One pro player’s traumatic experiences with head injuries

My teammate and I were standing outside RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. It was April 2003, our first home game of the season against the Chicago Fire. It was my first official appearance as a professional soccer player. It was a dream come true.

“Let’s take a picture,” he said. “I feel like this is a day we definitely want to remember.” He handed someone his digital camera, we posed together and smiled.

[Click here for the original article @ThePlayers’Tribune]

I was a 20-year-old rookie — picked No. 1 by D.C. United in the MLS SuperDraft just a few months prior. I hadn’t played against Kansas City in our season opener, so I had made sure to bust my ass in practice that week.

A few days before the game, Coach had even pulled me aside to let me know that he was going to try to get me some minutes. So I put the word out to family and friends.

My parents drove down from New Jersey, my cousin flew in from L.A., some friends came up from the University of Virginia.

But I don’t remember seeing anyone at the match. I don’t remember my name being announced over the loudspeaker. I don’t remember the roar of the crowd and the bright lights.

I don’t even remember stepping onto the field.

Shortly after I came off the bench in the 65th minute, I found myself on the wrong end of a major collision while jumping for a header. I got undercut, flipped over and landed on my head.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the first game of my rookie season was the beginning of the end of my professional soccer career.

The photo we took two hours before the match would be the last thing I remembered until I ended up at the hospital later that night.

I was told that after the game, my mom and dad were waiting outside the locker room for me, but I walked right by them. I didn’t even acknowledge their presence. My team doctor had to explain that I had suffered a head injury and would be heading to the hospital to make sure my brain was not bleeding.

You know when someone claps their hands in front of your face to snap you back into reality? Well, an hour or so later, out of the blue, that’s what I felt happen as I suddenly became aware of where I was. I looked around and noticed my family and friends beside me in the hospital waiting room.

“What are we doing here?” I asked.

“He is still pretty out of it,” I heard my mother tell my father in Armenian. Her voice, and then seeing my family and friends gathered around me, are the first things I can really remember since taking the photograph.

But I still had no idea what had happened.

“Alecko, you hit your head,” the doctors told me.

After a few hours of tests, all the scans on my brain had come back negative for any major brain injury. The only outward sign that anything had happened was the cast on my hand for the three fingers I had broken in the collision.

As for my head, I was told to go home and get some rest, and if there were any problems, to call my team doctor immediately.

I didn’t have any idea how bad the fall was until I got to practice two days later and my coach pulled me into his office.

“Have you seen the video?” he asked me, his voice cracking and eyes welling up with tears. “You’re lucky to be walking, son.”

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He showed me the tape. The slow-motion replay of my entire body weight crashing on top of my head and neck made me nauseous. It wasn’t until then that I also realized I had actually stayed in the game.

I didn’t remember any of it. I just thought, I never want to see that again. And I wouldn’t for the next 12 years.

The crazy thing is, I still didn’t really understand the damage it had done to my brain.

Besides the doctors in the hospital, nobody ever mentioned the word concussion. And after a week of rest, I was back out playing and training with the team. Bullet dodged.

That is how my nightmare began.

Soccer brought my family to this country. My dad, Andranik, grew up an Armenian Christian in Tehran and became one of the best defenders in the history of the Iranian national team.

After playing for Iran at the 1978 World Cup, he was selected to the World All-Star team that played an exhibition game at Giants Stadium against the New York Cosmos.

Immediately after the match, the Cosmos offered him a contract. Despite interest from other top European clubs, my dad decided moving to the U.S. would be the best thing for our family.

So my parents moved with my older brother to New York, and a few years later I was born, more or less with a soccer ball at my feet.

Not a single day went by in my childhood where I didn’t play soccer. Whether in our backyard, or in our basement, or at the park down the street from our house, or with my dad and his teammates — Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Hubert Birkenmeier, even Pelé. To me, they were just friends who were always ready to kick the ball around with me.

Soccer was life for my family. In my elementary school yearbooks, my classmates and I had to write what we wanted to be when we grew up. Other kids wrote the usual: doctor, astronaut, police officer, and so on. Next to my name were three words, “Professional soccer player.”

Even off the pitch, soccer was an integral part of our lives. In 1982, Hubert had opened up Birkenmeier Sport Shop, one of the first and only soccer shops in the U.S. But in 1985, as the Cosmos roster went through a major upheaval, Hubert and my dad both got traded and had to relocate to continue their careers.

My father had a different idea – he would instead choose to retire from pro soccer, buy the shop from Hubert, and plant our family roots in New Jersey.

The shop became my second home — and the place where everyone came to talk soccer. Almost every serious soccer player from northern New Jersey — including men’s national team stars Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Gregg Berhalter, and Giuseppe Rossi — grew up coming to the shop.

Sure, Dad’s store sold the newest cleats or kits, but mostly people would come by to talk soccer with my dad and Hubert, who had returned after finishing his playing career.

Meanwhile, I was busy following in my dad’s footsteps as a player. I was New Jersey’s high school player of the year in 2000 and won the Hermann Trophy as the top player in college soccer in ’02.

By that time, I had already represented the U.S. in the FIFA U-20 World Cup. In ’04, I led the U.S. in scoring during Olympic qualifying. Despite getting my own trials with several European clubs, I knew that I wanted to be close to my family. After my junior season at UVA, I decided to enter the MLS draft.

My first game in MLS was supposed to be one I would never forget. Instead it was one that I cannot remember.

I was fortunate that Carlos Bocanegra, a defender for the Fire in that game, was looking out for my well-being. After I stayed on the field following my injury, he and other players actually alerted the referee and medical staff to get me out of the game.

I’ve since been told that I was saying things that did not make any sense after the collision, cursing at guys, saying we were in San Francisco even as I was standing on the pitch in Washington, D.C.

Most people don’t really think of soccer as a contact sport, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As the game has gotten more physical, and players have gotten faster and stronger, collisions have become more violent. The number of head injuries has been growing rapidly.

Still, most don’t realize the seriousness of head injuries, how to identify them and most importantly, how to treat them.

 

EARTHQUAKE DC UNTED

After getting knocked unconscious in my first game, I was back on the field in a week. All I needed to hear was that I had been cleared to play and that was enough for me.

It was the same story the following season when I was hit in the back of my head after a scuffle broke out during a match. “Just take a week off to get some rest,” our trainers told me.

Once again I thought, As long as I’m cleared then I should be fine, right? That certainly seemed to be the way it worked out. I scored 14 goals that season, made the All-Star team and was named MLS Cup MVP as we won the championship. I was called in to represent the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Everything was going according to plan. Or at least it seemed to be.

What I didn’t know, however, was that those two hits had done lasting damage to my brain. So when I suffered my third concussion less than a year later in 2005, it had an immediate and devastating effect.

With no more than a couple minutes left in a match against the New England Revolution, the knee of their goalkeeper slammed into the side of my head.

It felt like getting hit with a baseball bat.

And then everything went silent, except for the throbbing and pounding inside my head. It was as if my heart had replaced my brain and all I could feel was it beating inside my skull.

“Esky, are you alright?” I heard the referee ask as he stood over me.

“No,” I muttered. “This isn’t good.”

My trainer took me straight into the locker room and for the next few hours, it felt like I was drunk. Time seemed to slow down and my balance was unstable.

As I did after the first two concussions, I took some cognitive tests, and just like the first two times, I passed every one.

But something was different. This time, I felt a pressure in my skull that I had never felt before. Our team doctor noticed my concern and made sure a friend drove me home.

I thought that — again, just like with my first two head injuries — if I just laid low and got some sleep I would feel better in the morning.

But this time I didn’t.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, it felt like there was a cinder block in the back of my head, like blood had just pooled there overnight. The throbbing was still there, too.

I met with a neurologist on Monday. More tests, more passing, more reassurances that everything would be O.K. More instructions to just take it easy and to take some Tylenol if the headaches persisted.

And a week or so later? Cleared to play.

Alecko Eskandarian

But I still felt that something wasn’t right. The pain, the pressure, the weight in the back of my head — they just wouldn’t go away.

I returned to training, where all my coaches and trainers and teammates knew that doctors had cleared me to play. So the mental warfare began. Do I just suck it up? If I’ve been cleared I must be fine, right? No athlete ever wants to be “that guy” sitting out. Ever. Especially for “headaches.”

I felt like I had no choice. I began playing again. I had never before depended on painkillers, but suddenly I needed them badly. After training, my symptoms would get even worse. How many Tylenol am I supposed to take before the pain goes away?

The locker room was not a good place for me to vent my frustration. Every guy in there was playing through some sort of injury. Any mention of my discomfort and the ribbing would start.

Man, you’re sitting out for that?

Oh, trying to get another vacation day?

I wish I could get a day off every time I had a headache.

Nobody understood what I was going through. But I was determined to beat this thing. I focused all my energy on sucking it up, getting back on the field — for my livelihood, for my career. After missing games for three straight weeks, I was back training and finally set to return to the starting lineup.

