Trickery, incompetence and ignorance -- the tale of a Red Bulls corner kick

By Paul Gardner

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?

21 comments about "Trickery, incompetence and ignorance -- the tale of a Red Bulls corner kick".
  1. Dick Burns, August 31, 2015 at 1:55 p.m.

    That piece of gamesmanship recycles every few years. I often wonder why otherwise good coaches think this is a really good idea. Over the years I have seen it at the youth, high school and college level. Usually it does not work but I always find it distastful.

  2. Bobby Bluntz, August 31, 2015 at 1:57 p.m.

    That's a trick every serious player learns when he's about 8 or 9. I doubt they spent too much time on the training ground rehearsing it.

  3. Woody Woodpecker replied, September 3, 2015 at 4:06 p.m.

    Bobby B, is absolutely right, this ia an old, old trick, which the referee and AR have to pay attention, and watch closely. In fact MU did it a few years ago, Giggsy put the ball down and touched and walked away, the ball was live, and they scored The key here is you don't need a "whistle" to restart the game on a CK. ....IE. let's take a fast one and catch them "napping"? I'm not sure PG knows much about the LOG as well.

  4. Mike Jacome, August 31, 2015 at 2:30 p.m.

    Dick, Distasteful or not is in the eue of the beholder, what is important is if it is legal or not. I agree if Sam kick the ball twice it was then illegal. I don't agree with the interpretation of kicking the ball as to do it with enough force. Kick is striking it, hard or soft enough to make it move, period. Is it a trick or is a strategy? Is it deceiving therefor although legal highly inmoral? I don't think so, strategies are only that. Or would you have never played chess, there are numerous plays in chess in which youare trying to conceit your intentions, make the adversary fall for it to surprise them later with a brilliant combination. Would you consider those plays distasteful?

  5. Bobby Bluntz, August 31, 2015 at 2:57 p.m.

    What I can't believe is that nobody picked up on it. Anytime you see a player switch who's taking a corner, you should be pretty skeptical. I've also seen a sleezy coach use this as a time wasting technique in youth soccer. On top of constantly subbing, he had a technique where the first player slightly touches the ball on the corner kick, then he obnoxiously yells at the player to not take the kick and sends another one over to take it. Then he plays dumb and goes "no, not Mason, I said Jason (or whatever)". The whole time, he's throwing a fit at his players chastising them and yelling at them, so the attention isn't on the fact that the ball is actually in play. Way to develop time wasting strategies coach, you're really developing the kids into great players by being a coward.

  6. Woody Woodpecker replied, September 3, 2015 at 4:10 p.m.

    Trust me, if done correctly, it's very hard to pick up. You have to be focused and pay very close attention. I could give you a million of these "tricks", especially on restarts. In our day, at the taking of CK our biggest player would stand the GK's feet so he couldn't jump. Cheating? trickery? unsporting behavior? all of the above.....

  7. Ric Fonseca, August 31, 2015 at 3:06 p.m.

    Wow, is this akin to Brady's "deflagate" or what??? I've seen this happen time and again, and I must admit I instructed my players to use this, but was never called on it by the officiating crew. Shep Messing should, ought, and must know the rules, after all, ain't he one of the so-called pro-soccer pioneers of yore? Anyhow, gracias senor Pablo Jardinero for your minutiae of the game, another sloooo day, eh? Saludos cordiales!

  8. Kelly Ross, August 31, 2015 at 3:53 p.m.

    A few insidious points: (1) Messing's knowledge of the laws of the game are absent, at best. (2) To call the play "world class" is ridiculous at best (youth and college teams have been running this type of corner kick trickery for at least 2 decades / so where has Messing been?) (3) It exemplifies the stupidity of most of the commentators we have to suffer with, during MLS games on US broadcasts. I'd rather watch the Univision feeds in Spanish while not understanding, much, if anything in Spanish (which still would be better than the US announcers). Spanish commentators could probably make a "fart" sound exciting ....
    (4) A major problem with US commentators is that there is NO REQUIREMENT to provide accurate information; just an opinion. Messing's objection to the statement provided by PRO during the broadcast shows this example. And yet, in the face of the written facts in hand, he can still give his opinion, however woefully wrong. This incompetence simply shows that US broadcasts rely on mediocrity, if Messing is "one of the best" to be hired to do the job.
    (5) I'm very curious about the reaction of the Seattle v Portland game and the penalty kick that was awarded to Seattle (but no red card to the Portland GK) and Taylor Twellman's on-air assertion that the contact was not even a foul; because the GK has a "right to space" in his area ... and that referee Alan Kelly got it wrong.

