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Was Josef Martinez offside?

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An interesting application of Video Assistant Referees

MLS: FC Dallas at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a while since we’ve had a post in the occasional series on refereeing decisions affecting Atlanta United games. Not only have we had relatively few games, but there haven’t been too many controversial calls to examine.

This week, Atlanta fell victim to the video review system. The boos in the stadium were directed at center referee Mark Geiger, who is apparently the referee of choice for historic Atlanta United games. After the opener at Bobby Dodd, he was already no fan favorite here in the South, and did himself no favors with this incident. He’s not exactly well-loved elsewhere either, of course, and in some quarters is known as “the Fiddler” (his name is German for violinist).

However, in this particular case, the vitriol was misdirected. Let me explain.

Josef Martinez took a pass from Yamil Asad, burning his way past FC Dallas defenders Walker Zimmerman and Matt Hedges, who were giving him way too much room on the big new Mercedes-Benz pitch. He got well into the penalty area when he was fouled by goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez. Geiger called the foul, awarded a penalty kick, and showed Gonzalez a yellow card (presumably for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity). All absolutely correct. Then, waiting with Josef at the penalty spot, he covers his ear and is evidently listening to the Video Assistant Referee. This is also correct, as all penalty kicks are subject to video review. He then makes the video review signal, which is usually first seen when the referee is indicating he is about to review the play on a monitor. Instead, he immediately follows that signal by raising his hand. That’s the signal for an indirect free kick (incidentally, by rule, the referee must keep his hand raised until the ball is touched by a second player or goes out of bounds. It’s the worst signal in the Law book; sometimes you have to keep your hand up for quite a while. I hate that).

The only possible infringement that could have resulted in an indirect free kick on that play would be an offside call. So the ball is brought back to where Josef collected the ball, and Dallas awarded the free kick. At the same time, the yellow card to Gonzalez is withdrawn.

Here’s the rub: Geiger did everything absolutely by the book on the entire sequence. The penalty kick call was correct, the yellow card was correct, the reversals of both of those were also correct, as was the indirect free kick.

When he made the video review signal, what he was communicating was that a decision had been made on the basis of the Video Assistant Referee’s recommendation (remember, a VAR never makes an actual call, that remains the center referee’s prerogative). If he had so chosen, Geiger could have reviewed the play to confirm the recommendation. Obviously, he chose not to. Since this was an offside call, I believe that was a good decision. At the least, it was a defensible decision.

Why? Because of all refereeing calls made on a soccer field, offside is the one in which the center referee has the least input. Rarely is he in position to make such a call; instead it is one of the primary responsibilities of the assistant referees. In almost all offside calls, the center ref will defer to the decision of the assistant referee, because the ARs have a much better view on such calls. That is what Geiger did here. It just happened to be the Video Assistant Referee, not one on the field. A center referee can wave off an offside call, but it rarely happens. A second issue is that this was very early in the game, and he likely did not want to cause a greater delay than had already occurred.

So Geiger did everything right. Well, that doesn’t mean the call was right.

In this case, a video review “check” was triggered because a penalty kick was awarded. Had Josef been fouled by a defender outside the box and a free kick given, video review would not have come into effect. A free kick is not considered a sufficiently game-changing event to merit video review.

In performing a check, the VAR has to consider three things. First, was the call itself correct? Second, was there any infringement in the build-up to the call that would have negated it? Third, was any of this a “clear and obvious error”?

We’ve already determined that the penalty kick was correctly called; now we have to consider the other factors.

The build-up is referred to officially as the “attacking phase of play” (APP). That is, everything the attacking team does between gaining possession and incurring the foul is subject to review. Now obviously, that could mean going back quite some time if the attacking team has been passing the ball around a lot, as in fact Atlanta did several times during this game. As Howard Webb, who heads up Video Review for PRO and MLS, has noted that creates a “credibility” problem. In practice, the APP is generally deemed to start at the first forward pass in the sequence directly leading to the foul.

That is somewhat academic in this instance, as Josef was ruled offside immediately before the call. But was he? Here’s a screenshot of the instant of the pass from Asad:

Holding himself onside until the perfect moment is a signature move of Josef’s, which we have seen him use with ruthless efficiency in previous games. He is a master at knowing when to move. Here, you can see him, as well as Zimmerman (in front of him) and Hedges (behind him) all leaning forward, ready to move. This creates a bit of a problem, because a change in the offside law last year decreed that arms and hands are not to be considered when judging offsides. That applies to both attackers and defenders. All three of them have their arms out, to varying degrees. However, in my opinion, based on the roller lines on the field, Josef’s body is dead level with Zimmerman’s, but maybe a hair nearer to goal than Hedges’. He only needs one of them though.

At this point, I will note that Simon Borg of MLSsoccer.com, in his weekly “Instant Replay” review, not only judged this to be offside, but also made it his Call of the Week. Likewise, Brad Friedel deemed it offside in the broadcast, but he is obviously a goalkeeper homer. Also, there’s this guy on Twitter, who determined that Josef was offside by 11 inches:

I asked him how he computes angles in his modeling; the answer was, basically, that he guesses. He did note, however, that it was likely the VAR had access to a better angle on the play, since he receives feeds from every camera in use during the game. That much I agree with. But that also raises the question as to why Fox did not use that better angle in the broadcast. We’ll never know (cough, poor editing, cough).

Finally, was the failure to call the offside a clear and obvious error? We don’t see the AR in the screenshot above (he would be on the near side), so we don’t know how well he was placed to make the call. That doesn’t really matter, though, because even if he was correctly positioned, this is patently a very close call. If Josef was offside, it was only by the narrowest of margins. That is, the VAR should not have overruled the call on the field. Had Geiger chosen to review the play, he may have come to that conclusion and upheld his own decision.

Fortunately, this did not affect the ultimate outcome of the game, and frankly, I’m rather glad that it did not put a stain on what was otherwise a heroic performance in goal by Jesse Gonzalez. However, what it does reveal is that the use of video review is still going through some teething pains, and likely will for some time to come.