But a few days before the game, as I was driving home to my Georgetown apartment after practice, I suddenly experienced a headache so sharp that I could actually hear it. You know that sound when a microphone screeches? That terrible, piercing ring that keeps rising?

I had to close my eyes. I swerved across three lanes of traffic. How I didn’t end up in a car accident I’ll never know.

I immediately called my trainer and asked to meet with a new neurologist in order to get a second opinion. The next day at the doctor’s office, I told him everything I had been through, starting with the collision in the first game of my rookie year. He just looked at me in disbelief.

“If you play soccer and you get hit in the head again, you might die,” he said.

He told me that I would have to be shut down for a minimum of two months, until I was completely symptom free. No physical activity — nothing that would raise my heart rate until the headaches went away.

For the next 10 months, I was a ghost.

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I stopped answering the phone. I stopped going out with my friends. I used to be the happiest guy in the locker room, always ready to share a story or play a practical joke.

Now, I would sit in my apartment and watch the hours go by. I struggled to eat more than one meal a day. It was torture to go to games at the stadium to support my teammates. The atmosphere at RFK — which I had once thrived on — now triggered headaches.

The thing I loved most in this world had been taken away from me and I didn’t know what to do.

I just felt isolated and helpless. And honestly, I was terrified about not knowing what was going to happen. If I was going to recover, or if the depression was going to consume me.

The worst part about my recovery was that no one was able to see what I was going through. To the naked eye, you would have thought I was fine.

I wasn’t. I didn’t know if the headaches would ever go away. If I’d ever feel like myself again. I didn’t know if I’d ever return to the field.

Most people thought I was done. About a week before one of the last games of the season, I got Facebook messages from members of the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava, two D.C. United supporters groups.

“At the next match just make sure you have a good view of our supporters’ section in the 11th minute.”

That weekend, I went to the match and looked to where the Screaming Eagles sit. At the 11th minute, they held up a huge banner.

 

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I got pretty emotional about it. I mean, of course it was an incredible gesture from the fans to let me know that they hadn’t forgotten about me —but it was also like, Holy shit, it’s as if I’ve died.

At that point, it actually felt like I already had. I was pretty much ready to risk my life for the game. I was only 22, and I might have been romanticizing things a bit, but more than once I had thought to myself, I’d rather die on the field than never play again.

It all sort of reached a boiling point when I went back home to New Jersey for the off-season. I’d always been close with my parents, but because of everything I’d been going through, I was not a pleasant person to be around. When I was living in D.C., I had grown increasingly frustrated any time they would call to ask if I was feeling any better.

“No, I still have headaches. Every day is the same. Please stop asking.”

Being back home, I had family support to lean on, but I rejected it. I started to feel sorry for myself, and with the holidays around the corner, I became annoyed about how cheery everyone was.

I thought, My life’s work is being taken away from me. I have no idea if I’ll ever get better, and you want me to buy presents, put up Christmas decorations and sing carols?

I knew that I had to start digging myself out the hole I was in — not just to play soccer again, but to have any sort of life period. I set up a treadmill that my brother and I had gotten for my parents and started running.

Two minutes without a headache. Next day, five minutes. The next, 10 minutes. I started doing crossword puzzles to keep my brain active. I made sure my brain was at full rest for a certain number of hours a day — no TV, no reading, no straining whatsoever. I basically re-calibrated my entire life.

Soon, the weight and the pressure in my head started to subside, and life felt more … normal. And when preseason rolled around in February, I had been symptom-free long enough to rejoin the team.

We took things easy at first, but eventually, I found myself back on the pitch at RFK Stadium for our season-opener — and scoring off a left-footed volley.

I knew there were still uncertainties with my head, but I made the All-Star team again that season, and was one of the league’s top goal scorers. I even scored in an exhibition game against Real Madrid in front of 70,000 fans. I was back. My teammate Josh Gros started calling me “the Truman Show.”

“Your life couldn’t be any more scripted,” he said.

I have to admit, everything felt so surreal. I thought, Am I still concussed and dreaming all of this? I played every game and celebrated every goal like it was my last, because I knew it could have been.

LA Galaxy v New York Red Bulls

And four years later, on July 19, 2009, I did play my last game. Call it piss-poor luck or a heartbreaking twist, but I suffered my fourth concussion while playing for the L.A. Galaxy when an opposing defender inadvertently cleared the ball into my face.

Once again, everything went black. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was swallowing my tongue. I had broken my nose and started spitting out blood. My old symptoms had returned. This time, worse than before.

I tried to convince myself that I could pull off another comeback. But this time, my doctors and coaches weren’t willing to take the risk. I wasn’t cleared to play.

“If you were my son, I’d tell you to stop,” my coach at the time told me.

I went from living in paradise in Hermosa Beach to once again being consumed by depression — steps away from the sand and the ocean, but confined to the darkness of my apartment.

I tried to fight it as best as I could. I kept myself busy and started doing some TV broadcasting work. I started taking business courses. I was making new friends. But none of it helped me escape my reality.

I could feel myself spiraling downward and I knew I needed change. So I moved back to Charlottesville, to finish up my degree at UVA and find an escape from soccer.

At school, new challenges awaited. The damage to my brain was worse than before. I struggled to focus and began experiencing vertigo.

One day in Charlottesville, after finishing a light workout my body suddenly went into shock. My head began pounding. I started shaking. I felt nauseous. I was fading.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s car while he rushed me to the hospital, I quickly ruled out any thought of a comeback.

“It’s over,” I said as we drove up Route 29. “I’ll never play again.”

“Dude, what?” my buddy said.

“I’ll never play soccer again.”

“Uh, yeah? I’m taking you to the hospital to make sure you don’t die and you’re worried about whether you’ll kick a ball again?”

The next day, I wrote it down. I’m never going to be a professional soccer player again.

When I look back on my career, I think about dribbling a ball around my dad’s soccer shop and dreaming about playing in front of thousands of people.

I think about the great teams and teammates I played with. I think about how I got to share the field with some of soccer’s biggest stars — Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Pirlo, David Beckham.

Yet something else also happened on those fields that changed my life. And it’s still happening.

It wasn’t until I went through head injuries myself that I realized how many people are struggling with the aftereffects of concussions.

Even over the course of my own recovery, I haven’t wanted to open up about what I have gone through. I didn’t want to talk about the dark places my concussions took me, the depression, the isolation, the helplessness. How could I help others if I couldn’t help myself?

It wasn’t until I went through head injuries myself that I realized how many people are struggling.

But, I’m finally at a point where I have learned to manage my brain injury, and it’s time I start sharing my story about concussions in soccer. It’s time that all soccer players do.

As I’ve started to be more open about my own struggles, dozens and dozens of players of all ages have reached out to me asking for guidance or advice.

I remember when I was recovering from my third concussion, I got a call from my agent. He told me that former MLS midfielder Ross Paule wanted to talk to me. A few days later, my phone rang.

“This isn’t the life you want,” Ross told me, and warned me not to rush to come back. He’d suffered concussions while playing for the Columbus Crew and had tried to play through them — until they eventually forced him to retire.

“I can’t drive after dark,” he said. “I can’t play with my little girl. You don’t want this.”

I remember I was sitting in the Galaxy dressing room after my fourth concussion when David Beckham approached me.

“Mate, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Same thing happened to one of my teammates at Manchester United. He sat in a dark room for a month.”

As an assistant coach now for the NASL’s New York Cosmos, I sat down recently with one of our players who had suffered a concussion. I told him about my experiences and how he needed to be careful.

He just stared back at me. In his face, I saw the same 20-year-old I had been. I knew how much he wanted to be on the field and how all he wanted to hear was that he was cleared to play.

It hurt me that he couldn’t see what I had gone through. If only there was a scar to show….

For all the progress we’ve made in the last few years, education about head injuries still needs to be emphasized more by leagues, coaches and trainers. There is still no clear-cut diagnosis process or treatment method.

I still can’t sit in the back of a car without feeling nauseous. I can’t yell throughout practices or games. I can’t raise my heart rate too high without getting headaches.

But I decided a few years ago to focus on what I can do. And much of that is not taking things for granted anymore — like being able to go outside and run, which led to running in my first marathon this past month.

And another thing I can do is talk about a serious problem — one that is growing —in our sport. We all need to keep talking about it — so that no one has to experience what I did.

ALECKO ESKANDARIAN

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“I used to head 100 balls a day and I don’t remember good times so well.”

You are probably aware of ongoing discussions regarding head injuries in soccer (it’s much much worse for (American) football, of course, but it’s an issue for soccer too).

Full-blown concussions typically take center-stage, but medical professionals are now also worried about the many smaller sub-concussive blows to the head.

And there is increasing evidence that even just rapid head movements can cause long-term damage.

In response, U.S. Soccer recently introduced a powerful educational concussion video and the no-heading rule for players up to and including twelve years of age.

This caused some frustration, including concerns about our youngsters not being able to head the ball well when they are older. 

Some also felt that this was an overreaction and that heading the ball safely (with the front of the head instead of the top or sides) can be taught from a young age.

