Sean Franklin - Ref Week

Armchair Analyst: Passive offside adds a shade of gray

The offside rule has often been tagged as “misunderstood” or “incomprehensible.”

It’s not. You know it, I know it and, really, anyone who’s taken more than a moment’s thought knows it.

But the passive offside rule ... that’s when our nice, black-and-white discussion of “Was he on or off?” encourages a few shades of gray. Before the passive offside rule, assistant refs were already tasked with keeping track of the ball, the defenders and the attackers; now they had to add in snap judgments about whether or not a given attacker who strayed into an offside position was “part of the play.”

It’s another variable in a game full of them. And it’s encouraged some spirited discussion.

Cristman passively offside on Franklin goal
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“I think it’s nonsense. It absolutely is,” ESPN analyst and former US national team defender Janusz Michalik said to me a few weeks back. “So you cherry-pick, you wait til the play comes back on, then you tap it in? How do you teach that?

"Coaches work such a long time – and yes, I have a defender’s bias – but how do you teach a back four to react to this? They step up and a player’s cherry-picking, and there’s a player coming out of the midfield somewhere, and you can’t defend that. It’s impossible.”

“Passive offside” didn’t officially become a thing until 2005, and teams are still getting used to it. So are refs. The wording goes as follows:

A player in an offside position is only penalized if, at the moment the ball touches or is played by one of his team, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by:

  • interfering with play or
  • interfering with an opponent or
  • gaining an advantage by being in that position

In other words, you can be in an offside position. Just don’t become part of the play, and everything’s cool.

Of course even with good rules, things can go wrong. We’ve seen it twice already in the LA Galaxy’s CONCACAF Champions League run, once to their detriment and once (karma can be fun) to their benefit.

The first instance was down in Morelia on Sept. 13. Everybody remembers this game because Robbie Keane had a perfectly good goal ruled out after Morelia had found a late equalizer, and the hosts would go on to the 2-1 win.

But what everybody – including the linesman – missed is that the equalizer never should have been. Yes, Josh Saunders fumbled Adrián Aldrete’s 82nd-minute strike. However, he didn’t push it over the line until Miguel Sabah, who was a solid two yards offside when the shot was taken, came to pounce on the rebound.

Sabah never touched it, but he did involve himself in the play. Had Aldrete’s shot simply beaten Saunders, then fair play, good goal and carry on. But by the word of the law as written, the goal never should have stood and LA should have kept their 1-0 lead for at least a few moments longer.

Two weeks later, the Galaxy got their revenge in the most apropos fashion. Knotted 1-1 late in the game, Juninho latched onto a Chad Barrett flick and fired home past Federico Vilar. It was ruled good, but it was very, very dicey.

The problem? LA’s Todd Dunivant was offside, having planted himself directly in front of Vilar, screening the ‘keeper and therefore becoming “part of the play.”

Now, that’s subject to interpretation – way back in 2006, Edson Buddle stood directly in front of Troy Perkins and screened the then-D.C. ‘keeper while RBNY’s Youri Djorkaeff lashed home a 35-yard free kick. That goal stood, but by Monday morning a directive had come down from the USSF: Screening the goalkeeper is most definitely offside even if it’s not explicitly stated in the rules.

“It takes something simple and makes it complex, and I just don’t understand it,” says Michalik. “The rule is there to be cheated.”

A cynic – or maybe a realist – would say that all rules are. But while the passive offside rule does indeed create some questionable moments for refs and players alike, it’s actually been key in driving the game back toward possession, skill and precision.

“In general I'm a fan of rules and rule interpretations that protect creative, skillful players, and the passive offside rule could be read as an oblique way to achieve that,” says George Quraishi, editor of Howler magazine.

“I'd like to see more teams using passive offside as a tactic. Vancouver, Colorado and D.C. are three teams in particular that seem like they'd be capable of doing it: if Hassli/Casey/Ngwenya drifted just behind the line, forcing the defenders to step forward or play them onside, that could create a ton of space for someone speedy like Shea Salinas or Nyassi or Najar to get in behind. Chumiento particularly would be able to play a good ball each time.”

This is quite simply a part of the rule that Spain in general and Barcelona in particular have understood better and faster than the rest of the world. Their half-decade of dominance is predicated on defense-splitting through balls and darting runs from “attackers” who aren’t quite forwards and aren’t quite midfielders.

We live in a world where the greatest goal scorers – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Villa, to name three – don’t lead the line: They play off of it while a teammate occupies the attention of the defense. They then burst past it when opportunity presents.

Michalik is probably right: It’s not fair, and it goes against the spirit of the rule ever so slightly.

But Quraishi is right, too: Passive offside makes the game more fun to watch, gives us more chances to yell at the TV, more scoring and more attacks from unexpected angles.

But let’s remember that it’s added a touch of gray to one of the toughest jobs in sport.

Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for


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