As reported by Black and Red United, referee Corey Rockwell (2011 MLS Assistant Referee of the Year; the man in the middle for the 2012 US Open Cup final) tweeted out some encouraging news from the recently concluded MLS referee pre-season camp and fitness test:
Offside interpretation changes upcoming for #MLS in 2015.— Corey Rockwell (@coreyrock) February 1, 2015
At last. The interpretation of the offside rule in 2014, if you recall, was a frequent source of frustration, not least for fans of the New York Red Bulls - because we had to watch this:
Or rather, thanks to recently revised FIFA instructions, a goal that would have been regarded as offside before the profiterole guzzlers in Switzerland redrafted their offside rule will now be regarded as offside once more.
@CurseofCaricola You are 100 percent correct and that clip was shown as a specific example of being offside this year.— Corey Rockwell (@coreyrock) February 1, 2015
RBNY was certainly not the only team affected by the adjusted interpretation, which got all confused when FIFA cut out reference to a player being offside if he or she "deceives or distracts" an opponent (while offside). The intent was to clarify the rule by eliminating ambiguity or at least reducing the incidence of situations where a referee might (gasp!) be called upon to make a judgement call.
The outcome was a bit silly, as we saw with Harrison Shipp's goal last year at Red Bull Arena. Luis Robles made an absolute gubbins of getting to the ball, but this was clearly because he had more than half an eye on Mike Magee's equally unsuccessful effort to get on the end of Shipp's lob over the top. And the defense had given up on the play from the moment it was clear Magee had started his run from an offside position.
Enter PRO with an infuriatingly literal interpretation of FIFA's rulebook:
"In the third minute of the New York Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire game, Mike Magee is in an offside position but it is clear that he is not obstructing the keeper’s line of vision.
"The next consideration is whether he is challenging Luis Robles for the ball and in law it does not specify exactly how close the players have to be to constitute a challenge.
"However, in this play, Magee is too far away to be considered as challenging Robles.
Moving past the erratic logic of flowing from "the law doesn't specify" to "too far away" without any indication of where this unspecified specificity comes from, we can at least be thankful PRO stuck to its maddening interpretation with stubborn consistency.
For the most part, a player could stand in an offside position and distract the goalkeeper with impunity for the rest of the season.
New offside interpretation (pt 2) Therefore, in 2014, I correctly let this go and this would be considered onside.— Corey Rockwell (@coreyrock) February 1, 2015
New offside interpretation (pt 3) At the :15 mark, Neagle makes a slight "flinch" in a slight attempt to play the ball.— Corey Rockwell (@coreyrock) February 1, 2015
New offside interpretation (pt 4) This flinch "IMPACTS THE ABILITY" of @1DanKennedy to make a play on the ball.— Corey Rockwell (@coreyrock) February 1, 2015
The revised interpretation does not entirely eliminate room for further controversy: Rockwell indicated referees have been instructed to disregard stationary offside targets.
@bradley Correct.... If no flinch and he watches it go by, then it is onside.— Corey Rockwell (@coreyrock) February 1, 2015
Stick a guy in no-man's land behind the wall but in front of the 'keeper, tell him to stand completely still, and try to shoot around him. Not easy - Gilberto's strike that day was perfect (and there was a "flinch"). But scoring direct free kicks never is easy; a law that allows you to set up a little bit of a distraction to challenge the 'keeper perhaps helps to tilt the balance in favor of the astute coach who has been studying the referees' handbook.
We'll see if any teams around the league try to take advantage of the revised interpretation this season: watch out for forwards standing perfectly still in offside positions in 2015.
Still, while the new approach to interpreting the offside law doesn't rule out the possibility of another goal like Shipp's at Red Bull Arena, at least we'll have the satisfaction of calling it a blown call, since referees have had a little bit of credit for their own understanding of the game restored to them.
More emphasis this year on offside players "impacting the ability" of the defense to make a play.— Corey Rockwell (@coreyrock) February 1, 2015