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Was Liam Ridgewell’s goal offside?

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"If a player is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then he should be." - Bill Shankly

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

I guess it was inevitable that at some point in this occasional series on refereeing decisions we would end up in a review of the universally detested and often misunderstood offside rule (Law No. 11). Here we have an unusual situation in which there were potentially two offside infractions on the same play. That play was the goal scored by Portland’s WWE transplant Liam Ridgewell to tie the game. I have previously stated that the DOGSO rule is the hardest for referees to evaluate. That is true, but the hardest for assistant referees is almost certainly offside. This is an excellent example of why that is the case.

The goal was scored in the 50th minute off a free kick given on Atlanta’s left wing (which was placed about five yards forward of where the foul occurred, but that’s a whole other issue). The set piece was played with a line of ten players (six Atlanta defenders and four Portland attackers) set up about three yards outside the penalty area. That in itself is enough to give an AR nightmares, as with the constant jockeying for position the precise location of every player at the instant of the kick is very hard to judge.

To illustrate, take a look at this shot of the instant of the kick (apologies for the poor quality!):

Bodies everywhere. Ridgewell, the scorer, is #24. Clearly, he is well ahead of the nearest two defenders, Bloom (#21) and Parkhurst (#3). But the applicable defender to take into consideration is Carmona (#14), who is the deepest of the Atlanta defenders. In the shot above Carmona’s left foot cannot be seen, but it does look as if Ridgewell’s left shoulder is closer to the goal, if only by a fraction. His left arm is clearly in an offside position, but the Law states that “[t]he hands and arms of all players, including the goalkeepers, are not considered.” In other words, if he’s offside it’s by the merest fraction. Pretty much falls in the category of too close to call.

Not that it matters. As I have stated in previous articles, what the referees don’t see doesn’t get called. Take another look at the picture above and note the position of the AR (Ian Anderson). He is at the top of the frame. There are eight bodies between him and Ridgewell, completely obscuring his vision. If he had been on the opposite side of the field, his view would have been unimpaired. That is entirely possible, by the way; although it is traditional for the ARs to patrol the upper left and lower right quadrants, there is no rule requiring this and AR placement is at the referee’s discretion. Also, since a goal was scored, Video Assistant Referee technology will apply in cases like this.

So, Ridgewell was at most marginally offside. But look at the picture again. At the top of the line of players, Roy Miller (#7) is unquestionably in an offside position. Now obviously, Miller did not play the ball. But I am sure that our readers, being Atlanta United fans and therefore obviously of above-average intelligence, especially where it comes to soccer-related matters, know that you don’t actually have to play the ball to be offside. You can, of course, be in that magical condition known as “involved in active play”.

There are two ways to do this. The first is by touching the ball (whether intentionally or not). The second is by “interfering with an opponent”. In turn, there are four ways to interfere with an opponent. From the Laws (page 78), an attacker can interfere by:

  • preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or
  • challenging an opponent for the ball or
  • clearly attempting to play a ball which is close to him when this action impacts on an opponent or
  • making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball

Now take a look at this video clip. You may need to watch it at least twice, because you will need to observe Miller’s movement, and also Alec Kann’s. The clip shows the play from three different angles, including the goal line camera inside the goal post, which is very useful here:

The fact that you may have needed to watch it twice or more indicates how hard this is for an AR to judge. Bear in mind that he also has to be paying attention to when the ball is being played in. ARs are trained to listen for the kick, but in a stadium as loud as Providence Park, that is no easy matter. Even if the kick was audible, there are still at least two areas of the field (the line of players and the goalkeeper), in this case separated by a good 18 yards, for him to observe. The center ref is not likely to be of much help in this situation, as his primary responsibility is noting other infractions.

But let’s go through the four possibilities of interference listed above. Is Miller blocking anyone’s line of vision? Perhaps. It is possible that he briefly unsighted Kann as the ball floated in. Kann does look slightly confused as to where the ball was, so it’s a possibility, but I don’t think that can be ascertained with any certainty, especially at full speed and no replay. Is he challenging for the ball? Obviously not; no opponent is near enough. Is he attempting to play a ball close to him? Well, it went well over him, but he did try to head it, so obviously he thought he was in a position to play the ball. Is he making an obvious action? Clearly he does, since he attempts to head the ball. But do either of these last two impact an opponent, which is needed for an offside to be called? I would say so. The replays, especially the goal line one, show Kann is drawn towards him, moving first to his left. When Miller fails to head the ball, Kann realizes it is going wide right, attempts to reverse direction, loses his footing slightly and is unable to play the ball. This situation is very similar to wide receivers running routes. Only one of them can make the reception; the others are all attempting to draw defenders off. And that is very likely what Miller was trying to do. To keep the hand-oblate-spheroid analogy going, this was offensive pass interference.

In conclusion, Miller’s play qualifies as an offside on at least two grounds, if not three. However, I do not fault the referees for not catching it. On plays like this, chaos reigns and noting every detail of the action is very difficult to do.