Play of the Week – Offside – Benefit of the Doubt

In this week’s POTW we are going to look at an offside decision that went to a VAR review. I would like to discuss various aspects of this decision, in particular, the expectations of an assistant referee in tight offside decisions and what constitutes a ‘Clear and Obvious Error’.

The game is the “MLS Returns” semi-final between Philadelphia Union and Portland Timbers. In the final five minutes Timbers are leading 2-1 but Union are in the ascendancy having pulled a goal back a minute earlier having been 2-0 down.


In the clip we see a Union attack with Brendan Aaronson bursting into the penalty area. He threads a great pass to German striker Kacper Przbylko who slots the ball home for what would be the equalizer. Initially AR Jimmy Kieso doesn’t raise his flag in accordance with VAR protocol until the goal is ‘scored’ to enable a VAR check. He then raises his flag to indicate offside. Referee Allen Chapman waits until the potential offside has been checked/reviewed. The process only takes 50 seconds before Chapman disallows the goal.

Benefit of the doubt

When “Benefit of the doubt” is discussed in regard to offside decisions, it’s not to support incorrect offside goals being allowed, as offside position is factual. Firstly, it’s part of the process of helping ARs to make correct decisions as it’s a statistical fact that they get more tight decisions correct by keeping the flag down than raising the flag. This is due to many factors, including the “Flash Lag Effect” which would require an entire article to explain fully but in simple terms when a player is moving towards the goal, he appears to the AR’s human eye, that he is far more advanced than he actually is. Therefore, ARs allow a degree of tolerance in their decision making with regard to the forward’s position, and that’s why we see many great offside decisions when they keep their flag down in World football, particularly in the EPL and the MLS.


As discussed in Play of the Week 1, lines are not drawn across the screen in the MLS to prevent goals been disallowed when a toenail or a nose is in an offside position; thank goodness! In this particular example when you look at the replays and the freeze-frame it’s impossible with the naked eye to see whether Przbylko is in an offside position when the ball is played. Consequently, Keiso’s decision is supported by the VAR as it’s not a “clear and obvious error”, as per VAR protocol.

This was an extremely difficult decision for AR Kieso to make as it is impossible for him to see the actual moment when the ball is played by Aaronson as his line of vision is obscured by two defenders. Therefore, he is guessing this decision. I appreciate that there is an element of guesswork on many tight offside decisions. As Kieso cannot see the exact timing of the ball he makes an ‘educated guess’ to disallow the goal when the game benefits by him allowing the goal!

I also discussed in POTW1 that Howard Webb has said, “If you have to look multiple times you shouldn’t be overturning it” when I supported that philosophy comparing it to the rather forensic nature of the current protocol of the EPL. However, in my opinion that philosophy should be taken a stage further and should be, “If you have to look multiple times you shouldn’t be disallowing it”!


Keys to Referee is an e-learning platform with personalised development, evaluation, assessment and analysis tools.

We aim to enhance the learning of match officials across all sports ensuring their continued and progress to progress to develop to and raise personal standards for all sports. If you are willing to learn, we are happy to help using the following process.