[UPDATE 7/20/19: It has come out that both the head of the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), Howard Webb, and the referee Alan Kelly have both admitted the call was not clearly communicated to the New York City FC players. This piece was written at the time based on the referees’ previous statements and in-person accounts at the game]
For one New York soccer team, Sunday’s Hudson River Derby was another win in the tilted series that currently favors one side with a record of 9-2-4. For the other, it’s a set-back in a season that has the potential to be great or awful as the year reaches the midway point. But neither were the main discussion points following the Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over New York City FC. Instead, the main focus was on one man; head referee Alan Kelly.
A throw-in started it all ironically. Marc Rzatkowski received the throw early in the 60th minute and passed it up to the right side towards Alex Muyl who was in-tow of City’s Alexander Callens. The boy in blue got to the ball first and kicked it clearly out of bounds as the line official called it as though the ball went out over the back-line; corner kick. Callens, annoyed, turned around but unbeknownst to him and the television cameras Kelly had run in and motioned to the office to change the call.
Soon Muyl made a short throw in to Rzatkowski, who then quickly moved the ball to Cristian Cásseres Jr at the top right corner of the box just as City players began to fully realize what was going on. Upon arrival, the ball was aired into the box and found Daniel Royer’s head before heading into the net.
And then all hell broke loose in Harrison.
Royer’s 60th minute, game-winning goal, his second of the match, can be described in the faces that preceded it. The confusion of the Callens as he turns around from his light jog towards net, only to see Rzatkowski dribbling the ball towards him. Royer’s uncertainty and lack of celebration as he hugs Muyl following the goal, unsure of what will happen next. Sean Johnson’s confused fury as he charges from the net towards the official asking how the play changed from a corner to a throw-in with so little clarification being given.
After the game City’s head coach Domènec Torrent, who has been critical of league officials in the past, let his frustrations be known in a press conference.
“I said ‘You made a mistake, and you know that’,” said Torrent,“(The ref) decided the game. I said to him ‘You decided the game and you know that. You decided the game. You are not brave, you decided the game.’
“What is the reason why? Maybe he made a mistake, and it’s not a corner. I accept that. But when you say corner, two, three seconds and tell my player it’s a corner, it’s a mistake.”
The NYCFC players arguing with Kelly and the other officials also took up a solid three minutes of playtime too. No cards came from this extended “discussion” which added up and helped the second-half stoppage time reach nine minutes total.
For you to understand my opinion on what happened, I need to break down the series of events. First of all, being the top-notch journalist that I am, I wasn’t even watching the play! In fact I was taking a note that said: “Ball really staying in NYCFC end.” By the time I looked up the ball had been headed towards the net, and when I looked again the NYCFC players had surrounded the ref meaning I needed to watch the television set next to me playing FS1 to try and figure out anything that had happened.
In fact, the information I originally got from fellow media was that NYCFC had complained another ball had been thrown on the field. It wasn’t until later when RBNY public relations personnel stepped down to give us the official word from PRO that we got the order of events.
So in a week where NYCFC couldn’t catch a break in regards to rule-following, see their penalty kick shootout in the U.S. Open Cup where Orlando City fans got past security to stand behind the net, where does this fall in the good old “injustice meter?” Well, nowhere to be honest.
What we saw in Harrison was street level, old-school soccer. One team saw an opportunity to take advantage and they did, and in this case, the Red Bulls were the benefited team. Now truth be told, in 2019 things like Video Assistant Referee (VAR) are supposed to eliminate unfair advantages or times where rules are bent but City wasn’t totally seen as taken advantage of. Kelly seems to have clearly demonstrated his decision to overturn, it just happens that the back-line wasn’t looking at that time. If the official decision wasn’t made clear this would be a totally different story but in this case, people weren’t looking, RBNY moved quickly, and the ball went into the goal which means this all blew up.
Was it “immoral,” in the sense that RBNY took advantage of a clear disadvantaged City side? Sure. Would NYCFC do the same thing? I’d bet so. Was any rule broken? No. Did a team get screwed over? Yes, but that’s how things work out sometimes.
At the end of the day, Red Bull caught a lucky break while City didn’t. It happens every day in every sport and while it may seem unfair or another example of “MLS referees” it truly isn’t. Both teams have just over half a season to go and another league match-up against one another next month where this will probably be on the minds of one team and far off for the other.