  9. Gene Jay, August 31, 2015 at 3:56 p.m.

    i like to see little kids try it, because it opponets to focus, think, and pay attention. Pretty dumb for a professional player to botch it, and dumber for a the referees to miss the double tap. i have seen thos at least 10 tims for 7-9 year olds and cannot remember one botching it. plus it gets opposing soccer moms/dada screaming bloody murder which is always entertaining

  10. beautiful game, August 31, 2015 at 4:52 p.m.

    K. Ross; well put. The MLS commentators on the most part know little and talk too much about what they don't think happened. Too many times former pro-soccer commentators don't see a foul and keep insisting there is no foul after the replay is clear cut that it was a foul. Commentary has to have logic and purpose; same goes for the video feed which has become a global nightmare of too many cameras on the pitch focusing on the backs or back of the heads during and after a play is over. Televised soccer has become stigmatized by an array of meaningless Ping-Pong 'bubble-heads' capturing close ups of players, refs, coaches, substitutes etc. For some illogical reason video captures about 30% of nonsense.

  11. James e Chandler replied, September 1, 2015 at 10:07 a.m.


    There's a problem with your viewpoint, and it's one that is too prevalent.
    You, as an official, cannot make up your own rules. There is nothing in the Laws of the game that prohibit putting the ball in play by a push with the foot, a roll-over, or even a flick. The same statement about when the ball is in play is used for a kick-off. We see the ball put in play with that push, or roll over, and over again. We also see referees that allow the 2nd player to touch the ball to stand completely in the attacking half of the field. I don't, but referees that do obviously consider this to be a trifling offense that doesn't affect the game. I don't. They do. So what?
    So you can't make up your own rules because you think 150 years of mulling over the Laws by self-appointed experts still has it wrong.
    Now cut it out as you're making officiating the game more difficult for the rest of us that are trying to do it according to the LOTG that includes the so-called rule 18
    Oh btw. That last section also defines when use of the whistle is mandated, and a corner kick isn't one of those times unless it follows a substitution, a booking, a stoppage for an injury, or other disruption where the referee holds up the re-start of play, or when the attacking team requests the referee to back defenders up to the prescribed distance. (There's another pet peeve of mine, refs that think their step is an entire yard when it's more likely 3-6" short of that that shortening the 10 yards by 1-2 yards. What's wrong with going to the center circle before the game and calibrating one's steps.)
    All of this boils down to one of my mantras, "There's no such thing as a competent soccer referee on this entire planet".
    Deal with it, or quit playing/coaching/watching, and stop making every match about the referee instead of the players. Ya know, if players didn't cheat, and played with honor we wouldn't need referees.

  12. Bob Escobar, August 31, 2015 at 5:18 p.m.

    Messing is a clueless idiot, he is a terrible announcer, doesn't know shit about the game, but fools many novice fans. It was obvious the play should have been called back, but the idiot decided to misinterpreted the rule as he saw fit.

  13. uffe gustafsson, August 31, 2015 at 5:45 p.m.

    True about youth coaches uses that, but I also beleave there is something in the law that prohibit trickery. And if that stuff is not falling under trickery then call me out on it.
    Kids should win or loose on the field with them playing not coaches using trickery to win.
    If that ball is not going out side the corner taking area it should not be in play. Putting your foot on top and roll it is not a kick to me.
    Bad rule if u ask me.

  14. John Hofmann, August 31, 2015 at 7:16 p.m.

    Interesting comment by Mr. Nowozeniuk, re 'too many cameras on the pitch focusing on the backs or back of the heads during and after a play is over'. Friday night, SJ vs. LA, one of the key plays of the game was the red card. Audience never saw the full build-up to the final take-down, because the cameras were on the backs of a few LA players retreating from the SJ goal, after a shot, rather than following the ball kicked up field by the SJ goalie.
    So arguing went on w/o anyone really seeing the entire play.

  15. Gus Keri, August 31, 2015 at 7:26 p.m.

    All of you are wrong. Paul Gardner is wrong. PRO is wrong too. Sam didn't touch the ball twice while it was in play. His first touch was to set up the corner kick and his second touch was the actual kick. Messing was wrong on every thing except that the goal is legal and should've stood and by no means it was world class like Messing suggested.

  16. Al Gebra, August 31, 2015 at 7:56 p.m.

    First off, Kelly, your "Fart" comment was very funny. I think the corner kick rule is somewhat similar to the thrown-in rule. Many times you see player#1 pick up a ball that has gone out of play and starts to to do a throw-in when player#2 comes up to do the throw-in instead. Player#1 throws the ball to player#2, who's in the field of play. Player#2 catches it. According to the rules as defined, that's a hand ball. If player#1 throws it underhanded to player#2, that's an illegal throw-in. Over the years I came to the conclusion that the referees judged that player#1's "intent" was not to do a throw-in to start play. Judging intent is pretty much impossible. Player#1 should drop the ball off the field of play, as I have seen some players do. Player#2 can then pick up the ball and do the throw-in. The same goes with the corner kick. The ball should be placed in the arc with the hands. The first touch of the ball with the foot puts it in play.

