A lesson in refereeing

We have speent a good bit of time on here in recent weeks discussing a wide range of refereeing decisions in Union games. It turns out that one of them got the attention of U.S. Soccer's overseers of officiating. The decision happened a few weeks ago, but with the Union on a 10-day break we have time to revisit the matter.

The play in question was when Danny Mwanga's shorts were grabbed as he broke away towards goal during the game against San Jose at PPL Park. Abbey Okulaja's decision to not call a foul was discussed on U.S. Soccer's Referee Week In Review for that week's matches.

The review is presented as a podcast with accompanying text, and sometimes there are video highlights of the plays in question. This play was part of the Week 15 Review, which you can read here.

The play is a clear definition of what U.S. Soccer calls DOGSO: Denying an Obvious Goal Scoring Opportunity. Theoretically, any clear instance of DOGSO should be whistled as a foul and the defender should be given a red card.

But if the referee believes that a clear goalscoring opportunity can result from playing advantage - i.e. if the player stays on his feet and keeps running despite the contact - then he is entitled to do so.

The FIFA language is as follows:

If the referee applies advantage during an obvious goal scoring opportunity and a goal is scored directly, despite the opponent’s handling the ball or fouling an opponent, the player cannot be sent off but he may still be cautioned.

Whatever you think of the non-call - and I think it should have been whistled as a foul - we can at least make the case that because Mwanga kept going forward, there was a potential for a goal and an advantage call.

But Mwanga didn't score, and that's when Okulaja got it wrong. If a goal is not scored, then the referee is required to give the defender a yellow card at the next stoppage of play. That never happened. Neither of San Jose's two bookings in the match were related to that play, as you can see from my liveblog transcript.

Brian Hall, U.S. Soccer's manager of referee assessment and training (and a former MLS and FIFA ref who was very good at his job), described the situation on the podcast I mentioned above. I'm not entirely sure of the host's name, but I've transcribed the conversation below. There's also a video clip of the play to refresh your memory at the bottom of the post.

Hall: We watched this clip here in the national office multiple times, and we were trying to say: What is the optimum solution? And really, we looked at it and we said this really comes down to the refere's feel on the field.

[Hall then explains the play in detail, and the choices that the referee has about what decision to make. We skip ahead to Hall's analysis.]

Now, as a referee, you've got to decide what is most beneficial for the attacker: a DOGSO stop and red card? Or do I apply the advantage and then hopefully a goal is scored, or you await the outcome, and then you are required to come back and caution the defender for the shirt pull. Because it's unsporting behavior, a tactical foul to try to prevent the attack from occuring.

[Shorts, not shirt, but you get the point.]

In this case, the referee must feel the situation, and given the big picture of the game, come up with the most appropriate decision: DOGSO and red card, or advantage and come back with a yellow card at the next stoppage?

Host: And what it comes down to is, you can apply advantage for a red card foul.

Hall: Exactly right. You canapply the advantage, and most of our listeners may not know, but if you give an advantage for a red card foul that involves DOGSO, and the goal is immediately scored, there is no red card given. In this case, you come back and caution the defender for unsporting behavior because he did not ultimately prevent the obvious goal-scoring opportunity from being denied.

Separately from this, I spoke with U.S. Soccer's director of referee development, Paul Tamberino. His interpretation is a bit different from Hall's, as he said that "advantage must benefit the team. not the player."

"The referee may signal advantage, and then two to three seconds later, bring the play back if the advantage hasn't materlaized," Tamberino added. He then repeated that "the referee always has the ability to call the play back."

Like Hall, Tamberino is a former Major League Soccer referee. So while I had a few moments of his time, I asked for his views on another matter related to the Union's season: the potential for over-refereeing in a game.

By over-refereeing, I mean a referee being too quick to whistle a play when contact might have been incidental. Or, as was the case in the Union's game against Chivas USA, when the contact was non-existent. Remember the push-off Danny Mwanga was called for when Chivas' Ante Jazic tripped over his own feet without contact?

Tamberino wouldn't comment on that specific play. He did, however, offer some insight on what he tells officials about how quickly they should blow their whistles.

"We don't give them any guidance to be too quick or too slow with the whistle," Tamberino said. "What we try to tell them is to feel the game, to see what's going to develop, and whether there's going to be an advantage. But we don't give them any advice on how long they should hold the whistle or how quick they should be."

While I had a few moments of Tamberino's time, I asked him about another controversy that's been swirling around referees recently: the blown calls at the World Cup, and the potential for goal line technology or additional referees on the end lines.

As you may have heard, end line referees will be used in the UEFA Champions League this season as well as the Europa League and SuperCup. Adding the new officials to Champions League games gives the system a huge platform for exposure, as fans around the world will be able to judge how it works.

Because U.S. Soccer takes its core directives from FIFA, Tamberino wasn't able to offer any of his own opinions on how to change the refereeing system. So I asked him to explain what level of jurisdiction the end line officials will have. Will they only be allowed to signal whether the ball crossed the line, or will they be able to call fouls in the box as well?

"Right now we know, from my contacts in Europe, that part of the duties are to patrol the penalty area," Tamberino said. "It's balls crossing the line and helping the referee patrol the line in terms of calling fouls inside the penalty area."

At the end of the day, we all want the decisions to be right - players, fans, journalists and referees alike. For as long as soccer has been around, it changes often and we can all still learn from it. Hopefully this post will help all of us get a better understanding of the game's rules, and how they are interpreted.