Welcome to the Anatomy of a Goal, where each week we dissect one goal (or near goal) from a previous Columbus Crew match.
For match five of the 2021 MLS season, we take a look at Adam Buksa’s 86th minute goal, and review whether Buksa was offside, that gave the New England Revolution all three points against the Crew on Sunday.
After another listless performance on the road against Toronto FC, Columbus took a same-day flight to New England for a match against the team’s 2020 Eastern Conference Final opponent. The Black & Gold played the Revs to a scoreless first half and looked well on their way to earning a vital road point during a period of schedule congestion.
While light on tactical analysis, Buksa’s late-game goal provides an opportunity to review MLS’s use, or lack of use in this case, of Video Assistant Review (VAR) to determine whether a player is offside.
New England’s game winner begins with Matt Polster preparing to receive a long clearance from Andrew Farrell. Crew debutant Liam Fraser (18) moves toward Polster to provide defensive pressure.
Polster wins the ball while Fraser decides to put on aggressive pressure.
Fraser’s pressure is too much and he takes Polster to the ground granting a free kick to the Revolution.
The ball is picked up by Alexandru Matan who tosses the ball back toward midfield in frustration. Wilfrid Kaptoum (5) approaches the ball as it stops rolling and looks to quickly get play restarted. Carles Gil (22) joins Kaptoum while Brandon Bye lines up out wide.
Kaptoum quickly restarts play with a short pass to Gil. Columbus is briefly caught off guard but is fortunately in a defensive setup.
Gil carries the ball toward Fraser and finds himself with four options. He can play a pass out to Bye on the flank, attempt to beat Fraser on the dribble, play a touch pass forward to Tajon Buchanan or hit a diagonal pass to Gustavo Bou (7).
Gil hits a pass past Matan to Bye. Aboubacar Keita spots Bye and shifts out to the flank.
Bye carries the ball toward the 18-yard line while Buksa makes a run between Jonathan Mensah and Harrison Afful.
Bye carries forward before preparing to hit a cross into the middle of the goal box toward Buska.
In MLS, and in most leagues, VAR is utilized when a clear and obvious error has been made by the referee. In objective situations (i.e. a ball is over the line or not), VAR can and should be used when the video shows that the play on the field is obviously different than the call made by the referee. In subjective situations (i.e. fouls) it is more of a judgment call by the VAR referee as to whether to send the play down to the head official.
VAR is managed by a fifth referee and the lead head official on the field. The VAR referee reviews every questionable play and offside (whether it is sent to the head official or not) and is able to have a microphone-assisted discussion with the head official on the field. If the play needs to be reviewed, the VAR referee will initiate the review with the head official who will then jog over to the video booth to review the play. This is a different process than in most other leagues. In the English Premier League, for example, the head official on the field only looks at the video for subjective (judgment call) decisions like red cards and penalties. Objective (like offside and out of bounds) decisions are made by the VAR referee.
Though these rules are clearly laid out, things get more complicated with offside decisions. In theory, offside is an objective rule. A player (a portion of the player that can play the ball like his legs, shoulders or head) is offside if he is in front of the ball and closer to the goal than the second-to-last defender. The last defender is the goalkeeper 99 times out of 100, so it’s usually the last outfield player.
In the English Premier League, offside VAR is determined by a Hawkeye system similar to that used in tennis matches. This results in players determined to be offside by the slimmest margins, often not able to be discerned without the overlaid lines. There is an argument to be made that if artificial lines must be used then an error cannot be “clear and obvious.” Fortunately, MLS does not use these lines and instead relies on the head official’s naked eye review of the play on video.
A further complication is that the offside review is done usually by using one or two individual frames of video. Much like the images used here, a frame of video is one of a series of photos that is rapidly taken by a TV camera and then played back at high speed like a flip book. Video looks smooth to the human eye due to the complicated interaction between our eyes and our brains, filling in the very small gaps that exist. Because the offside call is taken from a single image, there is the chance that the image was taken either before or after the ball is in the position of having left the foot of the passing player.
In brief summary, an additional complication of VAR for objective calls like offside is that a human must select the individual frame that they think best matches the time the ball leaves the passer’s foot.
Both this image and the image above represent two frames that could have been utilized by the referee under VAR. In the image before this one, it appears that Buksa is just onside. However, in this image, it appears that Buksa may be just offside.
Fans of the Black & Gold do have a fair gripe that this play could have been reviewed, but this instead seems to be a case of MLS’s VAR system working exactly as it should. If two different frames could be used and those frames tell two different stories, then there was no clear and obvious error by the head referee and the call should stand.
VAR and the officials here got this one right.
Back to the play, Buksa is able to beat Mensah as Bye’s ball loops into the penalty box.
Goalkeeper Eloy Room moves out to try to meet the ball and reduce Buksa’s time to make a play.
Mensah makes a last-ditch effort at a tackle but is unable to get a foot onto the ball.
Buksa just gets a foot on the ball, sending a shot toward Room and the goal.
Room is just able to get a foot onto the ball but is unable to deflect it away from the goal.
The ball bounces over Room’s foot . . .
. . . and into the back of the net.
- Fraser had no need to play Polster as aggressively as he did on this play. The middle of the field is not a particularly dangerous place to give away a free kick but he could have at least slowed the play down.
- Kaptoum and Gil play quickly but are unable to catch the Crew napping. Keita could have shifted out to Bye more quickly but Columbus was willing to give up crosses at this point.
- The offside decision was close, but the officials got this one correct. There was no clear and obvious error in calling this offside so no need to review.
- Room is nearly able to make a save but is just a half-second late to get his foot down. This will be a point the Black & Gold regret not securing.