With the United States tied with the Netherlands, deep into extra time in the Olympic quarterfinal — a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final — Christen Press took a beautiful pass from Megan Rapinoe, shot, scored… and then saw the offside flag go up.
Minutes later, amid confusion in the Dutch defense, Alex Morgan found a yawning net, shot, scored… and then saw the offside flag go up.
All’s well that ends well, and goals in the shootout from Morgan, Press, and Rapinoe — who clinched it — all helped lift Team USA into a semifinal matchup with Canada. It was 4-2 in the penalties, after a 2-2 draw — in which shootout hero Alyssa Naeher also saved America’s bacon earlier by stopping a penalty kick.
Samantha Mewis and Lynn Williams managed to score goals against Holland without being called offside, a recurring issue for the overwhelming gold medal favorites. In four games, the Americans have scored eight goals, but had nine more waved off.
Part of the reason for this flurry of non-counting goals is that, with VAR in place, the referee’s assistants let more plays unfold before throwing up their flags, knowing that a close play can be reviewed, but a quickly called offside might kill a valid scoring chance. Combine that with an American team that’s been just a hair out of sync, starting with its opening 3-0 loss defeat to Sweden, and continuing through a tournament in which their only outright win is over New Zealand, and here we are.
But it’s also a reminder of the flaw of the offside rule, whose intent is to prevent cherry-picking down the field by forwards, but whose effect is to allow defenders to trap superior attacking players a few millimeters to the wrong side of an invisible moving line. The result is a dampening of scoring and excitement, and a greater challenge to make talent shine through in a sport that’s naturally relatively low-scoring.
That’s not to say it’s time to do away with offside entirely. There’s still good reason not to allow an offensive player to just camp out downfield and collect long bomb passes all day long. But as the game has evolved, both before and after the introduction of VAR, it’s clear that the rule needs a rethink. Offensive players should be rewarded for making daring runs around defenders, connecting on passes, and using their skill to beat a goalie. Defenders shouldn’t be rewarded for setting such a high line that they cut off a huge chunk of the field and stifle creativity.
Nobody in soccer ever likes to see big games decided by the parlor game of the the shootout. A great way to cut down on them would be to open up the game with more opportunities for players to decide things themselves by putting the ball in the net from open play. Throw the flag up on the offside rule, because it’s encroaching much farther into soccer than it should.