The risks associated with heading balls is not yet properly understood. Scientists and medical professionals are working to understand this much better, but it will take some time.

In the meantime, I would like to share the experiences of a family friend with you.

Chris Nicholl was a professional soccer player and manager in the English Premier League. He played as a central defender for Aston Villa (1972–1977) (210 league appearances) and then Southampton (1977-1983) (228 league appearances).

Chris also played internationally for Northern Ireland (51 caps). After he retired from his playing career, Chris managed Southampton amongst other clubs.

I’ve added a vintage clip at the end of this article showing Chris’ most famous goal, scored during the League Cup Final against Everton.

But arguably his most memorable feat was scoring all four goals in a 2:2 draw between Aston Villa and Leicester City. 😁
Chris was interviewed by the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago and I’m pasting a key passage below. Click here for the full article.

“I know I’m brain damaged from heading footballs. I used to head 100 balls almost every day. When I was at Aston Villa I would watch all my team-mates going home in their cars and I would still be there on the training pitch with Ray Grayden who used to send them long. It’s definitely affected my memory. The balls were a lot heavier then.” Nicholl points to his nose which is unnaturally curved and crooked. “Maybe you can tell, I used to head more with my nose,” he adds. “It’s not recommended.”

To be clear, Chris’ example doesn’t prove that heading the ball causes brain damage nor how many headers per day/week/month are safe. His memory loss might simply be age related (he is 70).

However, the medical research community in England and now also the English FA is looking into pre-mature deaths and behavioral changes of former players.

Early evidence is showing that some died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same condition as American football players.

And three members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, believed to be caused by heading.

According to one health advocate in England, 75% to 80% of the players that contact her are centre-halves and centre-forwards.

“Obviously not all of them are, but the vast majority are. Although any player on the pitch can head the ball, centre halves and strikers head the ball more, especially in those days.”

Researchers at the University of Stirling, UK, found heading the ball just 20 times could make “small but significant changes in brain function” for the next 24 hours, when memory performance was reduced between 41 and 67 per cent.

I hope this serves as a cautionary tale. 

Unfortunately, as a referee I still see too many coaches who ignore or down-play players’ head injuries during games and practices.

Let’s err on the side of caution for our youngsters, folks. The brain is precious and damage to it often doesn’t become apparent until later in life.

That damage is irreversible and fundamentally changes who you are as a person well before your pre-mature death.

Limitations of referee offside calls

This post introduces one of the most difficult decisions a referee has to make. But before we get into the details, I strongly suggest you test yourself using the below video.

It will show you 25 very brief clips that ask you to decide if the player is offside or not. Then at around 4:20 you will be given the answers for each of the 25 clips. How did you do?

What makes it so difficult to correctly decide if the player is indeed offside is the limitation of the human eye and brain. It’s called the Flash-Lag Effect, which makes a moving object appear to be ahead of its actual position.

Click here for a great webpage if you want to dig deeper. I’m quoting:

Top referees are aware of the Flash Lag Effect and practice hard to factor it into their thought process when considering whether a player is in an offside position. They also know that the faster the players are moving, the more tolerance they have to factor in to their decision making.

This is why close offsides are the most difficult calls in the game. The AR has to override what his own eyes and brain are telling him and, if they make a correct call, when it appears to every person in the stadium including himself that he is incorrect, then that call is of genius proportions. 

Here is probably one of the most ‘genius’ decisions in World Cup history. Look very closely at the final still image showing the heal of the defender keeping Chicharito onside.

However, as Offside Explained says, “this decision could have gone either way – at this speed had the pass come 0,02 seconds later we would see a clear offside in the still-image. There is no way for a (human) referee to know if it’s offside or not.

Also, according to the laws we have to evaluate head, body and feet. When players are running fast it is very hard to recognize the position of the feet vs body.

This is why we have to accept marginal mistakes when the player is offside and there is fast movement. But the players and the fans do not accept nor understand this, but there is no other way for the referees.”

The only solution to this is technology – either video replays (as is currently being tested successfully at the top level in select leagues) or somehow tagging and then sensing in real-time the position of every part of each player’s body and the ball, which is much more complicated than video replays.

In the above World Cup example a video replay would have been an obvious decision. The game was halted anyway because a (suspected) goal was scored. The referee would run to the sideline to watch a replay in super slow motion and then determine if the restart is a kick-off for blue (if Chicharito was indeed onside and scored a valid goal) or a free kick for blue (if Chicharito was offside after all).

Unfortunately, at the youth level coaches, players, and spectators will have to accept the errors that the Flash-Lag Effect introduces into the game.

 

Powerful concussion video released by U.S. Soccer

As part of the ongoing efforts to educate the soccer community, U.S. Soccer recently released the below powerful video.

It follows a player through her journey on the road to recovery; from the initial impact, assessment, recovery, and finally back on the pitch.

The message in the video is simple, “Recognize the symptoms, take the appropriate action, and come back to the game 100%”.

This message is one that we cannot fail to share enough with the soccer community. Only with your diligence on the pitch during games and practices, can we make an impact on our players’ road to recovery.

Please share the below video with your players, parents, coaches, administrators and friends in soccer. Also share this U.S. Soccer webpage and this link to useful shareable resources, including impactful printable materials.

The above text is taken, in part, from Cal North’s website and edited for brevity.

Finally, please keep in mind that concussions are just the tip of the iceberg. There is growing scientific evidence that even repeated sub-concussive impacts on the brain can lead to severe lifetime brain damage. Click here for more information.

Offside during recent Liverpool game

Probably one of the two most contentious issues during soccer games are offside decisions (the other is ‘handball’). This comes up during pretty much every game – coaches and parents protesting ‘obvious’ bad offside calls by the referees.

I’m not going to get into the technicalities of precisely what offside is here, but if you want further background please click here for a blog post that includes a discussion of offside and why it’s so very difficult to determine unless you are the AR in the right position. Even the CR can’t make that decision unless it’s blatantly obvious.

Instead, let’s take a look at a very difficult offside decision during a very recent EPL Liverpool game.

First, what does this screen shot tell you? White #8 is clearly offside, correct? He’s closer to the goal than the red defenders when his teammate heads the ball towards him.

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Next, let’s rotate our field of view. What does this next screen shot show?

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It clearly shows White #8 NOT in an offside position because he is level with Red #11 the moment his teammate heads the ball towards him.

Quite amazing the difference the angle of view makes, right?

However, the play isn’t over yet. Let’s take a look at the next screen shot.

liverpooloffside4

The white player at the top headed the ball towards White #8, but it lands short in front of the white player barely visible in front of Red #6. Both that white player and Red #6 stretch their left leg to reach the ball.

The moment the white player’s leg touches the ball is another potential offside infraction by White #8. However, White #8 is again NOT in an offside position because the red player’s outstretched left leg (or more precisely his left foot) is closer to the goal than any body part of White #8 (please note that hands and arms don’t count for offside decisions).

The ball then landed in front of White #8 who scored. The referees rightfully awarded the goal.

Now imagine all this unfolding in realtime and you’re one of the referees. This is very difficult to get right unless you are highly trained and have the experience to apply the laws of the game in realtime as the action unfolds.

Please consider giving the referees the benefit of doubt during your youth games. Referees do make mistakes, of course, and they are the first to admit it, but please keep in mind that coaches and parents simply aren’t close enough to the action, nor have the right angle of view, nor fully understand the offside law and how to apply it.

For the good of the game and your kid’s enjoyment please think twice before reacting to an ‘obvious’ offside ‘mistake’.

Sportsmanship message from NorCal Premier Soccer – unfortunately too easily forgotten as the season unfolds

As we head into the fall season, we would like to encourage players, coaches, family members, club officials, and referees to take a moment to consider how they will behave around their upcoming soccer games. All play an important role in our small piece of the “World’s Game”, all deserve to be treated respectfully.

While we absolutely encourage everyone to give their best effort, trying to win, we also believe a sense of soccer fellowship should be maintained at all times ­among opponents, opposing fans, and referees.

Treat each other with courtesy, remember your opponents are just like you, fans of the game, only in a different uniform, playing for a different club, supporting a different team, or in the case of referees, with a different role to play.

Whatever part you play, be a role model. Set an example. Your positive example is incredibly valuable to those who witness it!

The rules must be respected – they maintain a player’s health and safety, provide everyone a fair chance to win each match, and provide necessary checks and balances to govern a game full of emotions.

Referees must be respected and treated properly ­- without them the games cannot be played. Remember they are sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. They are our fellow soccer fans and they deserve our patience. Our praise, respect and admiration should be shown to them for taking on what is often a thankless task.

Finally, respect the game! Soccer, futebol, fussball, football, whatever you may call it, is the greatest sport in the world – for it to continue to grow and remain healthy in our country it absolutely needs us to respect… its fields, its players, its fans, its referees and its coaches.

Thank you very much,

Norcal Board of Directors

First in-game use of video replay in soccer last Saturday – and it worked well!

New dropped-ball law – who cares, right? Well…

A blog post on this topic? Nothing ever happens during a dropped ball, right? Well, here’s what happened during a recent U17B tournament game that I officiated.

