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PRO Substitution Officiating Fiasco Could Have Been Costly to Orlando City

The match officials bungled the Lions’ late triple substitution and it could have allowed the Crew to tie the game.

Matt Ralph, Brotherly Game

One of the most bizarre sequences in Orlando City’s eight seasons in Major League Soccer took place late in the Lions’ 2-1 Decision Day win over the Columbus Crew. The officiating crew for the match seemed to struggle with a triple substitution by Orlando City in the 89th minute. It led to an unnecessary booking to starting winger Ivan Angulo, the Lions having to defend a Crew set piece with just 10 men, and a lot of confusion on the part of everyone watching.

The Lions had taken a late lead in the 84th minute on a successful Facundo Torres penalty kick and were looking to see out the final few minutes of normal time, plus what promised to be a great deal of stoppage time after a second half that featured a couple of goals, a video review, a hydration break, and several substitutions. Head Coach Oscar Pareja sent Tesho Akindele, Wilder Cartagena, and Andres Perea into the game and planned to withdraw Angulo, Mauricio Pereyra, and Torres. What seemed like a simple matter became a strange and bewildering scene.

Here’s what took place:

Angulo and Pereyra both picked up knocks at the time of the substitution and needed attention from the training staff. Pereyra merely got what looked like a cramp stretched out while Angulo also received treatment. The player numbers went up on the board on the touch line and Orlando’s substitutes waited for the starters to come off the field. Columbus also made a substitution during the stoppage — replacing defender Jonathan Mensah with forward Erik Hurtado — so there was a lot to keep track of in the area between the benches.

That’s not an excuse for what happened next.

On the broadcast, you can hear the fourth official giving Cartagena, Akindele, and Perea instructions that they can go on when the other players came off. Torres was the first to reach the sideline, and Perea went on for him. Pereyra then walked off and Akindele ran onto the pitch. Finally, Angulo was the last to reach the touch line.

The broadcast’s field microphone (which I couldn’t hear in the press box, obviously) picked up fourth official Eric Tattersall telling Angulo where he should wait to go back on the pitch after his injury, but Tattersall apparently didn’t know that Angulo had been subbed off. Orlando had only 10 men when Columbus restarted play.

Seeing his team playing a man down, Angulo ran back onto the field and referee Alex Chilowicz, who had his back to the sideline and couldn’t see Angulo, must have been radioed about the Orlando winger returning to the pitch. Chilowicz whistled to stop play and booked Angulo, sending him back to the touch line. Orlando’s bench was incensed at the confusion and Cartagena continued to wait without permission to go on. Tattersall could be heard trying to send assistants back to the technical area at this point. Both Angulo and Cartagena were standing nearby, still lost in confusion.

The game restarted with a free kick in a dangerous area near the right corner of the box and Orlando City having only 10 men on the pitch. Cartagena was finally allowed on the field during play while Pedro Gallese was catching a cross from Aidan Morris.

After the match, questions were sent from the press box via pool reporter Mike Gramajo to the officials’ dressing room, asking for clarification on what happened during those late subs.

Because we aren’t allowed to speak directly to the referee after the game, the pool reporter is the MLS mechanism by which the media can receive feedback from match officials on why calls were or were not made. One “pool reporter” is selected to be the point of contact for all of the assembled media, and questions are usually formulated via group effort. And it takes some critical thinking to present a question in a way that will hopefully provide a helpful response, because, to be frank, we sometimes get some pretty smartass answers — or non-answers — and rarely get any useful explanation. In terms of Sunday’s fiasco on the field, the questions were put forth at Austin David’s urging.

The truth is that despite the Professional Referee Organization’s (PRO’s) assertion under former leader Howard Webb that PRO wanted to be more helpful and transparent with the media, very little useful information is ever gleaned from answers to the pool reporter’s questions, and often the answers seem to be the bare minimum that is required, with little thought given to the job we’re trying to do of telling readers what happened.

On Sunday, it inexplicably took three and a half hours to get a response to the questions Gramajo sent as the game was concluding. This was the (eventual) response, which Mike emailed to me when it finally arrived:

1. WHAT WAS THE REASON WILDER CARTAGENA WAS NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER THE GAME FOR IVAN ANGULO IN THE 90TH MINUTE?

Multiple Orlando City substitutions were taking place at the same time. When Orlando City presented their substitution cards to the 4th official, Angulo was not being replaced by Cartagena, but rather by Akindele. However, Akindele ran onto the field early, prior to Angulo coming off. Akindele entered when Pereyra came off the field, who was actually being replaced by Cartagena.

2. AFTER ANGULO CAME OUT, WHY WAS ORLANDO FORCED TO PLAY WITH 10 PLAYERS?

When Angulo finally came off the field, due to the confusion caused by Akindele entering the field early, the officials held Cartagena off the field while they established exactly who was replacing who. This meant that Orlando City were temporarily down to ten players. This was an error by the match officials, who should have allowed Cartagena onto the field of play prior to the game re-starting, as both players who were being substituted had left the field of play by that time.

First off, it’s stupid that it took 3.5 hours to get a response to these two questions. Second, the answers are, as usual, wholly unsatisfying.

The response to the first question indicates that Akindele presumably ran onto the field to replace the wrong player. This was permitted by the fourth official and if it was in error, he should have been sent back to the touch line to replace Angulo when Angulo came off. If he did not have the fourth official’s permission to enter, he should have been booked. There was no indication live, or from anything the broadcast picked up, that Akindele was in the wrong or that he didn’t have permission to go on. So, if he was to replace Angulo and not Pereyra, that’s on the match officials.

The response to the second question actually blames Akindele — not the officials, whose very job it is to adjudicate the match — for causing the confusion during that period. Better handling of the substitutions was necessary in that instance, and it’s harsh to blame it on the Orlando player, who only knows he’s been told he is to go on when his teammate comes off.

The response by the referee to the second question also admits that the crew was at fault for not letting Cartagena onto the field before the restart. That admission would have been of no comfort whatsoever to Orlando City players, coaches, staff, or fans if the Crew had scored on the free kick, knocking the Lions out of the playoffs. (And it’s helpful here to remember that an erroneously awarded corner kick allowed Austin to draw Orlando, and an admittedly [by PRO itself] wrong overturning of an Ercan Kara goal in Chicago, helped put the Lions in that precarious postseason position to begin with).

And let’s talk about that free kick. The Crew took the initial restart from further up the field. But after Angulo ran back on to keep his team from being down a man, and Chilowicz booked him and sent him back to the sideline, an indirect free kick was awarded in a much more dangerous position for the visitors. Columbus had a numbers advantage on an extremely dangerous set piece in a one-goal game with a playoff spot on the line!

I will grant that tracking a large number of simultaneous substitutions seems like it might have its difficulties, but this wasn’t opening day. It was Match Day 34. If PRO officials can’t figure out how to give one team a single sub and the other team a triple substitution correctly in the same window after 33 prior weeks of games, it’s simply unacceptable.

The organization needs to do a thorough audit of its member referees to ensure they know the rules and procedures of the substitution process — and how to properly enforce those rules and procedures — to prevent this from ever happening again. This idiocy could have cost a team a postseason berth.

Match officials are humans (allegedly) and therefore not immune to mistakes, but this one seemed particularly egregious on a procedure that should be routine.

Get it together, PRO.