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Anatomy of a Goal: Zardes slots home a controversial winner

This week, we try to determine whether Zardes’s goal should have been called back.

Welcome to the Anatomy of a Goal, where each week we dissect one goal (or near goal) from Columbus Crew SC‘s previous match.

For match 24 of the 2018 MLS Season, we take a look at Gyasi Zardes’ 91 game-winning goal in stoppage time that gave Crew SC a 1-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo on Saturday.

Here’s a look at the finish from the Columbus striker.

The Black & Gold, riding a two-game win streak, entered this match facing a Houston side that was in the middle of a losing streak and missing multiple players due to fatigue and discipline. Nonetheless, Crew SC played down to the level of their opponent for most of the first half. Columbus put together a much better second half but was ultimately unable to find the back of the net as the clock pushed past the 90th minute.

Zardes’ winner, while thrilling, was not the most creative goal scored by the Black & Gold. Harrison Afful played in an early cross that his striker was able to settle and tap home. However, there is significant controversy surrounding the positioning of Zardes and fellow forward Patrick Mullins, whether either of the attackers was offside during Afful’s cross, and whether Mullins played the ball from an offside position.

Before we dive into the controversy, let’s take a look at the buildup of this play.

Zardes’ winner begins with a one-two between Wil Trapp and Jonathan Mensah. After the two beat the slight Dynamo pressure, Trapp plays a quick pass back to Zack Steffen.

Steffen takes a few touches forward and plays a square pass over to Gaston Sauro. The Dynamo, seemingly content to play for a draw, dropped their attackers back toward their defensive half.

Sauro, feeling no pressure from Houston, takes a few touches forward and slots the ball up to Pedro Santos who slotted into the left back position when Milton Valenzuela was subbed out for Mullins.

Santos carries forward until he sees Andrew Wenger turn toward him. The winger quickly slots a pass to Artur in the middle of the field.

Artur carries the ball toward the midfield circle and sees Afful, unmarked, past the midfield line. The Brazilian midfielder plays an accurate, long pass toward the right back.

Further ahead, Zardes and Mullins begin their attacking runs. Houston’s defensive block is very tight, contracting all 10 outfield players into the middle third of the field.

Afful has some open space in front of him and carries the ball forward.

At this point, it appears that both Zardes and Mullins are being held onside by Adolfo Machado.

Afful sees the impending pressure from Adam Lundqvist and hits an early cross toward the middle of the field.

With no line drawn on the image, it appears that both Mullins and Zardes are offside. The angle of the image makes it difficult to determine whether Kevin Garcia is holding Zardes on, but Mullins appears to be clearly offside.

From a different angle, Zardes’ positioning looks much different. Above, it appears that Garcia is either slightly ahead or exactly even with Zardes. With no better angle, whether Zardes is or is not offside is a judgment call by the assistant referee, who is in an excellent position to make this call.

Remember, Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is to be used in instances in which there is a “clear and obvious” error by a referee. If Zardes is judged to be onside by the assistant referee, the above image does not show that the AR made a clear and obvious error. This is a judgment call.

Mullins, on the the other hand, is clearly offside.

As seen above, Mullins was clearly offside when the ball was played. Nonetheless, a player may be offside when a ball is played so long as they do not interfere with the play, interfere with an opponent or gain an advantage from an offside position. Does Mullins gain an advantage here from being in an offside position? Only if he absorbs the defensive attention of the goalkeeper, takes a defender away from Zardes or actually plays the ball.

So, the remaing questions are whether Mullons absorbs the attention of a defender or whether he actually touches the ball. If either of these are the case then the goal should be called back.

In this play, there are three relevant defensive players in Lundqvist, Machado and goalkeeper Joe Willis. Lundqvist trails this whole play, so Mullins does not take his attention away from Zardes. Machado sticks with Zardes, trailing just behind him, for the whole play and is also unaffected by Mullins’ positioning.

So, the remaining questions to be answered are whether Mullins prevents Willis from making an accurate play and whether Mullins touches the ball.

Mullins’s potential touch of the ball is done outside the 18-yard box. Willis does not make any sort of movement toward Mullins, and follows the trajectory of the ball with his eyes. It’s safe to say that Mullins does not interfere with any defensive players in this play.

So, does he touch the ball?

That is a much more difficult question to answer. Above is the best image that I could find of Mullins’ attempt to flick the ball on toward Zardes. On repeated viewing, I was unable to determine whether Mullins actually touches the ball.

As with the call of Zardes being onside, with no better angle it becomes a judgment call as to whether Mullins plays the ball. With no evidence that the referees made a clear and obvious error, there should be no video review of this play. Having said that, I’m sure we would all be clamoring for an offside call if this went against Crew SC.

After the ball either does or does not touch Mullins head, it takes a tricky bounce before reaching Zardes. The striker takes an excellent first touch with his chest and settles the ball down to his foot.

Zardes then takes a quick shot around Willis . . .

. . . and into the back of the net!


  1. Houston gave Columbus a lot of space to work with, and the Black & Gold took advantage of that space with an excellent cross, and deserved assist, for Afful.
  2. Zardes’ first touch has always been a point of contention, but during this play his first touch was excellent.
  3. All of the points of controversy in this play were judgment calls. When that is the case, VAR should not be used.
  4. In some other universe, Houston scored the same goal and I wrote a long piece arguing that the striker was offside and that he did play the ball. Luckily, in this one all the judgment calls benefited Crew SC.