FC Cincinnati’s Yerson Mosquera brought a drab MLS playoff game to sudden life after 93-plus minutes of grinding. He lit up TQL Stadium and beat the Philadelphia Union with one emphatic swing of his right foot Saturday night. And then he waited.
He waited, and waited, while video assistant referees (VARs) checked his stoppage-time winner, the only goal of a chippy quarterfinal.
He waited as viewers saw a replay that seemed to show fellow Cincinnati defender Ian Murphy drifting offside in the buildup to the goal, before Murphy headed a cross onto Mosquera’s foot.
He waited as many of those viewers, especially those in Philadelphia, assumed the goal would be disallowed by VAR, because (No. 32) Murphy’s shoulder was ahead of (No. 9) Julián Carranza’s when Álvaro Barreal swung in the cross.
“We have an iPad on the bench,” Union head coach Jim Curtin later said. “Every player and coach that saw it said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s offside, it’s coming back.’ It’s also why we didn’t have a [substitution ready] immediately, it was so clear to everybody that was telling me.”
But then referee Ismail Elfath stunned everybody by signaling that the check was complete; the goal would stand; and Cincinnati would hold on to win, 1-0.
The reason, according to the officials, was “because [Murphy] was judged to be even with the second-to-last defender,” they told pool reporter Pat Brennan.
But that, at best, is a gross oversimplification. The actual reason is more complex.
MLS reviews offside decisions differently than some other top leagues, namely the English Premier League. It does not use Hawk-Eye technology and digitally drawn lines to assess with remarkable (and sometimes annoying) precision whether an attacker’s knee was ahead of or level with a defender’s toe. It instead asks the VARs to make a determination based on the available replays.
By viewing those replays alone, it is impossible to determine with 100% certainty whether Murphy was offside or “even.” He certainly looks offside. He probably was. But the best angle, from a camera perched in line with the top of the 18-yard box, is deceiving. Even Curtin admitted: “I can’t say definitively whether it’s on or off.”
A better angle would probably show that Murphy’s upper arm — the body part in question, because it can legally play the ball — is actually very close to level with Carranza‘s upper arm or right foot, though perhaps still slightly in front of it. But “probably” isn’t the evidential standard that VARs must clear to overturn a call. They’re only supposed to correct “clear and obvious” mistakes.
So, if the assistant referee had raised his flag to call Murphy offside on the field, that hypothetical call almost surely would have stood as well. But he didn’t. The “clear and obvious” burden of proof fell to the VARs. And they decided not necessarily that Murphy was onside, only that they weren’t sure he was offside.
Cincinnati, the league’s best team all season, will host the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference final next weekend.