Commentary

Two badly botched PK calls -- but the MLS remedy is misguided

By Paul Gardner

Well, not that brilliant a weekend for MLS refs. Specifically, a couple of dead-cert penalty kicks not called. If you assume -- which we always do, I think -- that a PK means a goal, then these were arguably game-defining calls, given that both games were won on one-goal margins by the team that profited from the miscalls.

For a start, we should not make the assumption about an inevitable goal. Penalty kicks are saved or missed -- if not often, then certainly regularly. I’m attempting to play down the drama -- I want to look only at the sequence of events leading up to the non-calls -- not what happened after. That’s all.

There is a context here, one neatly provided by MLS itself some weeks back, at the beginning of the season. Among the “points of emphasis” that MLS referees are supposed to be paying attention to this season is this: MLS has calculated that, in 2015, its referees had missed 28% of deserved red cards -- mainly serious foul play challenges.

Of those missed calls, 87.4% were held to be due to poor positioning by the referee. So preseason instructions to referees were big on positioning, on “reading the game better,” as it was explained to me.

As it happens the two botched penalty calls on Sunday featured similar plays. In the 63rd minute of the Red Bulls-Orlando game, a long, very long, 50-yard punt down the middle of the field by Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik, sent Orlando’s Cyle Larin in chase -- pursued by Karl Ouimette, who was never going to catch him. Larin got to the ball at the edge of the penalty area, Ouimette, still trailing, dived in from behind, did not get to the ball, but did trip Larin. Ouimette’s foul actually started outside the area, but the decisive tangle of legs happened inside. An almost laughably obvious PK, not called.

(And having said all that, we have another problem: was Larin offside on the goalkeeper punt? Actually it doesn’t matter anyway -- it wasn’t called so the play was genuine, the penalty should have been called).

So: positioning. Where was referee Hilario Grajeda? I’d say he was just about where he should have been. When the long punt was made, Grajeda was about 10 yards inside the Orlando half. He started to sprint forward as soon as he recognized the long pass. But Grajeda cannot move as quickly as the ball -- by the time Larin and Ouimette tangled, Grajeda had reduced the distance, but was still about 15 yards behind the play. Not the ideal position, but not disastrously bad -- he had a clear view of the action. He made no call. Evidently his AR, well-positioned on the sideline, level with the players, saw nothing wrong either. He did not raise his flag.

So play continued. It should not have done. The ref and his AR got it badly wrong. But I cannot see that positioning was to blame here.

I’ll come back to that after looking at the other bad call on Sunday. That came in the 55th minute of the San Jose-Kansas City game. A close cousin of the call in the Red Bulls game. Another long ball, this time a 30-yard forward pass from the halfway line. The ball reached the edge of the penalty area as KC’s Dom Dwyer arrived, accompanied by S.J defenders Andres Imperiale and Victor Bernardez. Dwyer got to the ball and was then taken down by Imperiale, who did not play the ball.

Where was the referee? Inevitably behind the play -- maybe some 8 yards inside the Kansas half when the pass was made, some 15 yards away from play when the foul occurred. Exactly as in the Red Bull game, no foul was called, and there was no signal from the AR.

I do not find the argument faulting the referees for their positioning at all convincing. Maybe, with some sharper attention, by “reading the game better,” both Grajeda and Jair Marrufo could have better anticipated the long balls. Which might have got them a yard or so nearer to the action. Long balls forward are never going to be easy for referees.

I seriously doubt whether that marginal improvement would have changed their decisions. Because I don’t think the failing here had anything to do with positioning. Certainly the ARs cannot be faulted for their positioning. So why did they not signal for a foul? I think we’re dealing with yet more evidence that referees and ARs are always inclined to give any benefit of doubt to defenders, and particularly so when it means a penalty kick can be avoided.

Rather than blaming the positioning of the officials, MLS could do themselves -- and the entire sport -- a big favor by concentrating on trying to banish this automatic leniency to defenders. It is probably fair to assume that in one third of these tangles the attacking player is at fault; in another third the defenders are at fault. It is in the remaining third -- the questionable third, the too-close-to-call third -- that the benefit of doubt applies, and it should always be given to the attacking player. At the moment it far more usually goes to the defender. In the two incidents I’ve been looking at, defenders got the benefit of doubt, despite ample evidence that they were guilty of serious fouls.

Possibly, the threatened use of instant video replays will give attacking players fairer treatment. Until that happens, a change of mentality by the referees -- who are, after all, relying on a mindset for which there is no justification at all -- would be a big help.

9 comments about "Two badly botched PK calls -- but the MLS remedy is misguided".
  1. R2 Dad, April 26, 2016 at 11:48 p.m.

    I do not know how MLS rotates their officials, but it's more likely that AR1 & AR2, if they do not have more than a couple matches under their belt with their referee, will be less certain to intervene and more likely to go with the referee's call. It's a matter of familiarity and comfort. The two examples you cite are blatant, and any AR would identify them as fouls. So who were the ARs, and why didn't they flag? Are they part of a crew that travels with the referee or do MLS/PRO mix it up regularly? I don't think the "default to the defender" carries as much weight as this lack of familiarity with the center referee.

