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Referee Ted Unkel flubs penalty call as RSL beat NYCFC

MLS: Real Salt Lake at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake's win over New York City FC came with its own share of controversy when referee Ted Unkel whistled for a penalty in the 85th minute. It was — to put it gently — an odd, unwarranted call, and it deserves to be discussed.

Of course, this wasn't the first time that we think Unkel got a call against Real Salt Lake wrong — which isn't to say there's bias, but that there is an issue of call accuracy involved.

First, let's go directly to the man whistled for the penalty, Javier Morales.

He (Poku) kicked me in the back of my leg. I did not even see it. I was running trying to get the ball and when I passed him he kicked me from behind. It was a weird call.

Now, let's go to the play itself.

That seems pretty clear cut, right?

Here's where I'm a little puzzled. Ted Unkel is in a good position. That's all the above frame is showing — nothing more. He might even be in a position to see the contact and understand the nature of the contact. We obviously can't be certain about that, but I wanted to be clear that I don't think this is a case of not having a good view of the play. He may not, I think, claim ignorance in this case.

Let's look at it again — this time, in a slow-motion GIF from Total MLS, who consistently produce the best MLS GIFs. Like, ever.

So what is Unkel seeing here that we're not? We should at least try to look at this from his perspective. He can certainly see that it is Morales who is thwacked in the leg (and this should not be something we blame Poku for; it's clearly not intentional contact). But what hasn't he seen?

First, he may not see that Morales hasn't made contact with Poku. I'm searching for a second thing, but I'm really not sure that there is a second thing. One mitigating factor in this decision may be that these sorts of plays are rather unusual. It's not often you see a player step into the line of a swinging leg so precisely, catching the full brunt of the kick.

But let's give Unkel the benefit the doubt. Maybe we should go over FIFA's guidelines for direct free kicks. There's a "group of six" they reference in Law 12, Fouls & Misconduct. Those are cases that must consider intensity (carelessly, recklessly, or with excessive force,) where the player committing the foul:

  • Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
  • Trips or attempts to trip an opponent
  • Jumps at an opponent
  • Charges an opponent
  • Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent
  • Pushes an opponent

Unkel has likely judged Morales to be attempting to trip Poku. From our perspective, that's not the case — but we at least can see something Unkel might have been thinking about. None of the other criteria fit.

At least, then, we can agree that there's some measure of subjectivity involved — but this play seems pretty clear-cut.

Whatever you believe about the penalty and its validity, I think we can all agree that the manner in which Unkel called for the penalty did nothing to resolve our concerns. Not only did he not make any visible effort to communicate with his assistants, but he pointed to the spot in an extreme, aggressive manner.

By acting in a manner that can easily be seen as indiscriminate and aggressive, Unkel raises tensions surrounding the call. What's the point in crouching and flamboyantly pointing the spot? The lack of subtlety and consideration on the part of the referee makes a bad call seem even worse.

So what's to be done? With today's news about video replay being trialled by MLS, PRO and USL in the half-pro, half-reserve USL, that seems like a good place to start. But clearly, this is the sort of half-baked call that should be highlighted — and maybe not just on PRO's web presence. That doesn't do much good on its own, outside of the organization assigning blame and praise publicly to its members. Whether or not that's a good course of action is perhaps a personal decision.