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Was Josef Martinez offside?

It depends.

MLS: Sporting KC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this straight right from the start: all referees hate the offside law. Sometimes we feel that The International Football Association Board (IFAB*) intentionally messes with Law 11 just to mess with our heads. It probably gets more changes over the years than any other Law, and never gets any less confusing. The Law has enough variables in it that it can be nearly impossible to make the right call.

Mark Geiger faced just such a situation Wednesday evening. In the 6th minute Josef Martinez scored what appeared to be a typical Atlanta United early goal. After video review, however, he was judged offside and the goal called back.

Was that the correct decision? To get to that, let’s take a close look at the play itself and the intricacies of the law to make an assessment. First, let’s review the play:

In the play, which begins deep in Atlanta’s half, the first thing that sticks out to me is that I counted at least 4, maybe 5 fouls by Sporting KC in the build-up to the goal. Geiger let all of them go, which as it turns out was good refereeing, as Atlanta was able to take the advantage and create a goal-scoring opportunity. Also in the progress an SKC player goes down clutching his face, which at first glance looks to be simulation, but Leandro Gonzalez Pirez does in fact clip him with his hand, although it was evidently inadvertent as his arm was following a natural running motion.

In any event, the ball ends up in the back of the net and an initial call of a goal is made. On the TV broadcast, at least one fan is seen making the TV screen signal, so it was even known in the stadium that there was a potential offside call to be made. Geiger goes to the monitor and indeed that is his final call.

There is no question that Josef was in an offside position, which is, after all, his default state. But here’s the rub: Josef does not receive the ball directly from Ezequiel Barco. It is in fact last touched by SKC defender Jimmy Medranda.

When a ball goes out of play (for a throw-in, goal kick or corner kick), possession is awarded to whichever team did not touch the ball last before it went out of play. Whether the last player to touch it did so deliberately or not is irrelevant. That makes for a relatively simple decision. If only the offside law was so clear-cut. Here’s what the Law states:

A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save by any opponent) is not considered to have gained an advantage.

So the issue raises two questions. First, did the defender play the ball deliberately? Second, was that play a save? Well, the Law goes on to define a save:

A ‘save’ is when a player stops, or attempts to stop, a ball which is going into or very close to the goal with any part of the body except the hands/arms (unless the goalkeeper within the penalty area).

Well, that was helpful, wasn’t it? Instead of simply answering both questions, which it does only vaguely, it also raises a third question: where was the ball headed?

A more careful look at the play in slow motion might help out here:

Fox’s broadcast helpfully freezes the frame at a key point. At that freeze point, the Atlanta player at the top of the penalty area is Tito Villalba, who is clearly onside. Josef, on the other hand, throughout the whole sequence appears to realize that he is offside and barely moves, as if to indicate that he is out of the play.

Given Tito’s movement, and the direction of the pass from Barco, it is clear that the intended recipient of the pass is Tito, not Josef. Instead, because of Medranda’s intervention, it falls to Josef, who actually looks a bit surprised to get the ball but does with it what a striker is supposed to. At that point he is pretty much committed, because the ball came right to his feet. No point in not playing it, offside or not.

So, back to the 3 questions, adapted to this particular situation:

  1. Did Medranda deliberately play the ball? I think this is beyond doubt. He clearly reaches out with his foot, which would have passed him cleanly had he not done so. Mark Geiger apparently thought it was both an attempt to block the ball and a deflection (see Joe Patrick’s post here). It seems impossible for it to be both, because even an attempt to play the ball counts as playing the ball. However, it is possible if the attempted play was a save...
  2. So was Medranda’s touch a save? Here is where it begins to get even tougher. In fact, we have to answer question 3 first...
  3. Was the ball headed towards or close to the goal? Again, this is rather hard to judge. I would say that it was definitely going wide, but how wide is not easily determined. Besides, what does “very close” mean in this context anyway?

This is where the judgment of the referee has to come into play (although it apparently didn’t get that far in the logic process). I would tend to think it was going wide and therefore the touch was not a save, but then I’m not just a referee, I’m also an Atlanta homer. My guess is Geiger thought otherwise.

So, what do you think: goal or no goal?

* The International Football Association Board is the body responsible for maintaining the Laws of the Game. It is composed of representatives of the four British football associations and FIFA. FIFA does not have, and has never had, direct control of the Laws.