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If allowing Ronald Zubar's goal against Chicago Fire was bad, the reaction of MLS and PRO was worse

MLS and PRO came out fast to deny the legitimacy of Ronald Zubar's goal against Chicago, raising questions about their own legitimacy as impartial and prudent administrators of the game.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

In the 49th minute of the New York Red Bulls' lamentable loss to Chicago Fire on August 26, Ronald Zubar scored a goal. It was an important goal, tying a game RBNY deserved to be losing heavily. It was also, unfortunately, a goal that was not sufficient to allow the humbled Red Bulls to sneak out of Toyota Park with a point. The Fire scored again, and the match ended 3-2 to Chicago.

Fair enough. Sometimes a team can fight through a bad performance. More often, it can't. On this occasion, RBNY came up short. It happens.

Zubar's goal, however, is something that does not often happen. It was facilitated by a sly corner-kick routine that saw Lloyd Sam tap the ball, thereby making it "in play", and jog serenely to his position in the penalty area. Sacha Kljestan - the team's regular corner-taker - arrived moments later, whispered something to the Assistant Referee, and then blithely dribbled ball toward Chicago's 18-yard box. The Fire's defense was caught unprepared. A cross, a faked shot by Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Zubar had an open shot on goal. He took it.

Training-ground trickery or clever improvisation by the team's senior players (all those involved - Kljestan, Sam, BWP, and Zubar - are among the most experienced pros on RBNY's roster)? It doesn't really matter: the team got the equalizer it was seeking at the time.

It also attracted some controversy: the goal should not have counted. Don't take my word for it, the Professional Referees Organization, the governing body of all MLS referees, weighed in to say the goal was incorrectly allowed.

OK. PRO holds forth on controversial or misunderstood calls on a weekly basis. It has a blog set aside for just that purpose. Sometimes, it even criticizes a call.

Except, this didn't happen on the PRO blog. It happened while the game was still being played.

Yes, that is a little bizarre. More than a little. It's the first time I can recall it happening in MLS...ever. And I don't recall happening in any other professional game I've watched.

Nor was this a caveat-laden description of the rules and how they may or may not have been incorrectly applied. In a report published on shortly after the match concluded, the league's official website confirmed the ruling of its official referee organization:

While the goal was an impressive piece of trickery from Jesse Marsch's side, it should not have counted. Citing Law 17 of the FIFA Laws of the Game which addresses corner kicks (page 53), a PRO official informed on Wednesday night that the act of Sam touching the ball more than once is an offense punishable with an indirect free kick for the Fire.

Calls get pulled apart on TV all the time - it's part of the general entertainment of the match: did the referee make the right decision? Should that goal have been allowed? What was the ref thinking? A good commentary team can spin a right, wrong or marginal call into some of the best minutes of a match you'll hear. Most at least try to eke out some drama by playing back the missed fouls or dubious decisions a few times. These become the talking points that we all debate after the match.

But to have official representatives of the league or its referees' organization weigh in mid-match? No, that doesn't happen for the simple reason that you're stoking the fires of speculation and undermining the authority of the referee - inciting fans to pour (at the very least) scorn on the ref - without granting any right of reply. And the authority of the referee is a core principle of the rules of the game:


FIFA Laws of the Game 2015/16, pg. 26

It's entirely fine for fans, reporters and commentators to chat about referee's decisions. But official word - unless it is simply to confirm a decision already taken (yes, that was a corner kick awarded; no, that was yellow card for dissent not persistent infringement) - from a governing body or the league itself? No. Let the ref at least explain post-match what he or she thought had happened, and then by all means weigh in with the official verdict. Because, like it or not, very few refereeing "mistakes" are clear cut; most are open to interpretation.

And PRO should perhaps be mindful of the fact that anyone with the gift of literacy can read the FIFA Laws of the Game it cites so authoritatively. As it turns out, the corner kick routine PRO is so sure was incorrectly called is one of those not-at-all-certain calls.

Here's the tape again.

Here are the rules of the game governing corner kicks:

FIFA Laws of the Game 2015/16, pg. 53

FIFA Laws of the Game 2015/16, pg. 53

Play the tape against the checklist of rules above:

- The ball must be placed inside the corner arc nearest to the point where ball crossed the goal line. CHECK

- The corner flagpost must not be move. CHECK

- Opponents must be at least 10 yards from the corner arc until the ball is in play. CHECK

- The ball must be kicked by a player of the attacking team. CHECK

- The ball is in play when it is kicked and moved. CHECK

So far, so good. The deception that allows RBNY to execute the play leading to the goal is that Chicago believes all this corner-taking procedure to apply to Sacha Kljestan, but in fact it has been completed by Lloyd Sam. Surprise, Chicago!

Except, PRO says the goal shouldn't have counted because of the final point on the checklist: the kicker must not play the ball again until it has touched another player.

