there’s more: The likelihood that physical strength will be used aggressively, used as an offensive, rather than a protective, weapon. On the soccer field, hefty, aggressively charging goalkeepers can create serious problems, particularly as they are rarely, if ever, penalized for their destructive play.
Ricketts might be expected to show some caution. Earlier this season he got himself red-carded for launching himself feet-first at Colorado’s Deshorn Brown. But Ricketts obviously knows that was an unusual reaction from the referee. Normally, referees take a lenient view of such incidents. So here was Ricketts, this past weekend, giving us another display of the way goalkeepers throw their weight around. And he got away with it. Right at the end of the first half of the Portland-Chivas USA game on April 12, Chivas midfielder Mauro Rosales swung in a free kick from the right -- into the Portland penalty area, where forward Erick Torres was waiting, eight yards out from the goal.
I mean waiting. Torres was not racing in to meet the ball, he had already established his position. But someone else was indeed racing to meet the ball. Ricketts came thundering off his line, making a beeline for exactly where Torres was positioned, because that was where the ball was going to drop.
There is no obligation that I know of that says Torres has to cede his position, to get out of Ricketts’ way. Nor is there a rule that denies Ricketts his right to go for the ball. Provided, that is, he has got his calculations right and can get there before Torres, and without fouling him.
Ricketts did not get his calculations right. In fact, I doubt he even bothered to calculate anything. He did what goalkeepers are now accustomed to doing. He ignored the opponent -- Torres -- simply crashed into him, climbed all over him in an attempt to get the ball.
Ricketts did get his hands on the ball; by that time he was airborne and off-balance. He bobbled the ball, and flattened Torres. That’s the 215-pound Ricketts wiping out the 150-pound Torres, and then landing heavily on top of him. Torres lay on the ground, barely moving. Ricketts slowly rolled off him, appearing to be in great pain. He was soon on his feet, looking quite sprightly.
The referee was the highly experienced Baldomero Toledo (he’s been in charge of three MLS Cup finals). What did he do? Nothing. I think. It got confusing. Toledo blew his whistle, but that was to mark the end of the half, which meant he didn’t have to make a decision on whether there had been a foul, and if so, who fouled who.
I’ll take a guess -- based on watching dozens and dozens of these incidents -- on what Toledo would have called: Foul by Torres, free kick to Portland.
Which would have been way off. What should have been called here was a penalty kick to Chivas, with Ricketts being red-carded for “using excessive force” which carried the “danger of injuring his opponent.”
Toledo made it clear he saw no foul by Ricketts by ending the half. Had he decided to penalize Ricketts, to award the penalty kick, the rules state that the half must be extended to allow the kick to be taken.
The replays I have been watching make it very clear that it is Ricketts who slams into Torres, not vice versa. What is not clear is whether Ricketts is doing what goalkeepers so often do, leading with a raised knee. I rather think not, but even without that lethal embellishment Ricketts’s assault is blatant and dangerous enough.
I have made clear, plenty of times, my belief that the rules should ban challenges on the goalkeeper within the six-yard area. But Torres, in this case, was a couple of yards outside that box. He has every right to be there, and to make a legal challenge for the ball. Ricketts has the same right to make a legal challenge -- but how can a violent battering-ram attack on an opponent be ruled a legal challenge?
Yet it invariably is. Often with the added injustice of penalizing the opponent who has been bludgeoned. As the TV commentator on this broadcast casually remarked “... the big man commanding his area, coming out to win it.”
That reflects the orthodox wisdom -- that the penalty area belongs to the goalkeeper, that it is his area, in which he is entitled to get away with a foul that would be punished with a penalty kick were it perpetrated by a regular field player. There is no logic at all to this, nor is it an interpretation that has any basis in the rules. And it certainly does not fit in with the desire expressed by MLS that its referees should protect skillful players from violent fouls.