One of the things you've just got to love about soccer is that, although the game has been played a zillion and one times (no, really, that's the actual count) for a hundred years and in every country, county and flyspeck island on Earth, somehow, something is always happening that leaves you shocked, stunned or amazed.
For today's example, I'm indebted to my favorite American soccer writer, Steve Sirk, whose "Notebook" articles for BLACK AND GOLD STANDARD (the Crews' Official Blog, although the term "official blog" has always struck me as odd; to me, blogging, by definition, is and ought to be as UN-official as it gets, but the times they are a changing as they say) are must-read examples of how a talented writer can leverage access to players and team ancillaries into an eminently readable series that even people who don't follow the Crew (or even follow soccer) can and do enjoy.
Yesterday, for the first time I can recall, he posted a regular blog-type entry on a single topic, that being THE EXCEEDINGLY ODD CASE of Tyrone Marshall and the Amazing Excavated Penalty Spot.
Note to the joyless message board hate junkies who are even now doing finger yoga as you prepare to post some vitriol-dripping piece of unsophisticated drivel claiming that this piece is about placing blame for my team losing. If I do that someplace, feel free to point it out. If I don't, please don't make it up)
Unfortunately, there is simply no available video of what happened, but the facts are simple, straightforward and as far as I know, undisputed.
It began with this incredibly, almost unbelievably blatant foul from Jhon Kennedy Hurtado on Eddie Gaven inside the area:
And it ends with Guillermo Barros-Schelotto missing the consequent PK:
Which ended up being the difference between one point and three for the visiting Sounders. (A fact I note simply to indicate the stakes involved. I should also note that Columbus clinched the playoffs two weeks ago, are pretty much guaranteed a seed and are still looking good for the Shield. The result was much more important for Seattle, which desperately needed the points, than Columbus who will likely be just fine anyway)
In the absence of known tape of the more than two minutes in between those two events, I will depend heavily on Sirk, who's not only a better writer than me but is also about as unimpeachable a source as there is in the league. Imagine Buzz Carrick crossed with P.J. O'Rourke.
"After referee Ricardo Salazar whistled Jhon Kennedy Hurtado for bodyblocking Eddie Gaven in the box, Hurtado and James Riley undertook a lengthy appeal. Hurtado and Riley remained in Salazar’s face for nearly a minute, keeping the referee occupied."
Meanwhile, Tyrone Marshall strode directly to the penalty spot and began attacking it with his cleats.
"...(he) earnestly dug into the spot as if he were a slugger prepping for a crucial at-bat. He raked his cleats and back and forth, back and forth, over and over again. He jammed his heel into the ground when more force was needed. By the time he was finished, there was barely any evidence left of the white dot. There was a crater in its place."
When Marshall was finished playing Bob the Builder, the penalty spot looked like this:
And the resulting hole was deep enough to almost conceal a cell phone:
Barros-Schelotto began protesting the crater he was being asked to kick the ball from, but at that point several Seattle players began a shoving match with Steven "Big Bird" Lenhart, who was merely trying to stand in one place. Salazar became occupied with breaking up and then supervising the offenders.
It must be noted that altering the pitch in any way, and/or obliterating or changing the markings thereon is considered, by rule, to be unsporting conduct. Further, it's hard to believe that either the Assistant Referee or the Fourth Official didn't see what transpired.
That aside, what this appears to be is a case of some players conspiring to cheat in advance. This is different from your basic, garden-variety football cheating which is normally a spur-of-the moment crime of opportunity, although in fairness I have to believe that Christiano Ronaldo couldn't possibly be that skilled at falling down without a considerable amount of practice. (And how much cold you peddle a tape of THAT for?)
This was clearly orchestrated. Marshall never hesitated for a second; he strode straight for the spot with purpose and went straight to work.
Meanwhile, if anyone can tell me what part of that foul call was even remotely arguable, I wish they'd let me know. It's as obvious, clear cut and indisputable a PK call as we've seen all season, and it's certainly not worth over a minute of referee face-screaming. If nothing else, as a player, you'd feel like an idiot arguing about it.
This incident brings up some interesting questions.
For example, will the league do anything about it? As noted, there's no video that we know of, but the linesman surely saw it, unless he too was distracted by the argument.
Was this plan widely known amongst the team? Anyone who has been around a Sigi Schmid-managed side knows that the Round Mound is, to put it gently, a control freak. You don't change the way you lace up your boots without his permission. Is it conceivable that a group of players cooked up a scheme like this without his knowledge and approval?
Is this cheating or gamesmanship?
(I know, I'm beginning to sound like Ives Galarcep: "So what do you guys think? Is this something you want to see? Should the players be shot? Do these pants make my ass look big?)*
If you haven't already, go back and read Sirks' post. If nothing else, it features a textbook example of Schelotto's use of the language, which is both frequently fractured and yet, somehow, always exactly right.
As for me, if I was a Seattle fan I'd be chuckling into my sleeve as I made clucking noises about how I of course don't condone these sorts of shenanigans. As a Crew fan (maybe you heard) I should be calling for a Congressional inquiry and prison terms for the perps.
More to the point, if Seattle edges out another team, say Colorado or Salt Lake, for a playoff spot on the basis of preplanned cheating, those teams have every right to be pretty pissed off.
Honestly, this strikes me as a case where the officiating crew just blew their responsibilities. As Dan has noted in the past, the players are forbidden by rule and by the FIFA mandated "Respect" initiative to not do the Insane Howler Monkey routine in the Referees' face after calls they don't like.
If the USSF would start instructing the officials to put a stop to it through the use of those little yellow plastic things they carry, an incident like this couldn't happen. The only reason it was possible is because the players knew that they could get in the officials' face and scream at him for at least a minute - a clear violation of the rules against dissent - and nothing would happen to them.
In the end, rather than issueing a "No Digging Up the Penalty Spot" directive the answer is to not let the players distract the referee from doing his job.
* As a huge, enormous Ives fan, I kid because I love.