I stopped play because of a suspected head injury when the attacking team (white) was in possession of the ball in the final attacking third, close to the penalty box.

(By the way, referees should not stop play in these attacking situations unless the injury might be serious, including a possible head injury.)

As you probably know, the restart in these situations is a dropped ball at the spot where the ball was when the referee blew the whistle.

And as has been customary (for decades probably?), I suggested that the blue player kick the ball back to the white team. This isn’t really an ‘instruction’ because every player and coach knows to do this for sportsmanship reasons. So it’s more of a reminder or clarifying statement to make sure there is no confusion about what is going to happen next.

What do you think happened next?

I dropped the ball (near the blue team’s penalty box) and the blue player boots the ball hard diagonally across the field and into the open space behind the white team’s defensive back line. The blue left forward takes off and scores a goal.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this happen and I believe that the blue forward truly didn’t understand what was going on. He was completely focused on scoring.

I had no choice but to let the goal stand. Referees have no power to overturn this kind of goal. You can probably imagine the confusion on the field and the sidelines (to put the best possible spin on this) and the reaction of the white team coach.

To the blue team’s coach’s credit, he asked the white team to kick the ball to his goalkeeper during kick-off, who then kicked the ball into his own net for an own goal.

So at least the goal difference was cancelled out, but the white team didn’t get the extra point that one typically gets at tournaments for a shut-out (white won 5-1).

Now, with the above context in mind, here’s the change in the Laws of the Game that went into effect worldwide this summer (bolded):

“The referee cannot decide who may contest a dropped ball or its outcome.”

In other words, referees are not allowed to ‘manufacture’ the outcome of a dropped ball anymore.

So my reminder during the U17B game to blue to kick the ball back to white (to make sure the outcome of the injury stoppage was going to be ‘fair’ as has been custom) wasn’t correct in the strict application of the new law.

The new law is meant to preempt precisely what occurred during my U17B game.

I was also assigned to officiate the U19B Final for that tournament the following day. Guess what happened? Stoppage in play due to injury in the attacking third, but this time, with the previous day’s event fresh in my mind, I told the players that the new law now forces me to execute a properly contested dropped ball. There was a little confusion, but the players and coaches accepted it and we got on with it.

Now here’s the tricky part.

It is not obvious what “the referee cannot decide its outcome” actually means. Referees can’t ask/tell/instruct the players what to do anymore, but the moment one of the players asks a question we can simply tell them to “ask your coach what to do”, for example. Or, in general terms, referees could describe the options the players have, but that the referee will not get involved in that decision.

So the referee will execute a proper dropped ball and will refrain from making any suggestions regarding the ‘right/fair’ way, but the players/teams, either on their own or through coach’s instructions, might decide to kick the ball back to the team that had possession. And that’s completely fine.

Also keep in mind the age and level of the players. For example, nine year old boys and girls mostly don’t know what to do with a dropped ball, so you’ll probably see some referees be more actively involved in creating a ‘fair’ outcome. And parents and coaches will support that fair outcome.

There will be some amusing/unusual dropped-ball situations until everyone adjusts to this modified law.

One club’s view on parent refereeing: “a paid job”

First off, to avoid any misunderstand, this post is NOT meant to point a finger at a specific club or individuals at that club. The decision makers at this club were acting without malice in what they considered to be reasonable and in the best interest of their club. So the intention of this post is only to help ‘educate’ our youth soccer community, including decision makers at clubs (and leagues), triggered by an actual situation I encountered with one of the big clubs in our area.

One of my kids plays for one of the well-known clubs in the Bay Area and this club collects an additional $100 per player every season that parents can earn back through six hours of volunteering during the season. Any money left over at the end of the season is automatically donated to the club.

Volunteer tasks include activities such as lining a field or manning a tournament booth or helping to sell club spirit wear during a club event.

As you might know, I am a fully certified USSF referee and try my best to officiate as many youth games as I can every weekend to help our Bay Area soccer community, including many games for this specific club.

You probably already know that there is a big shortage of referees, but if you don’t then please take a moment to read this before continuing.

To my surprise, when I submitted my refereeing to this club as my volunteering contribution to claim the $100 back at the end of last season, I was told that this club doesn’t consider refereeing ‘volunteering’ because it is compensated.

The ironic thing is that in response to this same club’s request for parents to consider becoming certified referees “to help make sure games can happen” some years ago, I volunteered to become one.

And every six months or so this club’s referee coordinator sends out an email to all families asking for help officiating and the details of the next entry-level referee course. And, partly in response to this club’s recent shout-out, two of my kids are also now certified referees and volunteer their time on weekends in addition to their own soccer games.

Before I continue, let me emphasize that this is not about the $100. I am fortunate enough not to have to worry about the $100. Instead, it’s about the principle of this policy and the message that it is sending.

Also, let me be clear one more time that I don’t think this club is in any way ‘against’ referees. The club leadership and Board members are good people that want their club and kids to succeed. I have to assume that the majority on the club’s Board simply don’t understand what’s involved in becoming a referee and then officiating every weekend.

I am going to first talk about money, then my non-monetary commitments, and, finally, I will describe arguably the single most important and hidden volunteer contribution that goes along with a parent referee.

The club is correct that referees do get some compensation for games. It’s anywhere from $25 to $55 per game, depending on factors such as whether you’re the CR or AR, the age group, duration of the game, and level of play (e.g. CYSA league game or NPL or ECNL etc.).

So, for example, if I’m the AR for a 50-minute U8 CYSA game then I get $25. And if I’m the CR for a 90-minute U18 ECNL game then I get $55.

The total time commitment for the U8 game is around 2 hours and around 3 hours for the U18 game, when adding halftime (around 10 minutes), pre-game set-up and team check-in (we try to arrive 30 minutes prior to kick-off, but it’s often only 15 to 20 minutes because we’re rushing over from another game), post-game handshakes and paperwork etc. (10 minutes), and then, say, 30 to 60 minutes driving to and from the field. Sometimes we have back-to-back games at the same field so that saves us one leg of the drive.

So that’s $12.50 per hour for a typical U8 game and $18 per hour for a typical U18 game.

But that’s before deducting expenses!

Deduct from this the cost of fuel plus an allocation for wear and tear for my car. This wear and tear includes factors such as added mileage and the effects of usage on parts, tires, brakes, fluids etc. The IRS calculates the fully loaded cost for this to be $0.54 per mile. I drive an average of 10 miles one way to a game so that’s around $10 just for car usage.

Also deduct from the compensation the cost of additional food and drinks that I often grab on-the-go while driving from one game to the next. A per-game allocation of, say, $5 for extra food and a Peets coffee (to get my tired mind and body caffeinated for the fourth game under the sun that day) that I would not have bought if I wasn’t refereeing, and we’re looking at a total per-game cost of between $10 and $15.

And then there’s the cost for annual USSF certification and membership in the referees association, plus the cost for my equipment, which I estimate to be around $500 to $750. And I’m about to spend another round of money on equipment because USSF is introducing new referee uniforms.

I’m probably missing a couple of cost items, but I hope this gives you some insight into the expense side of refereeing. Nevertheless, a referee can come out ahead if he/she officiates enough games and thus covers his/her fixed cost.

Now, I’m fortunate enough not to have to worry about ‘coming out ahead’. Any money I ‘earn’ over and above my cost makes zero contribution to my family’s standard of living. And I can say with 99% certainty that the same applies to any parent at that club who decides to help out by becoming a referee. You would agree with me if you knew which club it was and the neighborhoods the families live in.

Next, let’s focus on the non-monetary aspects of what I do. It’s easiest to simply run a list:

  • 4 to 6 games per weekend (sometimes no games if I’m taking my daughter or son to an overnight tournament, and sometimes more if needed, especially during local tournaments) – a total of 10 to 20 hours per weekend and probably 200 to 300 hours per typical season;
  • I jump into games on short notice and drop whatever else I was planning to do with my kids or wife when I get an urgent email or call asking me to help out because a game is short referees or a referee fell ill;
  • I attend, on my own time and cost, referee association meetings to discuss and learn about becoming a better referee;
  • I attend, on my own time and cost, quarterly referee training seminars to become a better referee;
  • I read, on my own time and cost, articles on refereeing and study case studies on a daily/weekly basis to become a better referee;
  • I mentor, on my own time, new/young referees when asked by assignors;
  • I write, on my own time, about refereeing on this blog to help educate our soccer community here in the Bay Area;
  • I encouraged my two oldest kids to become referees, helped train them, often discuss refereeing decisions and the laws of the game with them, and take them to their games so we have new young referees to fill the shoes of those aging out;
  • I am studying, on my own time, the recently updated Laws of the Game – the biggest revamp of the laws in the history of the game;

I could go on.

Now let’s get to the typically overlooked yet most critical volunteer contribution of all. And this volunteer contribution gets zero recognition. At least a referee can get some personal satisfaction from officiating a game.

This critical volunteer contribution comes from my wife. She sacrifices her time every weekend to enable me (and my kids) to help out with officiating so that games can take place.

