It was one of the most hotly debated plays from Nashville SC vs. Atlanta United in Week 1: Nashville SC goalkeeper Joe Willis intentionally stopping a shot with his hands near midfield. Willis found himself that far up the field because Nashville were pushing forward in search of a stoppage-time equalizer that never came.
Watch the play here:
The immediate reaction by many who watched it was that the infraction should have been punished with a straight red card to Willis.
Not so fast.
Referee Drew Fischer did not hesitate, immediately showing the yellow card to Willis. And PRO (Professional Referee Organization) agrees with the referee's decision, citing the Laws of the Game.
PRO points to the Laws which state that a player should be sent off if he/she deliberately handles the ball (including the goalkeeper outside the penalty area) to either (1) deny an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO); or (2) deny a goal outright. But neither occurred in this instance.
- Denial of a Goal-Scoring Opportunity: Distance matters here. The Atlanta player's shot on goal came from near the halfway line, approximately 55 yards from the goal, and there were no other Atlanta players ahead of the ball who could have run onto the shot. Instead, there was a defender chasing back and that Nashville player was in position to be first to reach the ball if the shot didn’t have the direction or pace to make it to the goal.
- Denial of a Goal: The only other option to consider is whether Willis denied a goal outright by his handling of the ball outside the penalty area. For this offense to be penalized, the referee would need to be sure that the goalkeeper stopped the ball from entering the goal. At 50 yards out, it's impossible to know this with certainty. It's much easier to determine in cases when the infraction takes place closer to goal.
For the above reasons, PRO indicates that the Laws of the Game do not support a red card to Willis.
And here’s the bottom line: Since the Laws don't call for a red card to be shown to a player who MAY have stopped a goal or MAY have stopped an obvious goal-scoring opportunity, a red card cannot be shown by a referee on this play.