Early in the second half of Saturday’s D.C. United match, the home side looked dead in the water. Lewis Morgan had just scored a goal after a deflection off of Steven Birnbaum, and Inter Miami had doubled their lead. That was when referee Rubiel Vazquez took the long walk to the review monitor and, after video review, he issued Miami center back Roman Torres a red card, effectively wiping Morgan’s goal away and giving United new life to go along with a man advantage. Was it the right decision?
In the 51st minute, Miami defender Roman Torres tried to play a pass on the ground through the center of the pitch. The ball struck a charging Julian Gressel and ricocheted into the air, back toward and over Torres. He tried to control the bouncing ball, challenged by Gressel. With his arm extended and parallel to the ground, Torres touched the ball with his open palm and/or wrist, which appeared to aid in his control.
Gressel and Torres continued to fight for the ball, with the latter eventually winning out, while the former vehemently claimed that Torres had handled. Twenty seconds later, Morgan was scoring what looked like Miami’s second goal.
Handling is one of the Laws of the Game that are deliberately ambiguous, allowing room for the opinion of the referee. The Laws state that “it is an offense if a player deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, including moving the hand/arm towards the ball.” Based on that verbiage, there can be little said to argue that Torres handled. He extended his arm toward the ball and turned his palm out, as a basketball player would try to control a bouncing ball. It is unquestionable. Even if one contended that Torres, for example, was going to fall and used his arm to maintain his balance, the Laws continue: “It is usually an offence if a player touches the ball with their hand/arm when the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger” and/or “the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm.”) In this case, Torres did not touch the ball after it rebounded off of Gressel, and then touched the ball with his hand above shoulder level. “Usually” that is an offence, and anyone arguing to the contrary would have a hard time saying why it isn’t.
Miami probably feels aggrieved because it wiped away their goal and turned the game on its head, with United going on to win 2-1. The end result is inarguable because the game should be returned to its state when Torres committed the offense, in this case a 1-0 Miami lead. There cannot be a universe in which both Torres is ejected and Morgan scores, as the latter could not happen after the former. In the end, Rubiel Vazquez did the important thing, which is to get the call right, even if it rules out a goal and tilts the balance of the game.