My wife puts up with all of this. Who takes care of the kids when I’m gone for the day or even weekend helping make sure youth games can happen? My wife. Who adjusts her schedule when I get an urgent call to help out with game? My wife. And who takes our kids to their games if those overlap with my officiating? My wife.

And my wife earns zero compensation and recognition for this volunteering. In fact, it is often a source of considerable stress in our family.

And, finally, at the end of an especially long weekend officiating, my body and mind are exhausted. I often have no energy to go out on a Saturday or Sunday evening, and Monday then becomes my recovery day – guess how productive my workday is on some Mondays?

I don’t like to talk about this. I’m not into self-promotion. I’m not looking for a pat on the back. I do all this for a passion for the beautiful game and to help the kids in our Bay Area soccer community. For futbol…and a smile on the kids’ faces.

Yes, there are often many negative emotions during and after games as you can imagine, dear parents and coaches ;-), but, on balance, the positives of refereeing outweigh the negatives for me.

I couldn’t care less for any ‘compensation’ and I couldn’t care less for the $100 donation for this club. This isn’t about the money. And the same applies to practically any other parent referee.

But what I do care about is that refereeing by parents is viewed as a ‘paid job’. At a minimum, it completely ignores the very real sacrifices of the referee’s spouse.

I simply can’t see how a referee family’s contribution to our youth soccer community, including a specific club’s community, is worth less than spending a handful of hours manning a booth.

I strongly urge clubs to respect and recognize the contributions of parent referee families to our soccer community.

Anyway, I hope this is a useful perspective on parent refereeing that is probably not fully understood in our youth soccer community.

For futbol, for the kids!

When coaches lose perspective and hurt youngsters and the beautiful game

Take a look at the 30-second clip below showing one serious foul and then one reckless foul by the same player during the U13G semifinal at US Futsal Nationals this past weekend in San Jose.

These fouls were about 7 minutes apart during the last 15 minutes of the game and earned the offender two yellow cards and then a red.

The first foul could have been a straight red card, especially in a futsal context where the laws of the game are tighter than for outdoor soccer.

The coach had assigned the offending player to man-mark orange #6 and had berated her repeatedly for not being physical/aggressive enough. This coach got increasingly frustrated as the game unfolded and then channelled that into his players.

I don’t believe that this girl had the intention to hurt orange #6 earlier in the game, but she was eventually pushed too far by her coach. She was under increasing pressure and finally snapped.

Orange #6 could not continue playing and had to be carried off the court. Later she had difficulties walking and her lower back and right hip was very painful. She was lucky to avoid serious injury.

And by way of context, the orange team was winning 6:0 when the first offense occurred. And let’s remember that futsal in particular is about footwork, skills, and creativity. So let’s coach those aspects of the game, win or lose.

This is an example of what can go wrong with youth coaching when coaches lose perspective.

The offending player learned nothing from this kind of coaching and ended up evicted from the game. She didn’t strike me as someone who would wear that with pride. I very much doubt that this experience furthered her interest in soccer.

And the injured player could have sustained career-ending injuries, which would have a been a major blow for her, of course, but also soccer more broadly – orange #6 is very talented and very likely to make the U.S. Soccer national player pool soon.

[Update: turns out, this player did take pride in her red card afterall. Due to some social media sleuthing by an observant parent, we also know that at least two parents on that team congratulated this girl on the red card. So it’s clearly not just a coaching problem as was pointed out in the comments below. Disgraceful in my view.]

Surprising effect of no-heading rule

We’ve just completed the first season with the no-heading rule for U11/U12 kids and younger.

I’m sharing a surprising observation half way down this page, but first let’s remind ourselves that there was a lot of concern that this would be difficult to implement and lead to a lot of confusion during games.

Well, here are two personal observation from officiating many games this last season where this rule applied:

First, it did not lead to the widespread confusion some naysayers predicted. Yes, there were instances of momentary parental confusion and delayed or missed calls from referees, but overall this new rule had no material impact on games.

It’s quite possible that you witnessed a game where a controversial heading infraction impacted the outcome of the game (e.g. was that really an intentional header?), but those were unfortunate exceptions, not the norm.

Everyone adjusted just fine. And we’ll see further adjustment this coming Fall season. It will fade into the background as a non-issue and the usual ‘handball’ and ‘offside’ controversies will dominate again….”It’s sooo obvious, ref!!”.

Second, and much more interesting, I saw many kids try to control airborne balls with their feet (!) by attempting to ‘catch’ or trap the ball instead of just letting it bounce repeatedly and then chase after it.

This is a much more difficult skill than heading. And it’s something you want to practice when you’re young so it gets hardwired into your brain. Don’t underestimate how difficult this is.

Heading the ball also needs to be practiced, of course, but youngsters can learn that even as late as 14 onwards. It’s a gross motor skill that can be learned relatively easily compared to the fine motor skills needed to control an airborne ball approaching at high speed with your foot.

And, in general, receiving the ball with your foot gives a player more control over the ball. When executed well it is very effective.

So in my view this no-heading rule turns out to be a blessing in disguise when it comes to player development.

There was a lot of complaining that this rule would develop players that aren’t as proficient in heading as our international competition, and in some cases heading the ball is indeed the better/smarter choice, but I very much doubt that this no-heading rule will impact the performance of our national team or players that want to go pro at 16, 18, or later.

And to be clear, I also believe that this no-heading rule is a blessing for the health of our children. It’s not so much the risk of concussions (which are bad, of course), but the damage from repeated impacts on the brain that worries me.

There is growing evidence that it’s these many non-concussive impacts that ultimately lead to permanent brain damage. To quote Dr. Michael Grey from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham in England:

“The cumulative effect of repeatedly heading a ball could be damaging. We call these sub-concussive events that might not lead to [an obvious] brain injury each time but a little bit of damage builds up over time. There is some belief that these sub-concussive blows may lead to neuro-degeneration.”

Medical research into these sub-concussive blows is underway and we’ll see a growing list of scientific results emerge in the coming years.

I actually think we should make no-heading mandatory until U14/U15. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it.

Disgraceful parental behavior during little girls game

I had a mind-boggling refereeing experience on Sunday. It was a U10G Bronze game and we kicked off at 6pm on the last day of the Spring season. It was Sunday evening and nice weather.

So after a long soccer weekend I was expecting a pleasant game between little nine year old girls. A celebration of the beautiful game and a fun experience for these little girls.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I have rarely experienced such a rowdy sideline. Pretty much the entire game was played under constant screaming and shouting at the girls, and frequent dissent about pretty much every call that went against the visiting team, including in particular offside and ‘handball’.

When the visiting team dissent became too blatant and interfered with officiating I stopped the game to talk to the parents. I tried to explain that a ball touching a hand or arm is not in itself an infraction – it has to be deliberate, for example. And frankly, dear reader, referees are supposed to be much more lenient when Bronze level nine year olds play the game.

In a final attempt to try to take the edge off their behavior I reminded the coach and parents that these are just nine year old girls trying to have fun playing a game.

It didn’t work. These parents were not interested in reason and were in a combative mood from the beginning. Textbook case.

So when the dissent continued I had no choice but to evict a parent and then ten minutes into the second half warned the coach that I will terminate the game if there’s any further interference. This coach then called to his parents to calm down, but otherwise made no effort to control his parents during the game.

And the tension between the opposing parents was palpable, especially during the second half. It included excessive celebration when a goal was scored.

What made this situation worse is that the AR on the sideline next to those parents was only 12 years old. He did a very good job under a lot of pressure, but the parents used abusive language directed also at him.

He had to listen to an ongoing use of foul language including repeat use of the F-word amongst the parents directed at me and at times also him. He was scared especially about parents throwing things at him because he had to face his back to watch the field.

Unfortunately, he didn’t tell me until after the game, partly because most of that happened during the second half. But all this went into my incident report to NorCal so the team will face disciplinary action.

And the icing on the cake: I was threatened by the evicted parent and confronted after the game as I was walking to my car.

Glad to say that I stayed calm throughout all of this and it didn’t change my motivation to contribute to our soccer community through officiating. But it was a sad moment because these little girls are exposed to this and probably often.

The ironic thing was that just before this little girls game I had officiated a U16 boys game that I was warned could easily escalate. One of the teams got into a fight during a game in SF and already had two suspended players. One of the coaches was also suspended, but turned up. He was evicted. The league had sent an official to observe and help in case of mass confrontations.

All went well, I had full control of the game, and it ended successfully without drama. So I drove over to the little girls game to finish off the Spring season on a lighter note, but little did I know.

This kind of disgraceful behavior has no place in youth sports. It is a terrible experience for these little kids and for those moms, dads, siblings, and grandparents that came to simply cheer.

And you can probably imagine that the twelve year old AR might lose motivation to help officiate games if this happens too often. And we need young referees to fill the shoes of those aging out. No referees, no games.

By the way, this visiting team places last in the Bronze division with only one point. This makes them the lowest ranked U10G team in all of NorCal. Probably no coincidence.