That is the issue some Chicago players appear to appeal: the Fire players see a corner-kick taker  - Sacha Kljestan - kicking the ball several times before anyone else touches it. It is also PRO's issue with this play, but it sees Lloyd Sam as the corner-taker and he touches the ball three times as he settles it in the corner arc. AGAINST THE RULES!

Well...maybe. It depends on when the play was restarted: a matter that is the referee's sole discretion, as made clear in the rules of the game. From page 26 of FIFA's Laws of the Game (2015/16 edition), Law 2, the section covering the powers and duties of a referee:

The Laws of the Game are often relatively vague, and on the subject of what "placed" means in the context of the ball being "placed inside the corner arc", there is no specific guidance for whether this must be done with hands or feet or mechanical apparatus. Just get the ball in the right place before you take the corner.

Here is Andrea Pirlo taking a corner from which a goal is scored. We can't see how exactly he "placed" the ball, and it is irrelevant - we hear the referee's whistle to restart play as Pirlo starts to walk back to the top of his run-up.

If Pirlo used his hands or his feet to get the ball inside the corner arc, it doesn't matter because play had not restarted until the referee's whistle was blown.

Or maybe not. There is a section in the rules of the game about the use of the whistle:

FIFA Laws of the Game 2015/16, pg. 83

FIFA Laws of the Game 2015/16, pg. 83

Huh. So it is not necessary to use a whistle at all to restart from a corner kick - and if the whistle is used for that purpose, it should be announced as such. It is certainly the norm for referees in MLS to whistle a restart for corners, but it is not the letter of the laws of the game - and that is all we have to fall back on when there are controversial matters to adjudicate.

Now listen to the tape of RBNY's corner kick: you hear Chapman blow his whistle three times. The first time is around three seconds into the tape - Sam has just dribbled the ball into the corner arc and "placed" the ball inside it with his feet. Whistle blows - Sam touches the ball again with his right foot. At the five second mark, Chapman blows his whistle a second time - Sam rolls the ball with his left foot, leaving it inside the corner arc but he has clearly kicked the ball and it has moved.

PRO's interpretation is pretty obvious: play restarted around the time of the first whistle; by the time of the second whistle, Sam has touched the ball three times. Even if you argue one of those touches was placing the ball, he has still kicked it twice, and that's not allowed.

By the time Kljestan gets on the scene - around the six-second mark on the tape- Chapman has blown his whistle a third time. It is at this point Kljestan chats to the Assistant Referee, and Sam turns around - presumably to at least listen in. We can only assume this is the players checking with the AR that they have indeed legally already taken the corner, and that Kljestan is free to do what he did next.

Kljestan's post-match comments indicate it was a somewhat spontaneous moment from his perspective:

On the assist, it was a play that just kind of came to me.  Lloyd had touched the ball and figured I could catch the defense off guard and bring it in, and fortunately Zubar was in the right place in the right time and put it in the corner.

We see Kljestan talk to the AR, and we see the play unfold and not get immediately whistled dead by the center referee. Somewhere in those three whistles, Chapman communicated to his AR that play had restarted. And it may have been none of those whistles at all that was the signal - since the laws clearly state there is no need for a whistle to restart from a corner kick.

Indeed, it's fairly certain Chapman's third whistle - by which time Sam is several feet away from the ball - is aimed at a Chicago player who has wandered closer than 10 yards to the ball. Chapman is telling that  player - Michael Stephens - to get back. Indeed, since Chapman starts whistling when Stephens sets off running toward the corner, maybe all the whistles are aimed at communicating to the player that he is straying to close to the ball.

[Update: A reader raises a good point.

If the ball is live, the players are free to attack the ball. If Chapman was telling players to retreat 10 yards, it would imply the corner has not yet been taken - making Kljestan the corner taker. Reason to doubt the legitimacy of the play - but not the reason provided by MLS/PRO. And we still need to know what Chapman was whistling about to know for sure.]

It's impossible to tell conclusively from the tape because Chapman isn't in the frame while he's whistling. We cannot see his body language and we certainly cannot hear whether he says anything. What we know is that when Kljestan takes the corner, neither center ref nor assistant ref have any problem with the play - which strongly suggests they don't regard Kljestan as the corner taker, and therefore they do regard Sam's last touch (when he rolls the ball with his left leg from it's stationary position to another spot in the corner arc) as having taken the corner.

And it is in keeping with the laws and practice of the game that the two referees may have regarded Sam's earlier touches as the placement of the ball, and not qualifying as his having "kicked and moved" the ball in the context of the rules of the game. Because we don't know exactly when play restarts. If it's on Chapman's second whistle, the corner appears perfectly legal.

What we do know is that neither referee saw anything wrong with the play as it unfolded. Here is what happens if you try a sneaky touch of the ball at a corner and the refs don't realize what you've done:

Were both Chapman and his assistant simply not aware of the "no double touch" rule on corner kicks? Maybe. We see referees make mind-boggling mistakes fairly often. Remember that time Dane Richards was flagged for offside in his own half of the field? That was bad. PRO somehow restrained the urge to interrupt the broadcast with its official opinion.

