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Breakdown: Axel Sjoberg’s red card

Should Axel have gotten a red card along with the PK?

MLS: Portland Timbers at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In the 27th minute of Saturday’s game between the Colorado Rapids and the Portland Timbers, Axel Sjoberg went to ground trying to stop an incoming shot. The shot ended up hitting off his hand before bouncing to an offside Portland player who tapped it in. Since he was offside, the goal was brought back and a PK was given along with Sjoberg getting a red.

In the time since the play, people have had all sorts of opinions on what the correct call would have been in this situation, so I’m going to take a stab at it while drawing on my five years of refereeing experience.

Here is a look at the play:

What we know

Even in the midst of some controversy, there are a few things everyone seems to agree on:

  • The Timbers player was offside on the deflection, meaning the play had to be brought back and a decision had to be made on the block
  • The ball did hit off a part of Axel’s body that can be considered handling (a.k.a. it hit his hand/wrist)
  • It was a shot on goal in a dangerous area

Was it handling?

The first thing the referee had to decide is whether or not the play was a handball. While we know the ball hit Sjoberg in the hand, that does not guarantee that it is handling. For that to be the case, Sjoberg has to be deemed to have his arm in an unnatural position, and it has to be hand to ball not ball to hand.

First, the unnatural position. When the ball hits Sjoberg, his hands are below his as he is falling down. Personally, I tend to like to catch myself when I go down to the ground too, so I naturally put my hand below me.

The thing that makes Sjoberg’s arm movement look a little fishy is the big wind up before he goes down. Axel is not just sliding here. He realized where the shot was going and tried to stop his momentum to his right so he would drop straight down and not slide past the shot.

After seeing this, I tested it in my living room (yes my housemates think I’m crazy). I tried taking a few steps sideways and then trying to drop. Guess what happened! I actually would fling my arms up subconsciously to make my momentum rotational instead of lateral. After flinging them up, they would go down to catch my fall. Again, this was all natural. My flail wasn’t as dramatic as Sjoberg’s, but I am also a little smaller than him so who knows.

The final thing worth noting is the distance of Sjoberg’s hand from his body. As much as his movement seems natural to me, the call becomes a lot more subjective the more your arm is away from your body, and unfortunately, there is a bit of distance from the hand to the rest of the body.

Second, was it a case of ball to hand or hand to ball? This part is tricky and an argument could be made both ways. The shot comes from about three yards away. If someone takes a shot at you from three yards away, you have no time to react to where the ball is going. That is why you will see a lot of no calls when balls hit a hand from this close.

On the flip side, I argued above that Sjoberg could tell the direction the shooter was aiming, and that is why he tried to drop straight down. It would not be a reach to argue that he was putting his hand in a dangerous spot and was not totally innocent of ball to hand.

Where does this leave us? Sjoberg’s hand seemed to be in a natural position, but it is far from his body. It is also hard to really gauge if it was ball to hand or hand to ball. Therefore, I would put this is the “Rapids fans think it is not a PK but Timbers fans think it is so whatever the ref says” category. Basically, I’m relatively ok with this being called either way.

Why it is not a red card

Up until a few years ago, this would have been an easy decision. If you deemed the play handling, it would be denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity (DOGSO), and that is a red card.

This ruling actually became more complicated about three years ago with the inclusion of a new rule often referred to as the double jeopardy rule. Basically, the rule decided that getting a red card and a penalty kick seemed a little harsh for fouls that fell into the DOGSO category. The rule made it so that any accidental DOGSO fouls only resulted in yellow cards. If the foul was very much intentional, it would still receive a red card. More info can be found here.

This rule makes it so Sjoberg should have gotten a yellow card. Since it can be argued that his hand was in a natural position, and there is no sign that he takes his hand and moves it into the way while the ball is heading toward him, I think you can chalk it up as an “accidental” handball. There is no moment where Axel goes, “Watch this, I’m gonna block it with my hand.”

If you want an example of what would be the intentional handball the rule refers to, think Luis Suarez in the 2010 World Cup where he literally played goalie for a second. In that play, Suarez is on the goal line and raises his arms into a very clearly unnatural position to block a shot. There is clearly a difference between this (intentional) and Sjoberg (accidental).

In conclusion, the penalty is pretty up to the individual referee. If I was a neutral fan, I would probably not have much of a problem with it being called a PK or not. As far as the red card goes, I do not think it is enough to warrant a red given the inclusion of the double jeopardy rule a few years back by the International Football Association Board.

As a final tidbit, the Rapids were actually really unlucky that the original goal was ruled offside. Had the deflection gone to an onside player, the referee would have allowed play to go on and allowed the goal. In that situation, the rules state that a referee is not allowed to go back and give a red card for DOGSO when a goal is still scored on the play.

What do you think the call should have been? Pk or no PK? Red card? Yellow card? No card? Let us know in the comments section below!