Biggest changes to the Laws of the Game in 135 years starting June 1

The 22,000 word Laws of the Game (LOTG) and their interpretations have been reduced to 12,000 words and a lot of the wording has been modified/clarified/updated.

These changes were approved in January and are only subject to one more ratification in March. They will then go into effect on June 1, including for all of our youth games here in the Bay Area.

A couple of key changes:

  • kick-off: the ball can now be kicked in any direction. One consequence is probably going to be that we will see kick-offs taken by only one player instead of the usual two.
  • off-side: free kicks will now be taken where the opponent commits the offside offense which is typically where he/she touches the ball or interferes with play, not where the player was when they first were in an offside position. So, for example, an attacker who is running back, say, 20 yards from an offside position five yards inside the opponents’ half to receive a pass will now be penalized at the point he or she touches the ball (here 15 yards inside his/her own half) not where the attacker was first in an offside position (5 yards inside the opponent’s half).
  • infraction off the field of play: the restart will be a direct free kick instead of a dropped ball. And a penalty kick if the infraction occurred behind the penalty box. For example, if a player tries to grab another player to prevent him/her from returning to the field of play while both are anywhere behind the penalty area then that’s going to be a penalty kick.
  • modification to DOGSO red card: if a goalkeeper or defender genuinely tries to challenge for the ball in the penalty area, then the punishment will be a yellow card, not a red card anymore. This is meant to reduce the ‘triple punishment’ concern…eviction from game (playing down a player), suspension (for a second game), and penalty. The challenge is going to be for the referee to now determine ‘intent’, which is subjective and can lead to inconsistencies. Well, nothing is perfect.

There will be many more changes, but we will have to wait until the new LOTG are published in March.

Click here for more information.

Advantage explained

‘Playing advantage’ is an essential yet underrated part of the game. It’s essential because it gives the referee the authority to let play continue if the fouled team gains more from it than being awarded a free kick or, in rare cases, even a penalty kick.

It helps the game flow more and removes the incentive for the defending team to commit fouls/tackles just to slow the game down.

And keep in mind that when a foul is called the defending team can bring all of their players into a defensive shape behind the ball. This is typically a big benefit to the offending team and should not be enabled.

Probably the least-understood part of this Advantage Rule is that the referee can still eject, caution, or give a stern talking-to during the next natural stoppage in play such as a corner kick or throw-in, and irrespective of the outcome of the Advantage.

Here’s an excellent description of the Advantage Rule by former pro referee Randy Vogt. I’m including parts of it here (with some edits for brevity and audience):

Advantage is a wonderful clause in the rules in which whistling the foul would actually be hurting the team being fouled by not letting play continue.

Officials properly playing advantage do a terrific job of letting the game flow, increasing the enjoyment of the game for everyone. Generally, the better the skill level, the more opportunities there are to play the advantage.

To properly maintain game control, referees typically give the proper signal of arms outstretched and yell “Play on!” They also later often tell the fouled player, “I saw the hold but did not call it as your team had the advantage” and the player who fouled, “No more holding. I did not call your foul as the other team had the advantage.” 

When should the officials play the advantage and when should a foul be called? Here are some guidelines:

A foul by the attacking team inside the defensive team’s penalty area.

The ball is so far from the other goal that there is little rationale for playing advantage here. The defensive team would probably much rather have the free kick and get their team in position to receive it upfield.

One item to consider is when an offensive player fouls the goalkeeper who has hand possession of the ball. If the foul was neither a hard nor a deliberate foul and the goalkeeper is still standing, one should probably play an advantage as the goalkeeper would rather have the option of distributing the ball by punt, drop-kick, throw or dribble than have the goalie’s team kick it from the ground by a free kick.

A foul by the attacking team just outside the defensive team’s penalty area.

With nearly all fouls of this nature, advantage is rarely played here. Here’s an example why:

A gray defender is dribbling outside the penalty area and is tripped by a white forward with the defender falling on the ground. The ball rolls to another gray defender who plays the ball. You yell, “Play on!”

The gray defender then loses the ball to a white forward who passes the ball to a teammate who scores. The gray defender who was fouled and had fallen left that white scorer onside.

A foul at midfield.

One can certainly play the advantage here, particularly if the team with the ball has open space in front of it.

A foul by the defensive team just outside the defensive team’s penalty area.

If the attacking team has a clear advantage, even on a ‘bad’ foul, then play typically continues as many of these advantage situations with the attacking team going toward the penalty area wind up as goals.

A penalty kick foul by the defensive team inside the defensive team’s penalty area.

Teams score on penalty kicks most of the time. Advantage is typically played only if the attacking player has the ball near the goal with an open goal beckoning.

Should the referee give an advantage but quickly (within a couple of seconds) realize that the advantage did not materialize, the ref should blow the whistle and call the original foul.

 

 

DOGSO explained – and how I messed it up

This is one of the rarest infractions in soccer, but has a considerable impact on a game when it does occur. And because it occurs so rarely it is actually often missed by relatively inexperienced referees during youth games. And when called, it can often cause, shall we say, confusion for both coaches and parents.

Experienced professional referee Randy Vogt wrote an excellent piece on this so I’m sharing most of it below.

Also, take a look at the clip at the end that shows how I messed up during one of my recent U17G games – I only gave a yellow card to the defender because I thought the second defender was much closer and thus able to intercept the attacker.

The clip clearly shows that the second defender was too far from the attacker to have made a difference. Oddly enough it looks like she even slowed down instead of accelerating to try to intercept the attacker.

I suspect that running from behind didn’t give me the right depth perception to judge the distance accurately. It’s obvious in hindsight and with the benefit of a replay.

Denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity (DOGSO) is a red-card offense. This rule is to prevent the defense from fouling to destroy their opponents’ most dangerous scoring opportunities and takes into account handling the ball and fouling an attacker moving toward the goal by an offense punishable by a free kick or penalty kick.

Let’s take handling the ball first. This obviously does not apply to a goalkeeper within his or her own penalty area but applies to the keeper who comes out of the penalty area to deliberately handle the ball or a field player who deliberately handles the ball on a shot that was going into the goal.

Please be aware that it is not a send-off, just a direct kick foul, when a keeper makes a save inside the penalty area and his momentum takes the ball outside the area while still holding it.

Should a defender (not the goalkeeper) deliberately handle the ball that winds up going into the goal anyway, the goal stands and the defender is cautioned for unsporting behavior.

Now let me write about an attacker moving toward the opponent’s goal fouled by a defender. Four elements are required for an obvious goalscoring opportunity before the foul becomes a red card offense. They are described as the four Ds:

• Defenders: Not counting the player committing the foul, there is at most one defender between the foul and the goal. That other defender is generally the goalkeeper. The keeper committing a foul can be sent off for this offense as well.

• Distance to the ball: The attacker must be close enough to the ball to continue playing it at the time of the foul.

• Distance to the goal: The attacker must be close enough to the goal to have a legitimate chance to score. So being in or near the opponent’s penalty area is more likely to be an obvious goal-scoring opportunity than the attacker being in the team’s defensive half of the field.

• Direction: The attacker must be moving toward the opponent’s goal at the time of the foul, not toward a corner flag or away from the goal.

So there’s an element of judgment by the referee involved here. Two reasonable persons can come to reasonable yet opposite conclusions. For example, for one person the ball might be close enough to the attacker to be played, for another person the ball might just be out of reach. This is why the Laws of the Game state ‘In the opinion of the referee [officiating the specific game]…..’.

And let’s also keep in mind, as Andy points out, to use common sense when applying this rule to (younger) youth games. It would be harsh and not in the spirit of the game to send a 8, 9, or 10 year old last defender off for accidentally tripping an attacker.

 

Mini-documentary on refereeing in the MLS

Real time decision making for referees

A careful person, a wise person, when faced with an unexpected situation says, “Hold on, I’ll think about this for a minute. I’ll mull it over and then I’ll decide”.

When a lawyer finds himself being asked a tricky question by a client he the possibility, or rather the duty, of saying, “I’ll see you in a week, let me consider this”.

A doctor can ask for further analysis before deciding on the best treatment. And even the figure the referees most often compared to, the judge, before pronouncing his verdict, retires to his chambers to ponder, to evaluate, before making his decision.

We’re not allowed any of this.

What we are asked to do, even in the most unexpected, unforeseen of situations is to make a decision in what’s called ‘real time’, in a fraction of a second. This is not a simple matter.

I wish this enormous difference were understood by those who sit in an armchair…

Pierluigi Collina, the man whose stare could reduce celebrity soccer players to silence is considered the best referee in the world, having been named FIFA’s ‘Best Referee of the Year’ six consecutive times. Currently head of UEFA Referees (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierluigi_Collina).

PierluigiCollina_crop_north

Referees welcome: One club’s radical attitude towards officials

I came across this article on how one club in England radically changed their attitude to referees. The below insights are just as relevant for any club, team, and game here in our country.