  2. Kent James, April 27, 2016 at 12:59 a.m.

    Not sure why Larin being offside doesn't matter; if he were offside, the question of a penalty (and red card) is moot. And sorry, the idea that the default should go to the attacker is crazy; you'd rather referees award pks and red cards for non-fouls, than not award them for fouls? I think "first, do no harm" is the better adage for the referee. And finally, while the Dwyer foul was clear cut, the Larin was less so; the defender did get the ball, Larin was holding the defender (as the defender was holding him), the keeper might have gotten the ball first (even had Larin not gone down) and Larin chose to go down (though the defender's scissors on his legs encouraged that choice). It was an ugly play, but not nearly as clear-cut as the foul on Dwyer.

  3. :: SilverRey ::, April 27, 2016 at 7:19 a.m.

    Don't forget the rescinded red card on Wahl/Parkhurst for the wrongly called pk in the Crew/NYCFC game last week.

  4. John Soares, April 27, 2016 at 2:23 p.m.

    Agree with Kent; there should be no "default" to the attacker or defender. In the referee's judgement there was OR was not a foul to be called. YES mistakes happen, but just because two players get tangled and or go down does not mean the whistle has to blow. Forwards, especially go down often and easy. NOT because they are diving but because they are off balance and a 10 year old could make them fall. Lets concentrate on the violent tackles of (there are still too many of those) and not so much on the coulda/shoulda calls. At least half the audience thought these were good "non-calls":)

  5. Ric Fonseca, April 27, 2016 at 2:32 p.m.

    Once again, PG has decided to rant on about the missed opportunity to award a PK, which, BTW, I once again I will rarely agree with the article. However, it is so darned easy to pontificate about the Ref's positioning, especially as described in these two incidents, first because here we have on our jogo bonito, ONE center official managing 22 players, and "assisted" by two guys running the sidelines. First Larin was NOT offside when the punt was taken, something that IMHO, PG missed, but not by the AR. Second, though PG pointed out, a player cannot outrun a ball, whether punted or passed between players, and thus the Refs were at a disadvantage to be keeping up with the ball and or the players. What was obvious to those of us watching the games, the attacking players were denied a goal scoring opportunity, while as every one must remember and know, it is a defenders task to stop the attack, or perform what is curiously called, a "professional foul," much like they do in basketball.
    I think and feel that the PRO dudes are off their mark, but can remedy the situation by including two additional AR's - one at each goal line - and train the center official, teach him/her to run their diagonal better and make sure they have their pre-game conference-meetings to discuss the game and what to look for, but primarily to work together. Jeez, I remember many-a-time a center official telling me before the game, to have him call the offside, and to only signal when the ball went out of play. Needless to say, they were disastrously called games 'cause the only thing that stood out was my center official's lousily played ego. So, shall we just say to this: PLAY ON!!!

  6. Daniel Clifton, April 27, 2016 at 3:53 p.m.

    I thought both of these missed calls were badly missed calls. The Ouimette foul on Larin I thought was particularly egregious because he basically scissors kicked Larin. It looked to me like a red card just for the way Ouimette tackled Larin. The foul on Dwyer was so obvious that I don't see how a PK wasn't awarded. I have been an official in the past and I followed the thinking of make sure before awarding a PK. I don't know what the AR's were doing in both of these cases. They really could have helped the center official because they had an angle he didn't have.

  7. Chris Anderegg, April 27, 2016 at 6:40 p.m.

    What if we're just at the edges of human perception. Baseball umps get about 14% of ball and strike calls wrong and they're standing still. About half of the calls protested and reviewed in baseball are overturned. A lot less is going on and the umps are closer and have to cover far less ground and they make a lot of errors. I think it's the best humans can do. Soccer refs might do better if there was an additional ref on the field, but it could be that we can only see just so much at high speeds.

  8. Kent James, April 28, 2016 at 12:01 p.m.

    I think more officials as a remedy, while rational, will not work as well as intended. The officials by the goalmouth have a VERY difficult job; essentially, do nothing for most of the game, then make a decision that can determine the winner (the PK). Center referees have the advantage of getting into the flow of the game (even if only by running with the players). The better route is video replay; all goals, penalty kick fouls, or red cards (maybe yellow?) can be reviewed by the center official if there is any doubt (and he can be assisted by the 4th official, who might want to suggest he review a call). But leave the decision in the hands of the center official (advised by his associates). A few reviews a game, only in game critical situations, would help get the calls right without disrupting the game. You might allow on review per team, to give the team the opportunity to protest a card or pk not given, but maybe see how it goes first without that.

  9. Fire Paul Gardner Now, April 28, 2016 at 2:27 p.m.

    Of course it matters that Larin was clearly offsides when the ball was punted to him. But then you would have had to find something else to complain about right Paul?

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