Wambach counts 'em out

Posted: August 08, 2012

MANCHESTER, England - Abby Wambach was counting. Out loud. Within earshot of the referee.

That's how medals are won, with moments such as those. A wily veteran using a subtle tactic to get the ref to make a call no one ever makes, one that turns the match around.

When the game for the gold is all there's left to play, it's usually fitting to immediately sweep away the underbrush that preceded it. Not this time. The United States' semifinal win over Canada in the Olympic women's soccer tournament was so dramatic - and produced such fiery accusations of bias against the referee from the Canadians - that it's taking some extra time to digest it all.

The basic facts and bitter words were evident after the 4-3 result at Old Trafford on Monday night. Alex Morgan scored the winning goal in the final minute of extra time, but it was Wambach's out-loud timekeeping that led to the game's pivotal moment: Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen's decision to whistle the Canadian goalkeeper for holding the ball too long, a call that led to the tying goal for the U.S. in the 80th minute.

It's a rule rarely enforced, akin to an umpire in baseball deciding the batter hit by the pitch didn't make a sufficient attempt to get out of the way of the ball. It gave the U.S. an indirect kick, which turned into a hand ball, which turned into a penalty kick.

The Canadians were furious. And they made their feelings known after the game.

Coach John Herdman: "The ref, she will have to sleep in bed tonight after watching the replay. She's gonna have to live with that. We will move on from this. I wonder if she will be able to."

Forward Christine Sinclair: "We feel like it was taken away from us. It's a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started."

Goalkeeper Erin McLeod: "I think the referee was very one-sided."

Soccer governing body FIFA is weighing disciplinary action against Canada for those remarks. Regardless, when such serious allegations are made, it's imperative to look closely at what happened.

The goalkeeper is supposed to control the ball with her hands, including bouncing it to herself, for no more than 6 seconds. In many ways, it's a laughable rule.

But McLeod pushed the rule to the extreme. The first time she caught the ball Monday night - off a deflected header - she held it for 17 seconds before punting it away. A couple of minutes later, she controlled it for 16 seconds. There was another 16-second possession later in the half as she cradled the ball, gave it a bounce, walked forward and directed traffic.

It's customary for the referee to give a warning when she thinks the goalkeeper is taking too much time. Wambach said she saw Pedersen give McLeod a warning. Wambach felt McLeod's time-wasting got worse once the Canadians took the lead.

"Throughout the game, I was speaking with the ref," Wambach said. "She warned Erin throughout the game that she was taking too long. Erin responded with an 'I understand.' ''

With Canada leading at 76:36 on the official clock, McLeod fell to the ground making a two-handed catch of a corner kick by Megan Rapinoe. McLeod took 3 to 4 seconds to get up, still cradling the ball. She started to run forward, then slowed to a walk. At 76:44, she started to wave her players forward. She bounced the ball once, then started to punt it at 76:47.

Wambach was keeping track.

"I had gotten to 10 seconds counting out loud next to the referee," Wambach said. "And at 10 seconds she blew the whistle, and I think it was a good call. Yes, it's uncharacteristic for that call to be made in a soccer game, but the rules are the rules."

"Here's the thing - we needed a goal," Wambach added. "They're trying to waste time, and I'm trying to speed it up. You can say it's gamesmanship, you can say it's smart, but I'm a competitor and I want to get the ball back at our feet."

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