In many ways, Seel Park is a forbidding venue. Perched on a Pennine hillside, the home of Mossley FC is no place for the faint-hearted on a cold winter’s night. For referees, however, it’s a warm and welcoming place.

While many managers talk of building fortresses, Mossley co-bosses Peter Band and Lloyd Morrison want their ground to be somewhere match officials know they can do their job free of intimidation and abuse, and which they are pleased to visit.

If this makes you think of the two as a couple of choirboys, think again. As a player with Hyde United and Altrincham, Band was totally uncompromising. He proudly describes himself as old-school — maybe not the greatest in terms of skill, but definitely among the most committed. And by his own admission he received more red and yellow cards than Christmas cards.

The Mossley charm offensive is less to do with being goody-goody and more to do with realism. If you antagonise referees there is only going to be one winner. Band and Morrison have learned that through bitter experience.

Band explained: “When I first became a manager, a couple of years ago, I thought I had to be the same way I was as a player. I was also influenced by Graham Heathcoat at Altrincham and my predecessor at Mossley, Steve Halford. So I screamed, shouted, swore and complained as much as anyone. And it did me absolutely no good. It got me nowhere.

“The club ended up with a terrible disciplinary record. We had players running 40 yards to get involved in incidents and at one point we seemed to be having a man sent off every match. The FA weren’t impressed.

“Lloyd and I realised it had to stop if we were ever going to make something of the place. Money being spent on FA fines was money being taken away from the wage bill. It was a bit like putting lots of effort into a long sponsored walk and then just giving away the funds you’d raised.

“Things are much better now. Players know bad discipline will hit them in the pocket, and we do our best to make the officials feel welcome.

“Every match I make a bee-line for the ref, take him a cup of coffee and ask if there’s anything I can do to help. We try to have a bit of banter too, especially with the linesman near our dug-out.

“I’m happy to say that officials are relaxed enough now to come into our social club for a drink, and at our recent game with Radcliffe they stayed chatting to Lloyd and me after a lot of the players had gone.”

Making the squad aware of this standpoint is an important part of the new strategy. Players have been told in no uncertain terms that they will have to pay — literally — for any dissent or abuse. Their job is to focus on the game, perform to the best of their ability and leave all other matters to the management. Arguing with the officials is to be avoided at all costs.

Band added: “I know referees are impartial in the way they do their job but it can’t do any harm to get them thinking of Seel Park as a friendly place and of Mossley as a club with discipline.

They’re just people with a love of the game like me, Lloyd and the players. And let’s be honest, we’d all struggle not to react if someone called us effing so-and-so’s to our faces.

“There’s nothing to be gained from bad behaviour. It’s self-defeating.”

Source: http://you-are-the-ref.com/referees-welcome-how-mossley-fc-changed-attitude-towards-officials/

Don’t be an arse.

Perspective on refereeing

“I have two daughters who don’t play soccer, but if they should ever decide to take it up I’d be glad to know that they were being helped along by the many volunteer referees who come out in any weather and at any time when they could quite easily stay in bed on a Sunday morning or go to a cafe for breakfast and read the newspaper.

I would be happy and I have no words to express fully my respect and my gratitude.

For this reason I am truly saddened when I see that often in youth matches the referee receives an avalanche of insults because, for example, he has or hasn’t whistled for a penalty.

Soccer is a sport, it allows youngsters to be together, to socialize, to learn how to live together and achieve things together. Soccer is essentially a microcosm of life. In life you work with others to achieve results, just as you do in soccer.

So if something is done for the good of a youngster, then the last to complain about that ought to be his/her parents.”

Pierluigi Collina, the man whose stare could reduce celebrity soccer players to silence is considered the best referee in the world, having been named FIFA’s ‘Best Referee of the Year’ six consecutive times. Currently head of UEFA Referees (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierluigi_Collina).

Position of feet during throw-ins

IMG_0938This is a relatively small issue and typically doesn’t have much impact on the game, but worth taking a quick moment to clarify.

Most folks assume that the player’s feet have to be behind the touchline during a throw-in, but a throw-in is legal as long as part of each foot is in contact with the touchline, including when most of the feet are inside the field of play as shown in the images on the right and below.

IMG_0939It is also legal when the feet are completely outside the field of play, of course. They don’t have to make contact with the touchline in this case.

I hope this helps reduce unnecessary “bad throw!” calls.

Parents, coaches, players and the Laws of the Game

Referees have to apply the laws of the game to a fast moving game, and they have to do so consistently and avoid errors, especially those that impact the safety of the players and the outcome of the game.

It is probably fair to say that, despite best effort, we referees make a handful of wrong/suboptimal decisions every game. This happens across all levels of the game, including the professional leagues and big tournaments like the World Cup.

The referees I know care about doing their best for the good of the game and for the enjoyment of players and spectators.

We attend training sessions, seminars, and digest rules clarifications from Fifa and U.S. Soccer. We read websites and books focusing on refereeing. This preparatory background work is all volunteer time and we don’t get reimbursed for any cost incurred.

Understanding and then applying the Laws of the Game to live, fast-moving game situations isn’t easy. I thought I knew what ‘offside’ or ‘handball’ is based on my life-long playing and watching of the game in Europe and here. I thought I knew how to move as a referee on the field – just stay close to the ball, right?

Well, I was wrong. And I had to eat a lot of humble pie when I first started refereeing.

So please trust me when I say that parents and coaches are rarely correct about the interpretation of the laws of the game and how those apply to specific game situations, especially during the more controversial situations.

Parents and coaches are also typically too emotionally vested in the outcome of decisions to make them impartial and consistent decision makers. Passion is good, of course, but not when it comes to correctly interpreting specific circumstances.

Let me give you a couple of specific examples:

Offside

offside angles 1

The only person to be able to accurately judge whether a player is in an offside position is the Assistant Referee (AR) standing parallel to the second to last defender. Even just a slight misaligned positioning of the AR or slightly different positioning of the players can lead to an inaccurate decision as the image on the right shows.

Even the Center Referee (CR) cannot accurately determine offside positioning unless it’s blatantly obvious. This is also why the CR will (practically) never overrule an AR when it comes to deciding if the player is in an offside position.

offside 2Now how likely is it that untrained parents and coaches sitting along the sidelines at various angles and distances to the action can accurately call offsides? Take a look at the screenshot on the right – would a coach or parent sitting 50 yards away along the sideline really be able to make an accurate call whether or not the white/blue player is offside or not?

And keep in mind that just because a player is in an offside position doesn’t mean that it’s an offside infraction.

Much more on ‘offside’ in a separate blog post soon.

Handball

Mansfield Town v Liverpool - FA Cup Third Round

Players, parents, and often also coaches who see the ball touch someone’s hand or arm scream, “Handball!”. They think the call is obvious, but about 75% of the time when the hand or arm touches a ball it is not a handling foul.

Take a look at he image on the right. Is this a handling foul? Yes, the ball touches the arm, but you need much more information than this to determine if an infringement occurred.

Please click HERE for my recent detailed discussion on ‘handball’.

And click HERE and HERE for footage of actual ‘handball’ examples from one of my recent games.

So if we accept the premise that making the right decisions is often difficult and that parents and coaches simply don’t know enough about the laws of the game (nor are they typically close enough to the event to see clearly what happened), then is it worth the disruption caused by screaming parents and/or coaches?

It just distracts the boys and girls, creates a negative atmosphere, and makes game management more difficult for the referee.

I often see players lose focus after their coach’s and/or parents’ outburst and that clearly doesn’t help the team.

They feel ‘wronged’ and are now focusing on moments past. In some cases players lose their heads and make bad decisions that can cost games.

They tend to act more aggressively toward other players and show more dissent toward the referee. Both types of behaviors increase the risk of conceding fouls and being cautioned or even evicted from the game.

Again, referees make mistakes (and sometimes game changing ones) which can be frustrating for all involved. But the odds are very low that your view of an event is correct according to the laws of the game. So, please, for the good of the game and the boys and girls on the field, try not to interfere with the officiating.

P.S.: The one case when parents might be in the best position to determine the correct decision is on throw-ins within yards of the sideline where they are sitting. The AR might be, say, 20 yards away at the halfway line (they are not ‘allowed’ to cross the halfway line) and the CR might be 15 yards away. Parents sitting right there could well be in the best position to see a little deflection or toe poke or similar. In those cases there’s a 50/50 chance the referees get it wrong, but the referees can’t go with what the parents think happened. They have to act based on what they saw. What makes throw-in mistakes less of an issue is that throw-ins very rarely have a game-changing impact.

The whole ball, the whole line

Players, parents, and coaches often complain that the ball had clearly crossed the touchline or goal line, especially for a throw-in.

There are two key reasons for this:

First, many players and parents (and even some coaches) don’t understand that for a goal to be scored the entire ball has to cross the entire goal line. The same applies to corner kicks and throw-ins. If even just a fraction of the ball hasn’t crossed the line then we play on.

Second, parents and coaches simply don’t have nearly as good a viewing angle on the lines and proximity to the ball as the Assistant Referees that are looking directly along the lines. If your viewing angle is off by just a few degrees (sitting in a chair three to five yards back from the touchline) you can easily convince yourself that the Assistant Referee made a mistake.

