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It Seems To Me . . .

The United-Galaxy clock fiasco.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, June 23, 1999) -- I have often said it is dismaying how, at times, Major League Soccer seems to go out of its way to shoot itself in the foot. I think the controversial ending of the D.C. United-Los Angeles Galaxy match Saturday night is another classic example.

For those who haven't heard, the match was tied at 1-1 with about 10 seconds remaining when United midfielder Geoff Aunger stupidly pulled Galaxy midfielder Simon Elliott down just outside the penalty area. Guest referee Baojie Sun (from China) called a foul and pointed toward the United goal, awarding a free kick. Almost immediately, the official scoreboard clock was stopped with six seconds showing. After about 30 actual seconds had expired, Mauricio Cienfuegos took the free kick, and put it in the top corner for the improbable game-winner.

The referee on the field, Mr. Baojie, had made no motion to stop the clock. The stoppage was ordered by a special "fifth" official assigned to the match to aid the guest referee from the sidelines because the visitor might not be aware of various aspects of MLS rule bending, including keeping an absolute clock on the score board (absolute in terms the match ends the moment the clock reaches 00:00 no matter what is going on in the field of play). The fifth official, Kermit Quisenberry, was there specifically to help in clock management.

Every week I get e-mails from readers who decry various MLS rule changes, most often the shootout, but often MLS's not allowing the referee on the field to keep the time. I usually write back and say this doesn't bother me all that much because if the clock is properly managed by the MLS referee, he will stop it in the proper places and the game would be about the same length as if he added as much extra time as he thought indicated.

What I also say, though, is that MLS is leaving itself open for the time when in a tied or one goal match, a shot in launched a few seconds before the clock reaches zero and does not go into the net until time has expired. Although MLS rules are a bit hazy on this, it should be disallowed. I could only imagine the protest that would ensue.

Effectively what happened in the United-Galaxy is the flip side of that scenario. The clock was stopped to allow the final shot. As it turns out, and as now admitted by league officials, stopped contrary to rather explicit league rules.

MLS rules say that in the last 10 minutes of each half, the on-field official can stop the clock only if a goal is scored, for an injury, if there is a disturbance on the field or if time is being deliberately wasted. None was present at the end of the United-Galaxy match. League rules are very clear -- time should have been allowed to expire.

MLS commissioner Doug Logan admits this. As he said in his weekly press conference: "Everyone involved with the conduct of the game, from the four officials and the fifth official probably made mistakes, although they meant well . . . The final stoppage was a bit precipitous by the fifth official . . . Everyone meant well."

After the match, the game officials told a pool reporter that the clock was stopped because D.C. United was time wasting. But by watching the fifth official. it was clear that he started trying to stop the clock the moment the foul was called. MLS operations chief (and head of officials) Joe Machnik said as much. "There's no video evidence that D.C. acted in any way to impede the quick taking of a free kick," he told the telephone press conference. "But there's no evidence either that the free kick would have been taken in the 11 seconds remaining. We'll learn from this experience."

It should be understood that this would not have been a controversy anywhere else in the soccer world. No official is going to call a foul and award a free kick in extra time, and then blow the game over without allowing that free kick to be taken. Anywhere else in the soccer world there is no question that the official would have allowed Cienfuegos to get the kick off. L.A. would have been the winner, no argument.

But I do have a question about what transpired. The MLS rules are so very specific as to when the clock can be stopped, why did MLS assign an official to the match whose principle function was clock management, who apparently did not know the rules?

After the match D.C. United general manager Kevin Payne was, shall we say, quite annoyed over the turn of events. "I am on the (league) competition committee and twice I have tried to get the rules changed so that officials can more easily stop the clock in the final seconds of a match," he said. "Twice I proposed it, and twice it was voted down. And now we see this."

Obviously the easiest way to avoid these kinds of problems in the future is return control of the clock to the wrist of the on-field referee. This is true even, as the MLS marketers insist, no American crowd could possibly attend a sporting match without an absolute knowledge of time remaining.

And I still can't wait to see how things are handled when that tying or winning goal is in the air as time expires.

Robert Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at

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