The call on Richards was demonstrably wrong - but one can still offer the defense that the AR only got to see the play in real time and the center ref had the wrong angle to make the decision. Even blown calls are defensible: the defense usually being human error.

The circumstances surrounding Zubar's goal, however - as discussed - were at least debatable. For TWO referees PRO deems qualified to run MLS matches not to know the rules governing something as commonplace as a corner kick is shocking. (Though one must concede that this is an organization that allowed someone to run the line without a basic understanding of the offside rule.) For PRO to confidently declare the wrong call was made in the middle of the match is admitting an extraordinary incompetence on the part of the referees PRO appointed. It is tantamount to admitting the game is being managed by unqualified officials. That is why PRO (and MLS) should have kept quiet, at least until the referee had a chance to explain the situation from his perspective.

Chapman's use of the whistle in the build-up to Kljestan's corner seems overzealous and ultimately confusing, but the job of the referee is primarily to communicate with assistant referees and the players - not the TV audience. We simply don't know with any conviction what the players thought Chapman was doing, but we do know Kljestan asked if he could do what he did, and wasn't called for an infraction by the center referee (who can't have heard the conversation, because if it was that loud, why were the Chicago players at all surprised? They would have heard it too.).

So to say flatly that the call was incorrect is to ignore the fact Kljestan sought and received permission from an assistant referee, and wasn't called for any infraction by the center ref. Does PRO give its refs no credit for their understanding of rules governing restarts and corners? And if so, why is it sending these woefully under-educated officials on to the field? more thing: where did PRO get its understanding of the situation in order to be able to comment? There were two TV broadcasts of this game: one for the local station in Chicago that covers Fire games, the other for the local network in New York that covers RBNY games. It was MSG, the New York channel, that got information from MLS or PRO to discuss during the game. And that commentary team was not in the stadium, as was clear by its befuddlement over the penalty called in the game.

On the Chicago feed, there was no doubt over the PK. As shown on the official highlights of the game, the ref's call is off-camera, but the Chicago-based commentators identify the penalty nonetheless.

Did PRO and/or MLS  representatives provide an "official" verdict on a referee's call in a stadium they were not in, based on zero consultation with any of the match officials or players?

I think they did. And that is not good. Not good at all. Because it suggests the league, or PRO (which the league has a stake in), is cheerfully fanning the flames of controversy and undermining its own referees for...well, I'm not sure for what. Not for the sake of educating viewers about the laws of the game or the complexity of refereeing live professional soccer.

PRO and MLS took a nuanced situation and dumbed it down, ignoring the realities of the referee's authority to control the restart and the obvious fact that the precise moment of the restart - which does not need to be communicated by whistle - was difficult to discern from the tape. They have deemed a goal to be invalid on the strength of, at best, insufficient evidence.

What's that? It's just a harmless move to help a broadcast partner inject a little more controversy into its commentary? That's bad enough for me: making your own officials seem incompetent makes the league seem incompetent by extension. And there is sufficient fuel for that fire already. Engineering a controversy mid-game for the sake of ratings or post-match talking points starts to make MLS feel a little like WWE. That is not a good comparison for a professional soccer league.

Further and more seriously, the league is keen to implement instant replay, and there is intelligent discussion of how that would be implemented. A recent interview with Jeff Agoos, VP of Competition for MLS, suggested those working on a plan for instant replay are very keen to prevent it being mere idle speculation and restrict the advice given to referees to matters of fact.

On some level, this incident suggests there are others in PRO and MLS who are not inclined to calmly evaluate the facts as presented, weigh them against the rules of the game, and - if necessary - accept that some things are indeed simply up to the referee.

This rush to judgement suggests there is some work to do if the advent of instant replay is not going to pitch our soccer-watching into an infuriating effort to turn shades of grey into black or white. We already have commentators, beat reporters, and the vast expanses of the internet on which fans gather to debate what they have seen - we don't need MLS or PRO to actively create arguments for us.

If MLS is sanctioning the use of PRO as a bully pulpit for one hot take over all the others, then instant replay will make the problems we perceive with refereeing in the league worse, not better.

Ronald Zubar's goal for RBNY may or may not have been in contravention of the laws of the game. It is certainly a a debatable play. But the debate should include the referees who allowed the goal to stand, because this is one of those instances where the refs' decision about when the ball is in play is crucial to determining whether any rules were broken.

MLS and PRO's decision to undermine one of their own referees on live television while the match was still ongoing was in contravention of good sense, and raises troubling questions about the culture of a league that wishes to be the first to adopt third-party review of controversial calls during games. If this was a sneak preview of how MLS will handle such reviews, we're better off continuing to leave the errors of judgement up to the referees on the field. At least they have the excuse of only seeing what has happened once, in real time.