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Anatomy of a Goal: Unkel makes a clear and obvious error in reversing goal

This week we look at the Ted Unkel controversy and determine whether he was right to call back the goal.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-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 11 of the 2019 MLS Season, we take a look at Pedro Santos’ 22nd minute goal that put the Crew up 1-0 was called back by referee Ted Unkel for a foul on Wil Trapp, setting of a chain of events that lead to Columbus’s eventual defeat at D.C. United.

Here’s a look at the full sequence.

This week’s edition of Anatomy of a Goal will cover the sequence leading up to the disallowed Santos goal. We will look at both potential foul calls (by Gyasi Zardes and Trapp), Unkel’s use of Video Assistant Review and subsequent decision, and the goal that Santos had called back. First, a review of the full play and the (subsequently disallowed) goal by Santos.

Waylon Francis sends a long pass up the field toward Zardes.

Zardes and Frederic Brillant race toward the end of Francis’ pass.

Brillant just beats Zardes and sends the ball up the field into the path of Leonardo Jara.

Brillant and Zardes collide, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Brillant tumbles backward, embellishing what little contact there was as his pass heads toward Jara.

Above, Unkel calls for the advantage on this play. By playing the advantage, Unkel acknowledges that he would call a foul on Zardes but the foul call would disadvantage D.C. more than letting play continue. Unkel could rescind the advantage call if the advantage quickly disappears but he does not. That foul was acknowledged and left behind by letting Jara carry the ball to midfield.

Jara sees Luciano Acosta unmarked inside the midfield circle. Unkel continues heading toward midfield as Jara plays a pass directly at the referee. Trapp sees the opportunity to intercept this pass and cuts toward United’s No. 10.

Somehow, Unkel runs directly into the path of the ball, briefly colliding with Acosta. Trapp continues toward the collision.

The ball heads toward Unkel and Acosta as Trapp arrives. Acosta attempts to get around Unkel and to the ball.

Trapp arrives, sending Acosta sprawling to the ground.

Unkel, apparently thinking he committed a foul, gives the universal sign of “I didn’t do it!” Despite being in the midst of the collision he does not blow his whistle to call a foul on Trapp. Trapp runs toward the rolling ball to set off the Black & Gold’s break.

The Crew captain sees Santos running unmarked a fires a pass toward the winger.

Santos picks up Trapp’s pass and quickly carries the ball toward the D.C. United goal.

Santos carries the ball toward the penalty box on the Columbus break. Steve Birnbaum makes an angled run into Santos’ path to cut off his angle toward goal and hopefully prevent the winger from cutting in on his left foot. Federico Higuain provides a passing option in the channel between Birnbaum and Donovan Pines. Zardes makes a run closer to the middle of the goal.

With Birnbaum applying pressure in the box, Santos has three options: a difficult near-post shot on goal, a through pass to Higuain or a shallow cross to Zardes.

Santos decides to take a shot on goal.

Despite the tough angle, the ball heads just between Bill Hamid and the near post . . .

. . . and into the back of the net!

But wait! Unkel points to his ear. The VAR has asked Unkel to take another look at the play for a potential foul.

The initial assumption was that Zardes’ contact with Brillant was the play under video review. Above is that play as it appeared in the game feed.

The gif above shows a closer angle on the play. From this closer angle, it is much easier to see what contact there was between Zardes and Brillant.

Zardes clearly arrives after Brillant has already reached the ball.

Zardes’ momentum carries him forward and it appears that his foot is about to make contact with Brillant.

Instead, Zardes steps over Brilliant, avoiding that contact.

But, as Zardes continues through, his elbow or upper arm bumps Brillant on the chin. This contact is likely enough to earn a foul call, but Brillant also greatly embellishes by flopping backward after this contact.

If you remember the image above, Unkel called advantage on this play. By doing this, Unkel acknowledge the foul but decided to let play continue. Unkel did not rescind the advantage. So, this is not the play that is under video review.

We have two angles of the Trapp/Acosta/Unkel meet-up that was determined to be a foul. Let’s look at both.

The first angle comes from the regular game camera, looking down at the action.

Unkel and Acosta bump into each other before both the ball and Trapp arrive.

Acosta keeps his footing after the initial contact and Unkel doesn’t seem like he knows what to do. Trapp looks for an opening to step to the ball.

Unkel doesn’t get out of the way, obstructing both Acosta and Trapp. Trapp’s right foot moves toward Acosta’s left foot.

Above is likely where the contact, if any, occurred. It is unclear whether Trapp kicks Acosta’s foot out from under him or Acosta brings his foot down on top of Trapp’s foot.

Acosta slowly tumbles backward but Unkel does not call a foul.

The second angle is from a sideline camera. This angle provides us with the best look at the contact between Trapp’s right foot and Acosta’s left foot.

From this angle, you can see Trapp’s foot head where Acosta’s foot is. However, combined with the above angle it appears that Acosta’s foot is in the air at this point.

This image is the best view of Acosta and Trapp’s contact. From this angle, it appears that Acosta’s foot comes down on top of Trapp’s foot rather than Trap kicking Acosta’s foot out from under him.

Unkel disagrees. He reviewed the above call and determined that Trapp fouled Acosta, negating the goal and leveling the game at 0.

So, was Unkel wrong? Did Trapp foul Acosta? I think Unkel is wrong but not necessarily because Trapp did not foul Acosta. Various MLS talking heads have already argued that Trapp fouled Acosta, but all agree that it’s a close call. The purpose of VAR is for referees to review calls that were a “clear and obvious error.” The term “clear and obvious” is imperative in this situation. I don’t fault Unkel or the VAR for initiating a video review, but as I have shown above, it is nowhere near clear that Trapp fouled Acosta. The Crew captain may very well have taken Acosta’s foot out from under him but it is neither clear nor obvious.

The call on the field was no foul and a goal. For that call to be overturned it must be determined that the call was, again, a clear and obvious error. All bias aside, I can’t say whether or not Trapp fouled Acosta. From the first angle, it looks like he slightly takes Acosta’s foot out from under him but from the second angle it looks like Acosta comes down on top of Trapp. There is absolutely nothing clear and obvious about this call, which should have resulted in the play standing as call. But, it didn’t, and in a situation where a referee initiates the contact and uses review to go back and change his call on the field, this entire scenario looks like a referee trying to make up for getting too involved in the play.


  1. Zardes probably fouled Brillant, but Unkel played the advantage and decided not to call the play back.
  2. Santos took a difficult shot and finished well, but the goal was incorrectly called back.
  3. The no-call on Trapp’s contact with Acosta was not a clear and obvious error and should have been allowed to stand. A call cannot be overturned because the play could have been a foul. Overturning a call requires the referee to determine that his call on the field was a clear and obvious error. That was not the case here. Unkel made a grievous error, yet again.