Webb’s reply was, on the whole, encouraging. Yes, he said, the situation was being monitored, and referees are “being told to be vigilant and firm in terms of challenges by goalkeepers that are deemed worthy of being penalized in the same way that an outfield player [would be penalized]. If the actions of a goalkeeper are careless, reckless or using excessive force, then the player will be penalized.”
The words are clear enough, the intentions are commendable. But what we see on the field is much less satisfactory. I have already commented on several instances of goalkeeper violence this MLS season in which the goalkeeper was not penalized.
What makes that doubly disappointing is the introduction of VAR. If referees are reluctant to penalize goalkeepers (obviously, they are), or find it difficult to identify their fouls (evidently they do), now we have the option of VAR replay scanning to set matters aright.
You would think. And you would be quite wrong. Yesterday’s DC United-Orlando game gave us unassailable evidence that Webb’s statement quoted above is being ignored.
Not that VAR Jorge Gonzalez was asleep — he had plenty to do in this game, and did it well enough. He spotted a red-card foul by Orlando’s Cristian Higuita that referee Jose Carlos Rivero had missed, then correctly over-ruled an offside call, a decision that allowed Luciano Acosta to score his second goal for D.C.
That second incident, however, featured not only a borderline offside call, but also some wildly violent physical play from Orlando’s goalkeeper Joe Bendik.
As Gonzalez, in his VAR cell, was closely studying that play, it is simply inconceivable that he was unaware of Bendik’s thuggery.
As Acosta moved onto the ball, Bendik came racing toward him — arms waving, knee raised, studs showing, presumably “making himself big,” as keeper-slang euphemistically has it — and simply jumped into Acosta. To be noted: by the time Bendik (6-foot-2, 217 pounds) smashed into Acosta (5-3, 130), Acosta had already played the ball toward the goal. Bendik never got anywhere near the ball, which rolled nicely underneath his frantic jump, and into the net.
The inevitable collision was less brutal than it might have been — both players, at the last moment, tried to avoid it, Bendik turning to his left, Acosta to his left, with the merciful result that it was Bendik’s right hip, rather than his knee, that hit Acosta’s head.
By any reasonable assessment, Bendik’s flailing jump into Acosta was surely “endangering the safety of an opponent” — which is a red-card offense. All the evidence was there for VAR Gonzalez (and referee Rivero, for that matter) to assess. Bendik should have been red-carded. A penalty kick, which could have been called, was not necessary as the goal was allowed.
In fact, this incident was not handled at all well. We had a violent — and very visible — hip-to-head clash ... so how come the concussion protocol was not used? Acosta went down, but got up quite quickly, holding his face. Surely, referee Rivero should have immediately waved the D.C. United medical team on to the field? Surely the medics should have insisted on looking at Acosta? Yet Acosta received no treatment at all.
He played the rest of the game (some 35 minutes) and scored a remarkable winning goal for D.C. United, so you can say he must have been OK. Except that with concussion, you never know. The protocol is meant to ensure that head injuries are taken seriously.
The whole incident took three minutes to develop (all the delay was the result of VAR assessment). When play restarted, Acosta was still gingerly feeling his face.
The referees, then, do not come out of this looking too good. But the TV commentators do. For once. It’s refreshing to report that JP Dellacamera and Alexi Lalas quickly realized that a bad foul had been committed. Watching the replay, Lalas affirmed “That’s a foul ... if that happens in the middle of the field that’s a red card.” As we awaited the VAR decision, JP reported “We could be looking at a double VAR here, where he gives the goal and a red card.” Then, “But he’s not going to give Bendik anything.”
Lalas: “He can go back and give red card or a yellow ...” and then, with an indignant squawk, “... but nothing?”
I must repeat: it is absolutely impossible for anyone (I mean the VAR, of course) to study this incident and to remain unaware of Bendik’s foul. So this can not be a case of the foul not having been seen. Rather, it was deliberately ignored.
That amounts to a refusal to abide by the guidelines on goalkeeper violence, quoted above, that Howard Webb laid down at the beginning of the season.
How come the VAR spotted Higuita’s elbow (that needed some close scanning to detect) but did not see Bendik’s foul, which was blatant and there for all to see?
Are Webb’s guidelines for real, then? Or are they just so many words, easily ignored as such warnings have been in the past, because no one wants to discipline goalkeepers?