Plays don’t get much more innocuous than what seemed to be happening around the 60th minute. Joao Plata threw the ball in to Stefan Frei, a courtesy after the Seattle Sounders had kicked the ball out in order to allow Jamison Olave to address an injury.
Frei touched the ball a couple times before picking it up and looking to pass. What happened next was anything but innocuous.
Yura Movsisyan was hanging around, just barely in Frei’s periphery. Just as Frei prepared to throw the ball, Movsisyan reached out his foot and made a steal. After some scrambling defense, Plata ended up scoring to snatch away momentum.
The Sounders would go on to win anyway, rendering the play mostly inconsequential. But that hasn’t stopped it from being plastered all over the internet (perhaps most notably in a sponsored tweet by Fox Soccer), mostly with Frei being reduced to a hapless goalkeeper who made a bone-headed play.
Putting aside the inherent unfairness of it all — the fact that Frei had made a spectacular save only moments before this incident, played an otherwise strong match and has been one of the top MLS goalkeepers over the past two years — it’s worth asking if the play was even legal.
There’s no shortage of examples of attacking players being called for fouls in very similar situations, with Bradley Wright-Phillips even being issued a yellow card in a playoff game a couple years ago. Clearly, referee Kevin Stott would have been well within his right to blow the whistle if he’d wanted to.
But there’s even ample evidence to suggest he absolutely should have called a foul.
Back in 2005, U.S. Soccer released a directive addressing what seems to be this very situation.
Once the goalkeeper has gained possession (also known as "control") of the ball, an opponent may not interfere with or block the goalkeeper's distribution of the ball. For example, players have a right to maintain a position achieved during the normal course of play, but they may not try to block the goalkeeper's movement while he or she is holding the ball and trying to distribute it. Nor may opposing players do anything to hinder, interfere with, or block a goalkeeper who is throwing or punting the ball back into play.
While this seems to allow for some interpretation of when, exactly, a goalkeeper has actually completed possession. But, there’s some clarification there, too:
The goalkeeper gives up possession if, while throwing the ball into the air, he allows it to strike the ground. The goalkeeper also gives up possession by clearly releasing it for general play. It is playable in such a case as soon as it hits the ground. (NOTE: The released ball must hit the ground to be playable. If the goalkeeper is punting the ball, the opponent may not interfere or attempt to play the ball.) Any attempt to kick the ball while it is in the possession of the 'keeper may be punished by a direct free kick (and may be subject to caution or send-off, depending on the circumstances).
In case, you’re wondering, the ball had not yet hit the ground when Movsisyan touched the ball.
As if the above screenshot doesn’t make it clear enough, Movsisyan confirmed he was attempting to play the ball and effectively block Frei from distributing.
"I don’t think he saw me coming, or he was just trying to go around me, but I kind of read what he was going to do," Movsisyan said afterward. "I just put my foot out there and afterwards I was just looking for a clean shot.
"I was kind of trying to stay behind him. Make him feel like I’m being too lazy to run back so he could try one of those [throws]. But that’s one of those things that you pull off one in a million, or one in ten thousand, you don’t really get that [often]. You’ve just got to be really smart with that. I got lucky."
None of this is meant to fully excuse Frei. He’s a veteran goalkeeper who was under no pressure and should have felt no need to rush the ball back into play. I’ll also admit that there seems to be some level of disagreement as to the legality of this play amongst people far more steeped in officiating knowledge than myself.
But seeing Frei’s performance boiled down to this play is ridiculous and unfair. That it was probably an illegal play to begin with only makes that more so.