The referee blows the whistle and point to the spot. One team begins to argue vehemently, the other lines up, and the goalkeeper sighs in resignation. Penalty kicks are among the most controversial, as well as the easiest, of goal opportunities.
This NWSL season has seen more than its fair share of penalties thus far. Sky Blue and Seattle swapped penalties in their opening match, Nadia Nadim’s goal tally is solely comprised of PKs, and Orlando has given up two on handballs, to name a few examples. In fifteen games there have been seven penalties, a rate of 0.47 per game. For comparison, there were 27 penalties in one hundred games last season, a rate of 0.27 per game. What’s most surprising about that statistic is that most if not all of those calls have been correct.
The past weekend, however, it wasn’t the penalty that was called in Portland that stirred up controversy; it was the penalty that was not.
The handball call against Christen Press for the penalty kick that would prove to be the game winning goal was unfortunate but likely the correct call. FIFA’s Laws of the Game require the referee to take into account deliberate intent, movement of the hand towards the ball, and the distance between the opponent and the ball, but ultimately, like so much of the game, it’s the referee’s call. While there is little more Press could have done to avoid the handball in that situation, her arm was up, the call was made, and Nadim converted.
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 29, 2017
The non-call in question actually happened four minutes prior to the Nadim penalty kick. In the 22nd minute, defender Casey Short played a cross into the Thorns box at near post. Press leapt into the air in an attempt to redirect the ball while goalkeeper Adrianna Franch dove off her line to palm the ball away to safety, catching Press’ legs as she did.
Upon several replays, it appears to me that Press actually reached the ball first, while Franch gets her leg and didn’t appear to touch the ball, which rolled across the endline. If Franch did touch the ball, it was after a bounce.
Red Stars head coach Rory Dames didn’t mince words when talking about the incident.
Deserved better from the game, everyone deserved better from the referees…visiting team coach does not get interviewed here…enjoy!! pic.twitter.com/3PtoyZPDpS
— Rory Dames (@dames_rory) April 29, 2017
To return to the Laws of the Game, FIFA states that a referee may consider an infringement to have occurred if an offense, including tackles, challenges, or trips, is committed in a careless or reckless manner. To go one further, to be considered a denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity, FIFA requires the referee take into consideration the distance between the offense the goal, the direction of play, the likelihood of controlling the ball, and the location and number of defenders.
The goalkeeper is generally going to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to a keeper-field player collision, but it’s not a rule. Can it be argued this was a 50-50 ball? Likely. Would Franch have gained control of the ball? No. She was going out to push or punch the ball away in attempt to reach it before Press. Was it reckless? Probably. Franch was headed for a players’ legs, which always means an entanglement is going to occur, and given how close Press’s head ends up to the goalpost, in retrospect it could have gone badly. While I probably wouldn’t argue a red card situation – there was no intent, and when Franch went for the ball, she had a chance of getting there – it’s a clear foul, and it’s inside the box. Penalty, especially given the call against Press that followed.
Officiating will always be a hot topic. Not a game goes by when we don’t complain about something. As my colleague Dan Lauletta could tell you, it’s much harder than it looks, but when has that ever stopped anyone from being an armchair referee? They’re humans, and they’re going to get some things wrong. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to push for better officiating, because it help the game.
The high rate of penalties is another story. Whether it’s less tolerance from referees, early season sloppiness from defenders, or a combination, the rate shouldn’t be this high. If the trend continues, hopefully coaches take a long look at the goals they’re giving away and figure out how to tighten things up. At the very least, maybe everyone will start keeping their arms down.