Sometimes, one referee decision can influence and overshadow the entire match and stir a lot of controversy. The first-leg of the Eastern Conference Championship match between DC United and Houston Dynamo gave rise to such controversy. In the 48th minute of the game – at the time when DC United was leading Houston Dynamo 1:0 – DC United midfielder Raphael Augusto and Houston Dynamo defender Andre Hainault were locked in a fierce foot-race and battle for the ball. Sprinting towards the Dynamo’s goal, both players tried to outmuscle each other. As United’s Augusto appeared to get upper hand over his Dynamo opponent, in a desperate attempt to prevent Augusto from a one-on-one encounter with his goalkeeper, Dynamo’s Hainault hooked his arm around Augusto’s arm and dragged him down to the ground stopping the dangerous attack. As the video below shows, all of this took place merely two or three yards away from the penalty area with no one other than the goalkeeper in front of the two players. Referee Ricardo Salazar, however, who was directly behind and also a few yards away from the encounter, did not spot any infringement and let the play continue.
We must admit, and totally sympathize with Mr. Salazar, that Hainault’s foul was almost impossible to spot. Indeed, unless you were facing the two players battling for the ball, it was impossible to notice Hainault’s pull of Augusto’s arm. We also cannot fault Mr. Salazar’s positioning as the situation developed quickly and he was, in fact, only a few yards behind the action. Unfortunately, Mr. Salazar’s angle did not allow him to have a clear view of the fast developing encounter. After the game, Mr. Salazar explained that “I judged this play as two guys coming together, and no offense was spotted. Based on my angle, there was contact by both players, and therefore no offense was identified.” It was also reported, however, that Mr. Salazar claimed that “even if there was a foul, it wouldn’t have been a red card because, ‘it is possible there were other defensive players in the area.’”
Peter Walton, the head of the Professional Referee Organization, stated that “from the angle I saw in the stadium I thought it was a foul.” He further explained that “speaking to Ricardo afterwards, he didn’t have the angle I had. He [Ricardo Salazar] thought it was two players coming together and not a foul.” Asserting that the Dynamo defender, even if the foul was called, did not deserve a red card, Mr. Walton opined that “the tracking defender could have influenced the outcome of that particular play and the benefit of the doubt would go to the defending team in a situation of a denial of a goal scoring opportunity.”
We recently wrote about the application of Law 12 in the context of “denying goal obvious opportunity” but it makes sense to re-publish the pertinent provisions of Law 12 and of the USSF guidance here again. 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”
Reiterating the IFAB’s guidance, USSF’s September 16, 2002 Memorandum titled Obvious Goal-Scoring Opportunity Denied (the 4Ds), stated that “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.”
If, based on the video footage you determine that the foul was committed (as Mr. Walton did), we believe that Hainault’s foul satisfied all of the elements required for a foul denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity. First, while there are two Dynamo defenders in the area, both of them are a fair distance to the left and to the right respectively of the ensuing struggle for the control of the ball between Augusto and Hainault. Both of these defenders were also behind the action. Put it another way, there were no defenders between the foul and the goal (not counting the defender who committed the foul). Second, the foul was committed on top of the penalty area and was therefore very close to the goal. Third, Augusto was close to the ball. Indeed, he was winning the fight for the control of the ball and would have been able to continue the play but for the foul. Fourth, Augusto and Hainault were, in fact, sprinting directly towards the goal. Under these circumstances, having met all of the required elements for a foul denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity, Dynamo’s Hainault should have been sent off.
Thus, while we agree with Mr. Walton that the foul was committed, we disagree with his and Mr. Salazar’s assessments that the foul, if called, would not have required a send off. Please let us know what you think.
One last thought: there was some commentary on our Facebook page that Augusto actually committed a foul and illegally pushed Hainault with his “stiff” arm. We actually believe that it was a fair shoulder-to-shoulder challenge. As we noted above, both players fought to establish their position to win control over the ball. In the end, Augusto was stronger and simply outmuscled Hainault. We spotted no infringement on Augusto’s part.
UPDATE:Peter Walton has clarified a comment he made to NBC network and mentioned in our article above. After watching the incident again, Walton clarified that “in review of that play, my opinion has changed in as much as the defender, which I thought in real time would have influenced the play, clearly was behind the action and therefore the disciplinary sanction should have been a red card for denial of a goal scoring opportunity. Mr. Walton added that “I made the intial statement on my real time opinion without having the advantage of a replay. Having reviewed the replay, it is clear it (the foul) ticks all the boxes for a denial of a goal scoring opportunity and a send-off should have been the outcome.” Mr. Walton’s clarifying statements are fully in accord with our assessment of the incident.