I am very proud of padawan Austin Fido and his lengthy post regarding the New York Red Bulls' second goal Wednesday against the Chicago Fire. This is straight out of my playbook - incredibly long, mostly insightful, well researched and a hint of annoyance as to why it takes several thousand words to explain the thought process of being a referee.
A few months back, I went on loan to OaM to talk about a few plays from a RBNY-NYCFC game and after this recent midweek fiasco, I feel it's necessary to do so again. Because Austin is right: the bigger issue with this play isn't that Allen Chapman and his crew allowed the goal, it's the reaction of PRO in the middle of the game to call it a blatant error.
It's unprofessional to critique one of your referees in the middle of the game, and especially publicly to MSG and MLSsoccer.com. Refereeing errors are supposed to be teaching moments for everyone, not just the referees, but fans, players and coaches as well.
Because this is a fairly simple play, and I personally object to PRO's claim that the play should have been blown dead because Lloyd Sam played the ball multiple times with his feet in the corner arc.
By rule, the first touch technically put the ball in play and the subsequent touches result in the kick-taker playing the ball twice, and an indirect free kick for Chicago.
I don't care about that, because I'm sure I can find a player or two settling the ball multiple times with their feet in the corner arc during a 90-minute game. While it might be technically illegal, the real issue here is the buildup during the time Lloyd is "settling the ball."
It's pure chaos: there are too many whistles from Chapman, no clear indication that the ball is live or needs to be reset for the corner kick and this is an act of deception from New York that should not have been allowed. Not because the Red Bulls are trying to do anything wrong, but because the referees have given the away team assistance in its attempt to conceal its intention by failing to communicate to all sides whether or not the ball was in play.
By whistling sharply three times and then once more, it would seem Chapman may have given the ready-to-play whistle for the corner, but this still isn't clear. The proper thing the AR on the far sideline should have done would be to prevent Kljestan from even playing the ball while he confirmed with Chapman in the middle that everyone was ready to play.
Deception is legal to an extent - dummying a pass or shot is deception but entirely within the laws of the game - and those instances that cross the line are fairly clear for referees. Acts of simulation and feigning injury can be punished with yellow cards. It is unsporting conduct to verbally distract your opponent (yelling loudly as they try to play/jump up for the ball was a common one I saw in my youth days). In this case, it's not the deception inherent in the trick play that should have got the Red Bulls in trouble, but the fact that the referees have inadvertently helped the ruse.
Trick corners are a legal play, though there are some fairly clear rules about such things. A coach, in this case Jesse Marsch, isn't allowed to give specific instructions such as "Let Kljestan take it" because that's above the tactical instructions he's allowed to give verbally in this situation. Such instructions would be considered intentionally deceiving an opponent and punishable with an indirect free kick, but in this case there are other things that affected the play. If Chapman and his assistant been clearer on the ready-to-play whistle, the deception still could have worked and been a legal play. However, in this case the procedures for governing a restart fell apart, or at a minimum were not clear, and it allowed the Red Bulls to get away with one.
It's not the fact that the deception here is illegal, not entirely anyway - as Austin points out on a point-by-point basis in his article. Rather it's that the referees have facilitated a competitive imbalance: the Fire isn't fooled by RBNY's quick-thinking at the corner flag, instead it's the conduct of the referees that unwittingly tricks the Chicago players into believing Kljestan is approaching a ball that is dead until he kicks it. Even Kljestan doesn't seem to be sure of the situation: we must assume he asks the AR for clarification until someone reveals exactly what was said between them.
The issue of competitive imbalance is often why quick restarts are whistled dead by referees: to keep what can be a legal play fair for all sides as the center official addresses other issues surrounding the play. Referees don’t always need to whistle to signal ready-for-play, but in this case after Chapman addressed an issue in the penalty area (the three sharp whistles), there should be more a clear indication that the ball is ready for play.
Because the timing here is so strange - there are whistles all throughout Sam maneuvering the ball on the corner arc as Kljestan walks up - the two errors in my opinion are the AR not stepping in front of Sacha to delay the restart as Chapman settles things down in the box, and then Chapman never giving a clear read- to-play signal. He didn't need to whistle again: a point or indication over to Kljestan in the corner would have sufficed. Instead, the AR allows the feint to go through - putting Chicago in a position where it has been tricked by the referee rather than its opponent.
Again, these are teaching moments for everyone involved. Allen Chapman and his crew will work on communicating during dead-ball situations and giving clear indications as to when the ball is in play to all sides. The Chicago Fire will not fall asleep at the wheel again to such childish playground tactics, because they deserved three points yesterday regardless of this play. The Red Bulls will likely not get many chances to repeat this stunt because everyone will be watching them - sneaking up to the top of the Eastern Conference and scoring on trickeration corner kicks will tend to put more eyes on you.
Most importantly, PRO should never, ever publicly critique a referee in the middle of a game again. Aside from boundary calls, and for the most part offside plays, almost every rule in the book is subjective in that it is contingent on the referee's viewpoint. I can argue that the Red Bulls didn't do anything wrong here, and the onus is on the officials to be more concise with their explanations, instructions and calls during a game just as well as I can assert the technicality that Lloyd Sam touched the ball to many times in the corner arc with his feet.
But that's the easy, literal way out. No one wins or learns anything from reading the rule book directly. There's a common practice to how plays in soccer are called. I constantly say that consistency is sometimes better than being right, because "right" is subjective when it comes to refereeing.
This play should have been handled better on many different levels by the refereeing crew and it wasn't. It's not as simple as saying Lloyd Sam touched the ball too many times and you didn't see it - and if that's what PRO actually thinks is wrong with this play then it's no wonder I keep having to write this column.