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Examining the Two Controversial Decisions from Orlando City’s Season Opener

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After a last-gasp 1-1 draw, we analyze Will Johnson’s handball, PC’s sending off, and VAR in MLS.

MLS: D.C. United at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago today, Darren Mattocks and his teammates would have pleaded their case for a handball to no avail and the call would have stuck. A year ago today, Victor “PC” Giro would have gotten on with the season opener with only a yellow card. But of course…a year ago today, Major League Soccer hadn’t yet installed every Orlando supporter’s favorite acronym: the VAR.

Standing for “Video Assistant Referee,” the VAR is a member of the officiating crew that is stationed in a booth surrounded by an array of monitors that feature the same feeds that the broadcasters will utilize. The VAR is tasked with scouring these monitors for any obvious errors from incorrect calls/non-calls in certain situations and to communicate these errors with the referee.

In MLS play, the VAR is limited in what it can review: goals, penalty kicks, straight red cards, and cases of mistaken identity are permitted to be reviewed via the “check” of a VAR. When a “check” is initiated, the VAR will request that the head official stop play while the possible error is being reviewed. If the error is confirmed by the VAR, it will request the referee to review the same footage. The ref may reject this request, but typically decides to review the footage and make a decision after.

Two gestures from the referee will clue you in on this when this process is taking place during a match. The first is when he points to his ear piece. This informs us of the VAR’s intent to “check” the play in question. The second comes when the referee agrees with the VAR’s desire to review the play in question, and makes a rectangular, TV-like shape with his hands to signify that the review will be conducted.

Unfortunately for those in attendance at Orlando City Stadium for the Lions’ season opener against D.C. United, these gestures were brandished more than once — and never in the home side’s favor.

The Penalty

It was the 19th minute and D.C. United’s Mattocks was working his way down the left flank on a beeline for the byline — something he’s practiced successfully for years. He reached the byline, squared himself with Will Johnson who was coming across the field toward him, and lifted his eyes to find any potential suitors for a quick cross. He saw one. But instead of placing the ball into space or at the feet of a teammate, Mattocks’ cross collided with Johnson’s arm — just a few feet away and within the confines of the penalty box.

The initial reaction from referee Fotis Bazakos? No dice, play on. The Red and Black would not have been awarded a penalty.

Then, all of a sudden, Bazakos’ hand ascended to eye level and he performed the dreaded pointing gesture to indicate that a VAR “check” was in progress. Geoff Gamble, the VAR assigned for the match, wanted a second look. A few moments later, Bazakos made the rectangular gesture, went to the sideline for video review, then returned shortly and changed his decision to award D.C. a penalty kick.

Was the ruling correct?

Technically speaking, it could be argued. But then again, anything could be argued. Johnson’s arm was at his side and the initial ruling was that it was not a penalty. I felt that this was the just ruling, especially considering the close proximity of Johnson to Mattocks and the fact that Johnson’s arm was not flailing about in an attempt to hinder the movement of the ball. It seemed more ball to hand than the other way around. I found myself asking two questions following the decision:

  1. What was Johnson’s intent? It was clear to me that Johnson had no intention of handling the ball. His arm was at his side and that’s where it’s supposed to be. Typically speaking, when the defender’s arm is at his side and he’s within a close proximity to the attacker, this is a non-divisive issue that is usually allowed to play on.
  2. Where was Mattocks’ cross headed had it not collided with Johnson’s arm? This one is a bit less relevant to the actual call, but it still came to mind. Even Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis found himself pondering the call during his post-match interview:

“Initially I thought there would be no way that the penalty decision would go against us,” Kreis said, “because from my point of view it looked like arms were down and anytime there’s a ball that’s played that quickly from somebody’s foot to somebody’s arm in the penalty box on really what looks like a non-decisive situation...ask yourself a question, if it doesn’t hit his hand, where does it go? But I haven’t seen any video on it so I could be completely wrong.”

So sure, it probably shouldn’t have been reversed...but then again, at least we’ve got ole reliable Joe Bendik back there between the sticks to save the resulting spot kick:

The Red Card

This one seems to have fans a bit more divided. In the 39th minute, D.C.’s Yamil Asad and Orlando’s PC were vying for a loose ball in the middle third. As PC was rising to meet the ball, he was ever so slightly pushed off balance from behind by Asad — clearly nothing sinister or vindictive — but still enough of a shove to falter PC’s aerial balance. As PC was airborne, looking to get a touch on the ball that was now behind him, and quite likely disoriented, his left arm swung backwards into the back of Asad’s head.

The initial reaction from Bazakos? After a moment or two of thought, he gave a yellow card to PC. PC would have been able to continue the match.

Yet, after an extended, and quite honestly, confusing stoppage in play following the foul, Gamble again contacted Bazakos to inform him that he wanted to perform a “check.” Seconds melted to…well, tens of seconds, and the tens of seconds soon grew into minutes. Finally, after several minutes of film spotting, Bazakos returned, sauntered over to PC, and wielded the abhorrent red card over his head.

Was the ruling correct?

I’m going to be honest here: my gut reaction was one of disdain. My first thought was “get him off the pitch,” which is strange because Bazakos’ reaction was essentially the opposite; only a booking. What’s even stranger to me is that Bazakos walked away from the replay seeing red, because I again came to a contradictory conclusion. Once I personally viewed the replay a few times, I quickly realized that Asad had given PC a push in the back just prior to PC’s foul. PC’s arm swinging was almost entirely a result of being thrown off balance midair.

I’m going to be honest here again: I felt very guilty once I realized that it was unintentional. Sure, Asad took a little bump to the back of the head, but it was an inadvertent bump that was borne of his own doing. PC should have only seen yellow, and Asad should have been warned or booked.

Where Does This Leave Us?

There should be no doubting the fact that the VAR brings legitimate value to an officiating crew. The VAR has overturned obvious errors that were missed by referees, and the technology and its efficiency will only improve over time. Reports out of Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A are that the VAR is largely making a positive impact on rulings. However, it’s important to remember that no person or system is infallible. The VAR makes mistakes, referees make mistakes, and we as supporters just have to roll with the punches as they iron out the kinks.