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Handballs, VAR and three massive points for the Philadelphia Union



Photo by Carl Gulbish

The Union picked up an important three points against Atlanta United on Wednesday night to put them towards the top of a tightly-packed eastern conference.

Things could have been a lot different for the Union had VAR decided to award a penalty to Atlanta United on a potential handball early in the match. Nathan Harriel seemed to hit an Atlanta cross with his hand inside the 18-yard box, but after a VAR check it was ruled that Harriel’s arm was in a natural position when it made contact with the ball.

“The second it happened with [Harriel], every guy on our bench said it was a handball,” head coach Jim Curtin said post-match.

While Curtin took the opportunity to recognize that the call did not go the way his team anticipated, he also pointed out the difficulty referees have to face when calling a handball because of the way the rule is written.

“I think the rules committee has made it even harder and more confusing, where nobody knows what is a handball,” Curtin said. “When you use words, lawyer words I call them, like ‘intent’ and ‘judgment’ and ‘possibility,’ you leave so much room for interpretation and nonsense, you get what you get.”

Who knows – maybe in another universe VAR hands down a penalty decision, United get on the board first from the penalty spot, and the Union have to claw back from a goal deficit. It’s a world of difference for the two squads battling for playoff positioning. 

However, it’s not what happened. The Union came alive with three well-worked goals in a span of eight minutes at the end of the first half. Atlanta stormed back with two goals in the second, including one from the penalty spot on a handball decision, forcing the Union to defend for their lives for the last 10 minutes.

“We can play better, certainly in the second half,” Curtin said. “But that first half is us and now it’s about doing it for 90 minutes. Because if we don’t do it for 90 minutes in the playoffs, it’s over fast.”

But the stellar offensive display of the first half and the lackluster defensive play of the second was all overshadowed by the VAR decision. Atlanta United’s manager Gonzalo Pineda was furious about the officiating post-match, saying two penalty kick opportunities were missed according to Doug Roberson of the the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

And while Curtin was certainly not as upset as Pineda by the decision, he still made clear that these types of decisions make real impacts on teams, players and coaches.

“We don’t know what a handball is,” Curtin said. “I think every team has had some suffering from it. And the tough thing about it is, some teams are going to lose big games that knock teams out of playoffs, or coaches lose jobs, or players get in trouble, whatever it might be, because of these calls.”

“I don’t know what the solution is, but it has to be more black and white because there’s too much gray.”

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