The backpass rule in soccer, implemented in the early 1990s to pep up the tempo of matches, is an example of where high-level legislation has definitely improved the sport. And as instances where players attempt to skirt this rule are rare, so are the whistles for alleged violations.
In most cases, defending players get the benefit of the doubt when balls come off their foot and finish in the goalkeeper’s hands, and that’s certainly the correct approach.
So why in the world referee Jorge Gonzalez would choose this moment last night in Chester, Penn., to issue the rare, indirect free kick just 8-9 yards from goal, only he could say.
But Gonzalez did, in fact, whistle for a violation of the backpass rule as Chivas USA eventually fell to Philadelphia, 3-1. Worse yet, it was late in a 1-1 match, when referees are obliged to be quite sure of any decisions that will turn a match … as this one surely did.
Watch below as Chivas USA defender Edgar Mejia slides (almost lunges, really) to challenge Philadelphia’s Conor Casey on a 50-50 ball near Chivas USA goal. The ball bounces fortuitously to goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, who surely thinks nothing of picking up the slick thing.
Why would he? Who could possibly think that Mejia was actually attempting such a dicey gambit, sliding in on rain-soaked turf to play a cheeky little ball to his ‘keeper while under a serious challenge from a notorious tough tackler? It’s almost unthinkable.
Who might think so? I’ll tell you who … Jorge Gonzalez. (Ironically, this is the same referee who had a very bad day at PPL Park back in May, after which Philly manager John Hackworth had some quite candid comments on the man in the middle.)
Chivas players were so incensed that Josue Soto bumped Gonzalez and was issued a second yellow card, leaving Chivas to face the wet music a man down. A 1-1 match devolved quickly into a 3-1 loss; Philadelphia scored on the ensuing free kick and then got another late, insurance goal.
Watch the sequence in question below and see if you can spot any reason at all to make this unusual, controversial call at this time. I watched it over and over hoping to give Gonzalez a break … but I just don’t think he deserves one.
What makes this decision so egregiously awful is this: hand balls in the penalty area or balls that do/don’t cross the goal line can be missed. Those are down to angles and sight lines and sometimes involve quick calculations of intent.
In this case, Friday at PPL Park, it’s really such an easy sequence to legislate. If Gonzalez does nothing – that is, errs toward caution on making such an important call – everybody plays on. Nobody today would talk about this, because there would be absolutely nothing to discuss.
It really was a bad, bad moment for MLS refereeing.