So the Red Bulls got away with one against Chicago last week -- their use of a ploy to catch the Chicago defenders off guard, led directly to Ronald Zubar's goal that tied the game at 2-2.
Whether you regard that as a wonderfully cunning piece of coaching on the part of Jesse Marsch, or whether you see it as blatant smart-assery bordering on cheating will depend, I suppose, on your club affiliation.
For the record, we have the official verdict from PRO on the incident, which is that the referee and/or the assistant referee screwed up, the maneuver was illegal, hence the goal should not have been allowed.
By the end of the game justice had triumphed, for Chicago scored again and won the game.
So, while the Red Bull chicanery did not impact the result, it did raise plenty of questions about the quality of the officiating, and about the clarity of the rules.
The Red Bull trick depended, as tricks usually do, on deception. The taking of the corner kick is a relatively simple procedure, one would think. The rules use only a few words to define it:
The ball is in play when it is kicked and moves. The kicker must not play the ball again until it has touched another player.
Right. So here comes the Bulls’ Lloyd Sam to take the kick. The ball is inside the corner arc, as required. But Sam does not take the kick. He gently pokes at the ball with his foot, and the ball moves, slightly. Then he starts to walk away, and takes a final little poke at the ball, again moving it slightly.
As he moves away, Sacha Kljestan turns up to take the kick. But he doesn’t -- instead he dribbles the ball in toward the penalty area, and then makes the pass from which Zubar scored.
The trick is that Sam, having moved the ball, has actually taken the corner kick. Therefore the ball is in play, so Kljestan is not taking the corner kick and is entitled to play the ball as many times as he likes -- to dribble it.
The first culprit to screw things up was Lloyd Sam, because he clearly played the ball more than once (twice by my count). The first touch was all that was needed, as a fake corner kick -- that was fine. But Sam is not then allowed to play the ball again “until it has touched another player.” But he did, and the play should have been nixed right there.
It wasn’t. Kljestan was allowed to come over and dribble the ball. That would have been OK, but only if Sam had already put the ball into play -- which is the only excuse the officials have for allowing Kljestan to dribble the ball. Not much of an excuse, considering that Sam should have been penalized -- by those same officials -- for playing the ball more than once.
So Lloyd Sam erred, and so did referee Allen Chapman and his assistant. More errors came floating out of the TV commentary booth. From Shep Messing -- recently in my crossfire for inventing a play that didn’t happen. This time Messing managed to reveal his spectacular ignorance of the rules.
Messing quickly recognized the trick play, pointed out that Lloyd Sam had played the ball, which meant that it was now in play. Then we got “They work on it in practice ... Jesse Marsch works on this, created it . . . spectacular by Jesse Marsch, to work on it. I’m not one who loves great creativity, but that’s world class.”
The sort of hyperbole that should have silenced any dissident voices and immediately closed the topic. Alas for Shep -- half an hour later, PRO, the MLS referee organization, got in touch (the game was still in progress) to rule that the goal should not have been allowed.
Steve Cangialosi, Messing’s co-commentator, then read out what PRO had drawn attention to -- nothing more than the rules for taking a corner kick, including the vital bit about the taker not being allowed a second touch of the ball until it is touched by another player.
Having told us that the play had worked to perfection and was world class, Messing evidently did not feel like being told he’d got it wrong. “I dispute the evidence we’re getting,” he announced, “the explanation we’re receiving is inadequate.”
So Messing now supplied his own explanation, a riotous assembly of ignorance and contradictions. Suddenly Messing wasn’t so sure about this world-class play: “I’m not sure it should have been a good goal because I didn’t think the ball rotated a full circumference, and it was still in the arc.” This after Messing had previously stated that the ball “has to have one half of a rotation.”
Now this really was world class -- on the ignorance scale. It used to be the case that the ball had to travel the distance of its circumference to be in play. But that wording was removed from the rules in 1997 ... eighteen years ago. Evidently Messing has not read the rule book for at least 18 years.
The requirement since 1997 is that the ball be kicked and that it moves. Messing further muddled matters by saying that the ball “was still inside the arc,” as though this negated the play -- a flat contradiction of his previous assertion that “the ball doesn’t have to go outside the arc.”
The nonsense spoken -- and believed? -- by Messing is cringe-inducing, but it doesn’t alter the fact that there is a rule problem with corner kicks, which the Red Bulls managed -- illegally -- to exploit.
Two points: What does “kick” mean? The majority of the dictionary definitions I’ve looked at agree that to kick a ball is to strike it with the foot. The word “strike” tells you that some measure of force is needed for a kick to be a kick. When the Red Bulls’ Sam prodded the ball and moved it slightly on each occasion -- or when any player puts his foot on top of the ball and rolls it to and fro -- can that be considered a kick?
As there is no striking of the ball, no force used, I don’t see how it can. If that’s the case, then Sam could have rolled the ball about as much as he wanted, for the slight touches could not qualify as the kicks that the rule specifies. Meaning that, when Sam had finished his stroking of the ball, it was not in play.
It’s pretty extraordinary that soccer, a sport built around kicking a ball, a sport that can boast of 150 years of rulebooks, should lack a definition of what exactly a kick is. But this is easily remedied. Soccer can make its own definition, can stretch credulity as far as it likes -- the highly elastic definition of goalkeeper “possession” has already made that clear by declaring that it includes situations when the ball is “between the goalkeeper’s hand and any surface (e.g. ground, his own body).”
So the rulemakers can quite easily add a sentence stating that any contact between foot and ball constitutes a kick.
The second point is trickier. The rules state that “the whistle is NOT needed” (the emphasis is in the rulebook) to stop play for a corner kick, nor to restart play. When the referee awards a corner kick, the ball has already crossed the goal line and is therefore a dead ball. In the absence of a whistle, at what point does it become live again?
The PRO verdict on this incident seems to rule that it becomes live when it is inside the arc and is then kicked. Once that happens, an opponent is immediately entitled to ignore the 10-yard rule and race up to the corner and challenge for the ball.
At the moment, I think any such interpretation is ignored by everyone. Many corner kicks are preceded by a few casual touches of the ball -- sometimes the ball is dribbled into the arc before positioning it. The assumption is made, by everyone, that the ball is dead until the corner kick, long or short, is taken, and that any little touches or prods simply do not count as kicks.
A clarification from IFAB -- particularly on the referee’s use of his whistle - would be helpful.
Amid this welter of errors, misinformation and incompetence, the thing I find most difficult to digest is this. Did Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls really spend valuable training time rehearsing this trick, as Messing says they did? Was Lloyd Sam not listening during those sessions, or did no one realize that he shouldn’t be touching the ball more than once?
This is a trick with a low probability of working (it did so here only because of an officiating error). And a trick that, once it has been used, will be of little future value because all opponents will be ready for it. Given that certainty, why on earth expose the trick in a certainly non-vital game like this?