It doesn’t do anyone any good now, but Sporting Kansas City fans, coaches and players, not to mention many other experts, were right all along. Sporting KC got screwed in an elimination playoff game against the Houston Dynamo.
It’s not the first time. Most egregiously the 2016 Seattle Sounders/SKC playoff game comes to mind where Benny Feilhaber played the game of his life only for an offside Seattle goal to eliminate Sporting. Or you may recall Decision Day 2021 when SKC were sent from first to third in the playoff standings by another uncalled handball in the box against Real Salt Lake.
Often fans think they are hard done by bad calls, and of course better play could overcome most of these situations, but Sporting KC fans have a few incredibly key examples that had outsized impacts on their seasons. Above are just two examples of playoff ending bad calls in the last decade that Sporting KC can’t get back. Who knows, maybe that’s two more trophies in the case. We’ll literally never know.
Vermes’ Early Thoughts
You all probably saw/heard from the postgame audio that Vermes knew then that they got it wrong. If you missed it, we’ve got it for you.
— KC Soccer Journal (@KCSoccerJournal) November 27, 2023
Before PRO came out with their Inside Video Review segment, Peter Vermes spoke with the media earlier in the week and confirmed that PRO had admitted the error to Sporting KC’s ownership. He said that they had reached out to numerous parties and all but one person said it was a penalty kick and a red card. Including PRO, who wasn’t the dissenting opinion. That one was probably Ben Olson, who says he doesn’t know what a penalty kick is.
Of the first 22+ minutes of the media availability, which I encourage you to watch, Vermes dedicates about 20 minutes to the call. It’s hard to disagree with almost anything he says. When the KC Soccer Journal’s Thad Bell tries to ask about the ‘playing better’ argument, he sort of brushes it away (he also brings up a potential handball on an Agada shot, that I’m unsure on).
That said, if you have 11 men and a penalty kick and your opponent has 10, it’s indisputable the game would play out different. Even Vermes admitted though, there is no way to know if they would have won, but he would have liked to have the chance.
Update 11:35 AM: We’ve since uploaded the portion of the press conference that mostly focuses on the handball discussion, with a little extra content left in.
The Video Review Itself
PRO Referees releasing this audio and video comes as a departure from the norm for their “Inside Video Review” YouTube show. As PRO’s Greg Barkey states, they typically only go over calls that went to video review on the field.
At the beginning, you can hear through the audio from the referee shouting, “off the chest, off the chest” over and over. Perhaps this is where Johnny Russell got the idea the ref thought that, or it’s possibly as the captain he just spoke with him. Maybe both.
Then you start to hear the voice of the VAR, Carol Anne Chenard, as she talks with her Assistant VAR while they watch the replays. She seems unconvinced it’s hitting Erik Sviatchenko’s arm at first and talks about how he has nowhere else to put his arm and it may have hit his body. She says “check complete” before even seeing the smoking gun angle from behind the goal as I initially speculated.
Then another voice is saying something to the effect of, ‘if you want to take a look at it as well,’ referring to the angle behind the goal. 14 seconds later, she repeats, “check complete.”
You’ll notice, despite the center ref Guido Gonzales Jr clearly saying, “off the chest” in the audio, Chenard never tells him it seems to have hit his “upper arm.” That’s a season altering communication breakdown.
Barkey’s audio picks back up and initially seems to back Chenard, talking about Sviatchenko’s arm being by his side. He adds insight to the situation that changes everything.
“However, there’s a nuance difference here that needs to be added to the analysis,” begins Barkey. “And that is that Sviatchenko is on the goal line and his overall actions are those of a player trying to prevent a goal. And there is an expectation that a player that blocks the ball from entering the goal with their arm, even by their side should penalized for hand ball.”
There the video ends, with no further commentary or apology or explanation that it would be a penalty kick and a red card. So, I guess Russell didn’t quite get the apology he expected.
How to Fix It
There are many things that could be handled different in the video review process. I’ve actually defended Major League Soccer, who seem to have a better relationship with VAR than other leagues around the world. That’s despite literally blowing a few enormous calls for Sporting KC.
The first solution simply seems to be to get the ref to the monitor quicker. Many times, the VAR and the AVAR are looking at the call, but the ref is just standing on the field. Often they don’t get to look at all. The rules seem to be written that he/she only gets to look if the VAR thinks they made a mistake. When it’s so gray, why not give him/her a chance to look at their call and see if they reconfirm what they believed they saw live? It wasn’t his chest…
Next, it seems like a centralized operation would go a long way to fixing things. Who knows how expensive that would be. I don’t watch a ton of other sports to the degree at which I watch soccer, but I’ve watched some college football and NFL games where they seem to quickly be ‘phoning in’ to change calls that are wrong without even pulling the referees off the field to look at it.
Finally, as Vermes said, just take the time to get it right. Sure, that’ll mean more stoppage time. But is it worth it if they get the calls correct? I’d think so. Sporting KC experienced some brutally long stoppage times that went against them this season, and they overcame them.
Just get the calls right. It’ll be hard not to be thinking about that while watching the Houston Dynamo travel to LAFC. One wonders if Sporting KC should be two wins away from their third MLS Cup.