On July 18, 2012, Toronto FC continued its recent good form (after a truly horrible start to the season) and defeated Colorado Rapids 2:1 before home crowd at the BMO Field. This was an important game to both teams which were seemingly heading in the opposite direction. Toronto FC was playing for its third win in a row. Colorado, on the other hand, was trying to avoid its fourth loss in a row. Ultimately, Toronto FC prevailed and continued its remarkable recent resurgence while Colorado’s search for a better form goes on.
But the game was also remarkable for a controversial refereeing decision. In the second minute of the game, Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens brought down in the penalty area Toronto striker Eric Avila. As you watch the video, you clearly see that Pickens pulls down Avila down to the ground and successfully prevents him from taking a shot at the goal. Mr. Ismail Elfath, the match referee, correctly pointed to the spot. As the situation continues to unfold, you can see Mr. Elfath reaching to his back pocket (presumably for a red card), but then he appears to change his mind and instead begins to reach to his front jersey pocket (presumably for a yellow card). In the end, neither yellow nor red card came out and Pickens escaped from the entire encounter without any punishment!
Mr. Elfath erred and Pickens should have been sent off for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity. Indeed, Pickens misconduct was a textbook example of what constitutes a foul that denies “an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.” Law 12 states that a player must be sent off, if he denies “an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offense punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick.” In addition, IFAB clarified that “a player must be sent off if he denies an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by holding an opponent.” Finally, IFAB explained that “referees should consider the following circumstances when deciding whether to send off a player for denying a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity:
the distance between the offence and the goal
the likelihood of keeping or gaining control of the ball
the direction of the play
the location and number of defenders
the offense which denies an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity may be an offence that incurs a direct free kick or an indirect free kick”
USSF also spoke on the subject and, in its September 16, 2002 Memorandum titled Obvious Goal-Scoring Opportunity Denied (the 4Ds), stated that “Law 12 provides that a defender whose violation of the Law prevents a goal or denies an obvious goal-scoring opportunity must be sent off and shown the red card. The 'professional foul' which is taken in a cynical attempt to prevent opponents from scoring requires a quick, firm response by the referee. Such misconduct by the defender overshadows the severity of the foul itself. In order for a player to be sent off for denying an 'obvious goal-scoring opportunity', four elements must be present:
Number of Defenders -- not more than one defender between the foul and the goal, not counting the defender who committed the foul
Distance to goal -- the closer the foul is to the goal, the more likely it is an obvious goal-scoring opportunity
Distance to ball -- the attacker must have been close enough to the ball at the time of the foul to have continued playing the ball
Direction of play -- the attacker must have been moving toward the goal at the time the foul was committed
If any element is missing, there can be no send off for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. Further, the presence of each of these elements must be "obvious" in order for the send off to be appropriate under this provision of Law 12.”
Again, Pickens misconduct was a textbook example of what constitutes a foul that denies “an obvious goal-scoring opportunity” and his actions met all of the criteria specified by IFAB and USSF:
Distance to Goal: When Pickens makes contact with Avila, the Toronto FC striker is no more than 8/9 yards away from the goal and he is in the central part of the penalty area.
Number/Location of Defenders: There are three Colorado defenders in the vicinity but the one closest to the action is at least 3 yards behind Avila and Pickens when the fould is committed.
Direction of play: Avila is directly in front of Colorado's goal and sprinting pass Pickens. He is most definitively moving straight towards Colorado’s goal.
Control/Distance to the Ball: Avila is clearly in control of the ball when Pickens makes contact with him. Even after the contact, Avila would have been able to get to the ball if Pickens did not pull him down.
There is no doubt that Pickens deserved to be sent off because his professional foul denied Avila an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. The referee’s failure to punish it with a red card was surprising. The only other more surprising development during this entire episode was that Pickens received no punishment at all - not even a yellow card! We speculate that the fact that this was only the second minute of the game influenced the referee’s decision here. But the timing of the foul has no bearing on the punishment for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity and Pickens should have been sent off.