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Anatomy of a Goal: an Atlanta handball leads to the game winner

This week we look at Villalba’s goal following a Larentowicz handball.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

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 25 of the 2018 MLS Season, we take a look at Jeff Larentowicz’s handball . . . er . . . Hector Villalba’s 76th minute goal that put Atlanta United up 2-1 as part of their 3-1 win over Crew SC on Sunday.

Here’s a look at the finish from the Atlanta attacker.

Columbus has never beaten the Five Stripes. Sure there was the penalty kick win in the playoffs, but the Black & Gold have yet to come away with a regular season win against Atlanta. There were multiple chances for Crew SC to take a lead during the nearly 20 minutes following Gyasi Zardes’ excellent equalizer but they were ultimately unable to capitalize.

Villalba’s game winner follows a controversial no-call on a ball that struck United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz’s hand in the goal box. So, we will break down the circumstances leading up to the potential handball and follow through with Villalba’s goal.

This whole sequence starts with Lalas Abubakar stopping the Five Stripes’ attack and carrying the ball forward.

Abubakar looks surprised that he has so much space ahead of him and slides the ball over to Wil Trapp.

Trapp also has acres of space and is easily able to carry the ball toward midfield.

As he crosses midfield, the Columbus captain plays a simple pass to re-united teammate Justin Meram.

Meram is also unpressured and able to easily carry the ball deeper into Atlanta territory, where he slides the ball over to Zardes.

Unlike his teammates, Zardes is immediately pressured. The striker plays a quick drop pass to Trapp and then cuts right between the defenders. Meram cycles back into a position to receive a pass from Trapp.

Under pressure, Trapp plays a one-touch pass toward Meram on the sideline.

Meram dribbles toward Chris McCann, and then cuts toward the goal line.

In vintage form, Meram fakes a cross and cuts back toward the top of the penalty box. Meram’s cut catches McCann and frees the winger to make a play toward the middle of the penalty box.

Meram, free from McCann, now has an angle to a pass for a wide open Patrick Mullins who is streaking into the penalty box. Larentowicz slides over to pick up Meram. Note the position of Larentowicz’s right arm. It is away from his body at this point.

Before we look at the potential handball, let’s take a look at the play zoomed in and in motion.

McCann recovers on Meram who must quickly decide whether to cross the ball to Mullins or whether to attempt to beat both defenders off the dribble. Larentowicz had almost put his right arm behind his body but now he has moved it slightly out from his side.

Meram hits his cross and Larentowicz moves his arm further away from his body.

Notice the position of Larentowicz’s eyes as the ball nears his arm. The Five Stripes’ midfielder can clearly see the ball. His right arm is now more than a foot away from his body.

Above is the moment where the ball hits Larentowicz on the hand.

After the ball hits his arm, Larentowicz’s hand flops backward from the impact.

Under the FIFA Laws of the Game, a hand ball is the “deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or the arm.” When determining whether a handling was deliberate, a referee should take into account the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand), the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball) and the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an offense.

As we discussed last week, the Video Assistant Referee is to be utilized when the field officials have made a “clear and obvious error.” Last week, I contended that whether Mullins played the ball was a judgment call and was correctly not reviewed by the VAR staff. Because the play was a judgment call, there was not a clear and obvious error.

The same contention could be made here. If the VAR determined that this was a judgment call as to whether the handling was or was not deliberate, VAR should not be used because there would not be a clear and obvious error.

However, I think this play is different from last week’s non-use of VAR and was a clear and obvious error by the referee.

As you can see in the above images. Larentowicz’s arm starts near his body and them moves out as the ball is played. The midfielder then sees the ball and leaves his arm away from his body where it strikes the ball. In my viewing, this play meets all three of the criteria listed in the handball rule. There are nearly 10 feet between Meram and Larentowicz, suggesting that the Atlanta midfielder should have had time to move his hand away from the ball. Larentowicz’s arm is moving slightly toward the ball.

This was a clear and obvious error. VAR should have been used to negate the Villalba goal that follows and award a penalty kick to Crew SC.

After his successful handling, Larentowicz clears the ball toward midfield. Everyone in black is clamoring for a handball.

Larentowicz’s clearance lands in front of Villalba, a speedy attacker who already has a head start on Hector Jimenez.

Villalba carries the ball down the sideline and is chased by Jimenez. Abubakar makes a supplemental defensive run and should be focused on preventing Villalba from cutting into the middle of the field.

Jonathan Mensah tracks back with Josef Martinez on his heels.

Free from Jimenez, Villalba cuts toward the goal. Abubakar must continue to force Villalba toward the sideline and away from the middle of the goal. Jonathan continues his run in front of Martinez.

Abubakar is not able to keep Villalba outside, and gets caught on the wrong foot as the Atlanta attacker cuts inside. Jonathan must now continue to mark Martinez while also cutting off Villalba’s angle, a nearly impossible job.

Jonathan has now commited his defensive efforts to Villalba. Martinez is open for an easy through pass and Miguel Almiron is ready for a drop ball.

Villalba cuts across the face of Jonathan who is able to initially prevent a shot on goal. However, Villalba finds an inch of space and fires a shot toward the back post.

As always, soccer is a game of inches. Villalba’s shot will just barely be missed by Jonathan and Zack Steffen.

The ball travels just under Jonathan’s outstretched left foot . . .

. . . and just an inch under Steffen’s left hand.

Villalba watches as his shot beats Steffen and rolls . . .

. . . into the back of the net.


  1. Unlike last week, my opinion is that Larentowicz’s handling of the ball was deliberate and thus a clear and obvious error by the referee that should have been reviewed by VAR. If the play is reviewed and overturned, Atlanta would lose the goal while Columbus would have been given a penalty kick. Mercedes-Benz Stadium would not have been a happy place to be.
  2. Abubakar has to do a better job of preventing Villalba from cutting inside. He is a big, physical presence and needs to use that physicality to his advantage in this situation.
  3. Even then, this goal took a missed call, a lucky clearance and was twice inches from being stopped. Sometimes luck isn’t on your side.