But please realize that you are almost certainly wrong.

The image above shows a perfect example from a very recent game between West Ham and Chelsea in the English Premier League when a West Ham defender cleared a Chelsea shot off the goal line.

The league recently introduced goal-line technology that captures and analyses video of the goal mouth action and then sends a goal/no-goal signal to the referee.

The above image captured by this technology shows that the ball did not completely cross the line (the goal is to the right of the ball) and therefore no goal was awarded.

Btw, even the Assistant Referee standing ~25 yards away at the corner flag probably mistakenly would have signaled for a goal. Imagine parents and coaches trying to call this accurately from the touchlines!

So for the good of the game please realize that the referees are in the best position to get this decision right. It won’t be perfect because we don’t have this goal-line technology available to us, of course, but odds are high that the referees will be much more accurate than parents and coaches.

Changing the culture of dissent

As we head into another busy soccer weekend here’s a great article from a top soccer referee regarding dissent. Key parts:

Rugby is a very physical contact sport and you can see on regular occasions hugely-built players moving at speed suddenly coming to an abrupt halt following a bone-crunching tackle.

When the offending player is called over he responds immediately, keeping quiet and showing a huge amount of respect while being spoken to by the referee.

They show referees a high level of respect and it is evident to me that this is the cultural thread that runs throughout the game of rugby.

The administrators of football [soccer] should take note and should capture the spirit of it and assist our referees by introducing a change of culture.

  • Start by punishing managers/coaches who publicly berate match officials
  • Referees should get tougher and apply the law correctly
  • Issue the appropriate sanctions for foul play
  • Be prepared to issue a yellow and a red card for dissent by players

If players [and coaches] cannot control their behavior then punish them accordingly. We have all become accustomed to the culture of dissent and cheating in our game.

Parents, when your child goes out to play a game, encourage them to play in a fair manner and to accept the role of the referee.

For thousands of officials it is a hobby. Do not accept the culture of being berated by club officials and players.

Another handling offense? What do you think?

I hope you had a chance to read the first of two posts showing ‘handball’ examples from actual game footage from this last weekend.

Here’s footage of a second handball controversy during that same game that I officiated. This incident took place during the second half, after the first controversial handball incident.

Take a look at the clip first and then read on below. Handling infraction in your view? Yes or No?

According to the Laws of the Game this was a handling infraction because the player’s left hand and arm was in an unnatural position during contact with the ball. In my opinion, the player made herself larger the moment she jumped for the ball.

She turns her face away from the ball but you can see in slow motion that she sticks her left arm out and moves it toward the ball as she jumps. She made this decision just before she jumped while she was closing in on the goalkeeper.

If she had truly wanted to protect herself from the keeper’s shot or avoid the ball-arm contact then both arms would have been tucked against her body or covering her face or chest. She would also have jumped into the shot mostly with her back, not mostly frontal or sideways.

So I blew the whistle and disallowed the goal she scored in the moment after the handling infraction.

You can imagine that the folks associated with the white team weren’t happy, especially given that I had not awarded them a penalty for a similar situation earlier in the game. This frustration is understandable, of course.

Their main argument (which you can hear in the clip) was that the white player in the above clip also had no time to react to the shot from the goalkeeper, just like the earlier incident.

However, the key difference here is that the above white player had her left arm in an unnatural position in an attempt to gain an advantage. The blue player earlier in the game did not, as explained in my earlier blog post.

I hope you agree that it’s worth walking through these examples to show how the Laws of the Game are applied during actual games. It’s important to understand the nuances of the laws and how to interpret them according to FIFA and U.S. Soccer instructions.

And please keep in mind that referees have to make split-second decisions during fast-paced live action such as those shown in these two blog posts. We try our best but it won’t always be the correct decision, unfortunately.

And two reasonable people can come to different yet reasonable conclusions. This is why FIFA’s Laws of the Game include the phrase “…in the opinion of the referee…”.

Handling offense? Yes or no?

The below 30-second clip shows a potential handling offense in the penalty box during one of my recent U17G games. Watch this first before reading on – would you have let this go or whistled for a handling infraction?

Obvious handball, right? Well, NOT according to the Laws of the Game so I did not give a penalty kick for the white team.

It is probably fair the say that pretty much everyone associated with the white team disagreed with me and that everyone associated with the blue team was pleasantly surprised.

The easiest decision would have been to blow the whistle for a penalty kick – it almost certainly would have been accepted by pretty much everyone present. But it would also have been the wrong decision.

Here’s why this wasn’t an infraction (confirmed through slow-motion review of this clip):

  1. The ball was kicked hard and from very close range – probably a yard or so. The defender had no time to react. She could not have avoided the contact.
  2. The defender shows no deliberate attempt to deflect the flight of the ball or otherwise deliberately gain an advantage after the ball makes contact with the arm.
  3. The arm flops backwards on impact which typically strongly supports the notion that there was no deliberate attempt to control the ball. The arm would have been rigid and shown some forward movement or leaning into the ball if this was a deliberate attempt to control the ball.
  4. The arms were moving in a natural position given the movement of the player. Watch the couple of seconds before impact when the blue defender runs toward the attacker and even changes direction. She uses her arms to balance her body in a natural way. Keep in mind that the rules don’t say ‘straight down the side of her body’ but rather ‘natural position’. This natural position depends on the specific moment and context.

Please note that the location of this incident has no bearing on the decision. In other words, the fact that this happened in the penalty box doesn’t change how we apply the rules.

In fact, this would NOT have been an infraction even if the blue defender had been standing on the goal line and the arm contact had prevented a goal.

For additional background you might want to read one of my earlier posts on the ‘handling’ rule.

I hope this helps clarify a tricky part of the game.

The importance of winning!

Mark Suster tweeted this today. Thank you for making me smile @msuster.

funnycartoonmarksuster

A beautiful moment – learning to play through physical contact

An important part of player development in soccer is to learn to play through physical contact even when the player was, technically, fouled.

And an important skill for a referee is to recognize when to wait to blow the whistle until it has become clear that the player being unfairly challenged has indeed lost the ball.

In many cases (but not always) it is better to play ‘advantage’ and parents and coaches need to have the patience for this to unfold and then forget about the ‘unfair’ challenge that just occurred.

Also keep in mind that a referee can still yellow-card a player at the next stoppage even if an ‘advantage’ was given.

Here’s a perfect example during one of my recent U12B games between two top teams:

A small, slightly built but skillful midfielder was being challenged by first one, then two, then three much bigger boys. But he kept dribbling, kept moving and spinning, until he eventually, after around seven or eight seconds, broke free and was able to lead an attack on goal.

I was watching carefully, ready to whistle for a free kick if he had lost the ball at any point but was very glad to be able to signal for ‘advantage’ instead.

The moment this small boy broke free the parents erupted in very loud applause.

This moment was entertaining, surely boosted the boy’s confidence and the respect from his teammates and coach, and elevated skills over physicality.

A big win all-round. It was a beautiful moment.

A little patience can go a long way.

Memo to all youth clubs, coaches, and parents: humility and respect @FC Barcelona

“FC Barcelona take a lot of care over their principles.

They teach you to be respectful of opponents, respectful to the referees. 

This is very important.

At Barcelona we want the boys to grow up with humility.

Andres Carrasco, Barca youth coach (U8-U15) for 13 years (1998-2011)


The loneliest person at a game

Some perspective before your weekend games:

“I can see you, my son, in front of the television engrossed in the cartoons and in the football matches. We sit on the sofa together and you immediately ask me about the referee. Maybe it’s because when he’s dressed in yellow he grabs your attention, just like the characters from the cartoons. You like watching the man who has to decide, instantly, on a penalty, an offside, a foul. And it’s on him that the people on the terraces unload all the week’s resentment, all their anger in defeat.

In football there are many solitary roles: the center forward and the goalkeeper, for example. But the man who is really alone is him, my son, the referee who brings a smile to your face.

I’ve known several referees over the course of my career, and I’ve found sadness in all of them, a sadness that’s never been revealed before: it comes from those difficult years, for example, refereeing on pitches where there’s no protection, refereeing lads who don’t yet shave and are bullied by furious fathers, obsessed managers and violent, disrespectful players. It all makes you want to say enough is enough.

youthref

I’ll always feel for those youngsters who go off to referee in the trenches, their only protection their own courage. Youngsters who rather than go for a night out at the cinema with friends, choose to dedicate themselves to making sure that the secular rite we watch together from the sofa starts in perfect time.

Without the referee football wouldn’t have any sense – you can play without a goalkeeper or a center-forward, but not without the man who runs and runs and runs without ever touching the ball. He never scores. He never ever receives heartfelt applause.”

– Pierluigi Collina, the man whose stare could reduce celebrity soccer players to silence is considered the best referee in the world, having been named FIFA’s ‘Best Referee of the Year’ six consecutive times. Currently head of UEFA Referees (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierluigi_Collina).