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Referees take blame for game-changing incident during NYCFC, Red Bulls derby

“To be clear, there was no communication from the referee to the players.”

NEW YORK — Four days after a contentious derby with a hotly-debated result, New York City FC got what it wanted: acknowledgement.

Howard Webb, the general manager of the Professional Referees Organization, said the officiating crew was at fault for the 62nd-minute confusion that led to a New York Red Bulls game-winner. 

“With hindsight, the referee should have stopped the game at that point and indicated to everybody to give clarity that the restart was going to be a throw-in,” Webb told Pro Soccer USA on Thursday.

The issue arose after New York City FC centerback Alexander Callens sent an awkward clearance high toward the corner in his team’s defensive third. Assistant referee Corey Rockwell signaled for a corner kick with a flag held in his right hand and pointing to the corner with his left hand.

Referee Alan Kelly overruled Rockwell and awarded the Red Bulls a throw-in, which they quickly executed. Some NYCFC players were caught unaware, confused by the changed call. Alex Muyl threw the ball to a wide open Cristian Cásseres Jr., whose curling cross was finished by Daniel Royer. The Red Bulls won the game 2-1.

“I was there on the play and the AR calls for a corner,” Callens said through a translator. “I turned around to get into position and all of a sudden they play a throw-in quickly. And we are all surprised. I think that they have to stop and start the play all over again, but they didn’t do that. They caught us off guard and scored the goal.”

A corner kick is ordered when the ball crosses the goal line to go out of bounds. A throw-in happens when the ball goes out of bounds on the sideline.

Webb said looking back, the assistant referee should not have flagged a corner “because it was always going to be difficult for him to know whether it was a corner kick or a throw-in because the ball more or less went over his head.”

After the game, the pool reporter for the match submitted three questions about the play: Why was the initial call for a corner overruled? Was a throw-in motion made by the referee to signal the change? Was the change clearly indicated to NYCFC and was it reviewed by the Video Assistant Referee?

The referee crew responded by saying the referee was in a better position to judge the ball went out for a throw-in, Kelly communicated the change verbally and no motion was made, but one “would not normally be made.” As for VAR, corner kicks versus throw-in decisions are not reviewable. The only scenarios VAR reviews are goals, penalty kicks, straight red cards and mistaken identity. 

NYCFC’s Alexander Ring said he agreed with the decision to change the restart to a throw-in, but he did not hear any verbal communication of the change.

“He doesn’t say anything, he just lets the play continue as if he would be part of Red Bulls team,” Ring said. “I think it’s just common decency. I agree it was a throw-in because I saw it the same way, but then let everyone know. I talked with a couple of Red Bull players who were surprised as well.”

Webb confirmed Kelly did not verbalize his decision to the players.

“There was a verbal indication to the assistant that it should be a throw-in, but there was no time to communicate to the NYC players,” Webb said. “To be clear, there was no communication from the referee to the players.”

Red Bulls captain Luis Robles said of NYCFC’s frustration, “Now as I hear a little bit of what was going on, I don’t blame them.”

New York City goalkeeper Sean Johnson was perplexed from the moment Royer’s header zipped past him for the game-winner.

“There was no explanation. He just pointed down and said there was a goal, so for me it’s inexcusable,” Johnson said. 

Royer, who scored both Red Bulls goals, said he didn’t take issue with the play.

“The ball went out on the sideline not the goal line,” he said. “To me, that’s fair.”

Both the referee and assistant referee of the match are decorated in their profession. The game marked Kelly’s 116th MLS match as a referee. He’s been a FIFA official since 2002, refereed NYCFC’s inaugural MLS match against Orlando City in 2015 and won the league’s Referee of the Year award that year and in 2016 and 2018. Rockwell was the 2011 Assistant Referee of the Year and was a runner-up for the award in 2018.

But by the end of Sunday’s derby, New York City was not impressed.

“He has to look in the mirror and be brutally honest because he cost us points today,” Ring said of Kelly. “It’s just a shame to to lose the points. I thought the ref had a horrible game. That’s what I think.”

NYCFC coach Dome Torrent offered harsh words as well.

“I said to him, ‘You are not brave. You decide the game,’ and he knows that,” Torrent said. “We have to improve. I have to improve and the refs as well. It’s very important for MLS. If you want to take the next step, it’s about the refs as well. He decided the game.”

Webb contacted New York City by email to acknowledge the situation was mismanaged by his crew.

After Wednesday’s training session, Torrent suggested that it was time to move on. Neither of the referees involved in the derby incident are part of the officiating crew for NYCFC’s next match against the Colorado Rapids next at 9 p.m. ET Saturday. The head official for that game is Christopher Penso and the assistant referees are Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho and TJ Zablocki.

“Everyone knows what happened the last game,” Torrent said. “We turn the page and focus on the next game against Colorado.”

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