MLS Playoffs: Mystifying no-call grants FC Cincinnati a dramatic winner vs. Union

FC Cincinnati‘s Yerson Mosquera brought a drab MLS playoff game to sudden life after 93-plus minutes of grinding. He lit up TQL Stadium and beat the Philadelphia Union with one emphatic swing of his right foot on Saturday night. And then he waited.

He waited, and waited, while video assistant referees (VARs) checked his stoppage-time winner, the only goal of a chippy quarterfinal.

He waited as viewers saw a replay that seemed to show fellow Cincinnati defender Ian Murphy drifting offside in the buildup to the goal, before Murphy headed a cross onto Mosquera’s foot.

(Apple TV broadcast)

He waited as many of those viewers, especially those in Philadelphia, assumed the goal would be disallowed by VAR, because (No. 32) Murphy’s shoulder was ahead of (No. 9) Julián Carranza’s when Álvaro Barreal swung in the cross.

But then referee Ismail Elfath stunned everyone by signaling that the check was complete; the goal would stand; and Cincinnati would hold on to win, 1-0.

The reason, according to the officials, was “because [Murphy] was judged to be even with the second-to-last defender,” they told pool reporter Pat Brennan.

The actual reason is more complex. MLS reviews offside decisions differently than some other top leagues, namely the English Premier League. It does not use Hawk-Eye technology and digitally-drawn lines to assess with remarkable (and sometimes annoying) precision whether an attacker’s knee was ahead of or level with a defender’s toe. It instead asks the VARs to make a determination based on the available replays.

By viewing those replays alone, it is impossible to determine with 100% certainty whether Murphy was actually offside. He certainly looks offside. He probably was. But the best angle, from a camera perched in line with the top of the 18-yard box, is deceiving. A better angle would probably show that Murphy’s upper arm — the body part in question, because it can legally play the ball — is actually very close to level with Carranza‘s upper arm or right foot, though perhaps still slightly in front of it.

But “probably” isn’t the evidential standard that VARs must clear to overturn a call. They’re only supposed to correct “clear and obvious” mistakes.

So, if the assistant referee had raised his flag to call Murphy offside on the field, that hypothetical call almost surely would have stood as well. But he didn’t. The “clear and obvious” burden of proof fell to the VARs. And they decided not necessarily that Murphy was onside, only that they weren’t sure he was offside.

So Cincinnati celebrated. Philadelphia rued a third consecutive year of playoff heartbreak — a pre-conference final COVID outbreak in 2021, an MLS Cup penalty shootout loss in 2022, and now this.

Cincinnati, the league’s best team all season, will host the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference final next weekend.

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