  17. Bill Riviere, September 1, 2015 at 8:29 a.m.

    At the risk of being criticized simply because I am a USSF and NFHS referee (entering my 20th year), I feel that such corner kick trickery borders on unsporting behavior and do not allow it. I have had coaches actually ask me if they can run the play--because they are not sure it is sporting! I always tell them no and advise them that if they run it I will stop play and speak to the players about it and have them take another corner sans the trick. They usually try it by having a player step on the top of the ball or just a toe nudge without a kicking motion and proceed away from it, considering it in play for the second teammate to dribble.

    The rule book defines that to put the ball into play on corners, kickoffs, free kicks, etc., the ball must be struck with a kicking motion and the ball must move. The rules do not say how far it must move nor what a kicking motion is. A slight swing of the foot with a toe strike therefore is a kicking motion. Stepping on the top of the ball is not, nor is placing your toe behind and touching the ball and then moving it forward with a nudge is not a kicking motion, it is a "push".

    On a goal kick or free kick taken by the defensive team in its own penalty area, the ball must not only be kicked, but must travel completely outside the penallty area lines without being touched by another player. To the contrary, there is no requirement that the ball leave the corner arc to be in play. So, the ball may be put in play by a slight kicking motion and then be dribbled out of the corner arc by a different player.

    As a referee, I believe that if I allow a trick play like the one described--assuming it is not touched twice by the same player--I am complicit in trickery. that falls into the realm of unsporting behavior, albeit marginally so. There is a reason that the rules state the ball must move to be considered in play--so that the opposing team knows it is in play.

  18. R v Mcgrath, September 1, 2015 at 10:16 a.m.

    Thank you, Bill Rivere. Finally, someone who knows the rules. Putting one's foot on the ball and rolling it is NOT a kick. The ball was not properly put into play, and therefor could not be dribbled out of the corner.

  19. Kent James, September 1, 2015 at 5:44 p.m.

    Since a whistle is not necessary to put the ball in play (to allow teams to play as quickly as they want), the kicking of the ball serves notice that it is in play. They eliminated the "has to roll a circumference" of the ball to avoid arguing over how far a ball rolled when teams tried to turn an IFK into a DFK, essentially bowing to pressure to allow teams to just touch the ball, as long as it moves (allowing the defense to then challenge for it). But since the idea is that both teams should know the ball is in play, the "spirit of the game" interpretation should not allow for such deception (unless you want to start nitpicking the corner kicks where a player rolls it into place, and "touches" it twice while doing so, which, technically speaking, would give the other team possession). Deception should be within the rules and the spirit of the game ("dummying" the ball, e.g.).

  20. Bill Riviere, September 2, 2015 at 3:30 p.m.

    Kent, I concur with your analysis. The spirit of the game in my mind is not honored with a deceptive corner kick--about the only time such a move would be effective. My issue with it is that unless a whistle is required to restart the corner, a subtle nudge with the toe that hardly moves the ball doesn't make it clear that the ball is in play except to an observant center referee or assistant.

    James, I am not making up my own rules as you imply. I am interpreting the less than succinct LOTG that defines a kick as a kicking motion. Such things as you suggest are done at midfield to kick off have no real bearing on a goal being scored. First, a whistle is required to start play on kickoffs and everyone in the stadium knows what will happen next. A (usually) hard push of the ball by a toe or cleats in that circumstance, is expected by defenders and is about 60 yards from goal. A call there is trifling and takes playing time away from the players.
    As for whistle use on a corner, you are correct in describing circumstances where it is necessary. But it is the non-whistled corner that is in question and a slight nudge of the ball likely not visible to defenders in the area or making it look like you are putting the ball in place to kick it with no such intention is not within the spirit of sportsmanship. That's just like calling "I've got it" right behind an opponent to deceive him/her into thinking you are a teammate so he/she will let an air driven ball go over his/her head to you. That is considered cautionable.

  21. Stevie G, September 3, 2015 at 9:07 p.m.

    Could this really be the first time Gardner has seen this trick? Youth teams use it all the time, probably because a 12 year old kid cannot get a size 5 ball into the box on a field that is 70 yards wide. Even Man U used it a couple of years ago. The refs got it wrong on that occasion too.

    Frankly I can't believe it ever works. How about focusing on how spectacularly bad a team must be to fall for it?

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