The Controversial PK in LAFC vs. SKC: Interpreting the Rules

This discussion comes about as a result of a play in the Los Angeles FC vs. Sporting Kansas City game of August 11, 2018. In the 66th minute of the game, the referee awarded SKC a penalty kick as a result of a foul in the box. On the play, LAFC’s goalkeeper blocks the initial shot, resulting in a bouncing ball about 6 yards from the box. The ball is about chest high, and Felipe Gutierrez of SKC attempts a diving header. At the same time, LAFC defender Dejan Jokovic attempts to clear the ball, but also kicks Gutierrez in the head. The debate our hosts had on twitter centered around whether the defender played the ball first and if that actually matters. To help explain the call on the field, we must first turn to the rules.

The game of soccer is governed by the International Football Association Board’s Laws of the Game, and this article will use the 2018-2019 version. Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct applies to this case. Article 1: Direct free kick, states the following relevant parts:

A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:

  • charges
  • jumps at
  • kicks or attempts to kick
  • tackles or challenges

If an offence involves contact it is penalised by a direct free kick or penalty kick.

  • Careless is when a player shows a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or acts without precaution. No disciplinary sanction is needed
  • Reckless is when a player acts with disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent and must be cautioned
  • Using excessive force is when a player exceeds the necessary use of force and/or endangers the safety of an opponent and must be sent off

Because the referee called a foul, the discussion must then become one of whether Jokovic’s actions were careless, reckless, or using excessive force. In this particular case, his swinging his leg at a 50/50 ball, chest high, with other players in the area was deemed by the referee to be careless. It was not reckless or excessive as no cards were issued. Personally, I agree with the referee’s decision. Players cannot be allowed to swing wildly and tackle recklessly hoping to contact the ball first. It is against the rules and important for player safety.

The counter-argument is two-fold: 1) The defender played the ball first, cleared the ball, and the offensive player no longer had possession or a play on the ball, and 2) Defenders can’t be expected to think about if an opposing player is diving at the ball when trying to clear it. I offer the same response to both points: Nothing in the rules discusses playing the ball first or the defender’s state of mind! “He got the ball first” is something used by officials (both on the field and on the couch) to aid in interpreting the rules, at most. Critiques of the call could also argue that Jokovic’s kick was not high or dangerous, and that Gutierrez lowered his head. This are subjective factors influencing the referee’s decision, so we can only defer to his judgment. (Though I would submit that a jump-kick at chest high level is careless.)

In conclusion, the referee thought Jokovic’s actions were careless, endangered the safety of Gutierrez, and properly called a foul. As it was in the penalty box, the PK was properly awarded. The referee even went to VAR and found no clear and obvious error in the decision. I know my co-host disagrees, but I rest my case.

-Nick Poteres