As an ongoing service to our noble readers, we are starting a series in which we will be examining critical referee decisions affecting Atlanta United games. In this series I will draw on my experience as a USSF certified referee, as well as my childhood watching my dad referee in England (including a memorable game in which he sent off an entire team) and finally passing that knowledge on to my own sons. It’s a family thing, you understand.
We have a doozy to kick the series off with: the sending-off of Yamil Asad in Saturday’s game in Toronto. The question here is: did Asad deserve a red card?
Before I answer the question, I would recommend watching the incident on MLS Live if you have a subscription. Most of us probably watched the game on Fox Sports South, but MLS Live uses only one feed for each game and in this case used the TSN feed from Canada. The commentary throughout is an example of how sports commentary should be: unbiased, accurate and informative. Stellar work by the TSN team. To skip directly to the incident, jump to 1:39:50 of the full match replay.
So, the answer: it doesn’t matter. I say that because no official on the field had an adequate angle to view the clash clearly enough to judge. A rule of thumb in refereeing is if you didn’t see it, you can’t call it. This was in fact a very good example of why VAR is potentially a good thing.
That aside, referee David Gantar and his crew got just about everything wrong here. Here’s what happened: Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono rolls the ball to Eriq Zavaleta, who proceeds to dribble upfield. Yamil Asad is about 10 yards away and behind Zavaleta to his left, but within his angle of view, and charges in to apply pressure. Zavaleta passes the ball to Steven Beitashour, after which he collides with Asad and the referee blows his whistle. Gantar’s position relative to the play was in the center circle a good ten yards away and nearly parallel with Asad’s left shoulder (the shoulder away from the contact). In other words, Asad’s entire body was blocking his view of the play. He may have seen Asad’s right arm come up, and he certainly saw Zavaleta go down, but I am not sure what infraction he thought he saw.
Immediately after the clash (which Gantar blew dead at 73:18 on the game clock), he appears to simply want to talk to Asad. However, with Zavaleta still on the ground, at 74:22 Gantar puts his hand over the ear with the headset and starts talking. The only person he may talk to is the assistant referee on that side of the field. However, that AR cannot have had a good view of the incident as the teams were very spread out. He would have been deep in the Atlanta half level with the offside line, at least thirty yards away if not more. The play was well outside his “quadrant” (the quarter of the field in which he is required to observe play closely) and his opinion should have been irrelevant. But right after that conversation, Gantar issues the red card. It appears that the clash was shown on the stadium big screen, a major no-no. I do not think that Gantar himself saw it as he was busy talking to players the entire time. My guess is the AR saw it and relayed the information to him. But this is information that the referee is not permitted to consider.
Careful review of the tape shows that what actually happened is that as Zavaleta passed the ball, Asad had caught up to him. Knowing this, he raised his arm and leaned in to Asad in order to block him. Asad, in an attempt to get around him, raised his right arm in a swim move like defensive linemen use to evade blockers in football, and in doing so clipped Zavaleta’s head with his elbow. At 75:25 on the game Michael Parkhurst can be seen imitating the move when talking to Drew Moor. Parky, who would have been as far away as the AR, obviously also saw the stadium screen. Here’s the key point that the TSN crew got right: one of them states after seeing the replay that “Zavaleta tried to obstruct Asad”. This is spot on. Obstruction—or impeding as it is now known—was once a much-called infringement but is now rarely whistled. Because of his position, Gantar could not have seen this so I would not criticize him for missing it. If he had seen it, the correct restart would have been an indirect free kick to Atlanta, regardless of any foul committed after that.
A key question is whether Asad used “excessive force” in order to get around Zavaleta. That is the standard for a red card to be issued. USSF guidelines describe this as force exceeding that “necessary to make a fair play for the ball and [places] the opponent in considerable danger of bodily harm”. A casual look at the play might suggest that Asad gave Zavaleta a forearm smash to the head. If so, the sending-off was fully justified. But as explained above, Asad raised his arm in order to avoid Zavaleta’s illegal block. The contact was therefore accidental and partly Zavaleta’s own fault. In my opinion, Asad was at worst careless in the challenge, which merits no card at all (for a yellow, recklessness is required).
Additionally, MLSsoccer.com reports the red card was issued for violent conduct. This is questionable. A violent conduct assessment is only applicable when a player is not challenging for the ball; if he is making such a challenge, the card should be issued for serious foul play. Since Asad was clearly attempting to get to the ball, even though it had been passed, I think the latter would have been the proper sanction to cite.
The shenanigans didn’t end there, though. Both benches got heated, and Martino was out of his technical shouting at someone, probably Greg Vanney. At 76:02 the fourth official can be seen talking to someone on the Atlanta bench behind Martino. That turned out to be Jorge Theiler, who was stomping around. At 76:25 the referee ejects him from the game. My feeling is that Theiler took one for the team and for Martino here. Note however that this was not a sending-off. Gantar does not use a red card; he just points at him. Under the rules, cards can only be issued to players and substitutes on the bench.
Still not done! Play resumes when Gantar whistles the kick to be taken at 76:53. That was 3 minutes and 35 seconds of elapsed time since the original whistle. But only 4 minutes were added at the end of the half. That implies only 25 seconds of other stoppages in the half, an entirely unlikely scenario, especially in a second half. Since Atlanta were playing down a man, that’s probably the best part of the entire debacle.
What do you think? Should Asad have been sent off? Should TFC be sanctioned for showing the incident at the stadium? Did Theiler do the right thing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.