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Commentary Jun 27, 2017

Dougherty: Doing the Right Thing in a World of the Professional Foul

There are certain moments in a youth soccer coach’s life when you can make a significant difference in a young person’s life, the kind of difference that the youngster will look back upon years later and realize it significantly affected her life.

Unfortunately, coaches are not given a script in advance to know when that moment will arrive. It simply happens, and a quick decision is the difference between making a good or poor decision. Ultimately, I think, whether or not the coach makes the right call comes down to the core convictions and principles by which the coach is guided.

The same applies for players. In a game or at practice, there are times when a player – knowingly or not – can have a positive influence on a teammate. It might be a kind word: “Great pass, Emily!” Or simply a fist bump when David’s head drops after he makes a mistake.

Professional athletes have the grandest stage to do the right thing. With tens of thousands in the stands and possibly millions watching on television, the pro player can be the cynic by raising his hand and claiming the throw-in is his when it clearly last touched him before going out of bounds … or he can simply back up and await the opposition’s restart. Doing the right thing at the moment may not seem like a lot, except when you realize that millions were on hand to witness it.

+Dougherty: Everything You Need to Be Prepared for Soccer Camp

The Philadelphia Union’s Haris Medunjanin had one of those moments on Saturday against D.C. United. And the Bosnian international shined.

As chronicled by The Washington Post’s excellent soccer reporter, Steven Goff, D.C. United’s Luciano Acosta challenged Medunjanin from behind and, in the process, fouled the Union player. Referee Sorin Stoica thought Luciano’s challenge was especially rough, and issued Luciano a red card – a decision that would send the United player to the locker room and put the visiting team down a player in a tight, competitive game.

In the world of professional sports, getting an opposing player ejected is a small victory. Anything to give your team even the slightest advantage is encouraged. Reducing a team to 10 players – especially when that team has been struggling of late and is on the road – is, in many professional circles, a reason for a coach and owner to applaud.

But then Medunjanin did the unexpected. He did the right thing.

Knowing the foul wasn’t red-card worthy, Goff reports that the Union player went to referee Stoica and told him he didn’t think it was an offense to be ejected from the game. Stoica considered the request, and changed his mind – he kept Acosta in the game.

“I think you need to be honest,” Medunjanin said later.

It was an instantaneous act of courage. But I suspect it isn’t unusual for the Bosnian international.

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Goff quotes Union Coach Jim Curtin as saying he appreciated his player’s act. “You talk about fair play in this league and all over the world, he’s the one who had the intestinal fortitude to speak up and say there was no contact. He’s a man. He’s a person I respect a great deal. It’s an incredible act. I think it’s something you could show to not just young kids but adults who play in professional soccer. What he did is very honorable, the right thing to do. … But he did what is right for the game.”

And yet, Curtin admitted that he’s not sure he would have done what his player did. United defender and Captain Steve Birnbaum told Goff the same. “That was pretty big of [Medunjanin]. I don’t know if I would’ve done that.”

If doing the right thing was easy, everyone would do it. I recall during my college playing days, I made a long and (and probably very ugly) run down the sideline from my right back position, a defender shoulder-to-shoulder the entire way. Gasping for breath, legs wobbly, I shanked the cross into the side netting. The referee incorrectly gave me a corner kick. The defender protested … and I said not a word as I jogged back to my position.

I did the wrong thing, and I regret it to this day.

I’ve been blessed over the years to coach some wonderful athletes, some of whom have been in similar positions. And on multiple occasions, they have told the referee or assistant referee that a call made in their favor was in fact wrong, and the other team should have possession. Sometimes the ref switched the call, as Stoica did. Other times, not. Whether or not the call is changed is secondary, of course. Doing the right thing is first.

In professional soccer, we have come to accept cynical play. We watch as opposing players raise their hands simultaneously as the boll rolls out of bounds, hoping to gain the referee’s favor and be awarded possession – even as replays make clear one of them is clearly lying. We see forwards begin diving into the penalty area even before contact, hoping to “earn” a penalty kick. We witness defenders who have painted themselves into a corner dive at the slightest touch, falling to the ground and curling up with the ball in their hands as if they were pierced by a cross bolt.

Then there is the “professional” foul – the one committed by a midfielder to stop an opponent’s counterattack. A tug of the shirt, a grab of the arm, a clip of the heels from behind … anything to slow the opponent down. It’s an ugly play, compounded by the former professional-turned-color-commentator who gives the foul a verbal thumbs-up. “That was a smart play. Otherwise, the other team would have had a four-on-three advantage …”

Professional foul. Smart play. The ends justifies the means.

“Good professional foul, Ian! We need those three points to stay in Division 1!”

“Way to slow her down, Sophie! This is a State Cup game, there’s too much on the line!”

“Don’t worry about that regulation, Chris. Our client needs to get this through the system, and the SEC will never see it anyway. There’s a lot riding on this.”

In the big scheme of things, Medunjanin’s decision to do the right thing may not matter.

Well, except perhaps for Chris, who in that moment when his boss encourages him to commit his “professional” foul, instead remembers seeing a Philly Union player make a tough, but right, decision when a lot was on the line.

“Sorry, boss, but we need to get SEC approval. It’s the right thing to do.”

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