I love sports stats. Consuming, contemplating, and playing with the numbers is fun to me. And it all seems easy enough. We see things happen on the field, we assign value to those actions, and we count and analyze them in order to provide some measure of performance and to tell stories about games and players.
But what if we don’t see what we saw?
The human element is a large component of sports statistics. The most obvious example would be the officiating. What a referee or umpire decides happened is what is entered into the official record, whether it was accurate or a not. A trapped ball in baseball or football is ruled a catch, a basketball player gets away with a goaltend, a hockey player serves a two minute penalty because his opponent dived, and so on. These things, and their inverses, happen each and every night and it causes ripple effects throughout the record books.
Sometimes the records are officially correct but “off” in hugely important ways. Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in New York Mets history after the umpire incorrectly ruled a sharply hit ball to be foul when it was really fair and would have gone for an extra-base hit. Santana got credit for a no-hitter, even though he truly gave up a hit. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga tragically lost a perfect game when the umpire incorrectly ruled the 27th out to be safe at first base. Galarraga retired the next batter and officially threw a one-hitter, even though he truly tossed a 28-out perfect game.
Bringing this to soccer, Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” is one of the most famous goals in soccer history. Of course, it was really a handball that should have been blown dead and resulted in a booking, but the record books will always show it as a goal.
The other factor that comes into not seeing what we saw relates to judgments of the stat keepers themselves. Baseball is the easiest example here as there are questionable plays every night that must be ruled a hit or an error. This hit or error judgment impacts batting averages and earned run averages and runs batted in and all manner of individual and team statistics, and it’s all based on what the official scorer saw and determined. But this plays out in other sports too. For example, after a score in hockey, soccer, or basketball, should an assist be awarded? All official sports statistics have baked into them countless judgment calls about what happened and how.
Soccer goalkeepers are not exempt from these vagaries. In MLS Cup 2020, Columbus Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room made a crucial and astonishing save.
Officially, he didn’t.
In the 80th minute, Room’s Columbus Crew held a 2-0 lead over the defending champion Seattle Sounders. There had been some near misses for Seattle, however, and the potent Sounders attack had proven five days earlier that all it takes is a single goal to rapidly ignite a multi-goal comeback. The Sounders had a dangerous restart opportunity in the offensive third of the field. Nico Lodeiro floated a ball forward into the box where it met the head of leaping teammate Jordan Morris, who flicked the ball toward the upper corner of the net. The ball appeared destined to drop under the bar and just inside the post to give Seattle that vital first goal. Room launched himself and swatted at the ball just before it approach the goal by the goalpost. The ball caromed into the channel to Room’s left.
As it happened in the moment, Fox play-by-play announcer John Strong called it thusly…
“Lodeiro flipping it in…and a looping header OFF THE BAR BY JORDAN MORRIS!!!”
It was the only sensible call to make from a broadcast booth a couple hundred feet away. The improbability of the save, the awkward angle at which the rebound caromed into the channel, and the confluence of goalkeeper, ball, and goalpost definitely made it look like the ball hit the outside of the post and bounced away. Strong had to make sense of what he saw in milliseconds and he reached the only logical conclusion.
Fox only had time for one replay before an ensuing corner kick and it was a wide angle shot from long distance. The glove, the white ball, and the white post all converged at the last second. Analyst Stu Holden, perhaps playing Devil’s advocate, wondered if maybe Room got a piece of it.
It’s not hard to imagine what likely happened next as the play continued after the corner kick. As Strong called the action, a muted Holden was surely speaking to their producer about getting better angles so they could get another look and analyze that pivotal moment during the next stoppage in play.
The next stoppage in play, however, was the celebration of the spectacular goal that sealed the 2020 MLS Cup championship for Columbus. Luis Diaz went on his memorable bull rush up the right side and Lucas Zelarayan lasered a brilliant strike into the upper corner to put the game away. It was a spectacular goal to cement a title. It was worth every savory replay it received.
Though understandably so, Room’s swat attempt 87 seconds earlier never stood a chance of being looked at again.
I can’t speak to the specific decisions of Opta, who does the in-game stats and chalkboard stuff on the MLS website, but it’s easy to see how the Morris-Room affair in the 80th minute got classified as a goalpost and not a shot on goal and save. Looking at the replays, it was still impossible to distinguish what happened. The goalpost was the most likely explanation for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. And even if Room DID get a fingertip on it, it still might not have been classified as a save if it was deemed that he nudged the ball’s flight just a little more off target and the ball wasn’t going to go in anyway. (I think it was going in, but that’s yet another judgment call and another set of eyes may disagree.)
They have a lot of stuff to keep track of, so I’d imagine they looked at it live and on replay, made their wholly understandable judgment that the ball hit the post, and moved on.
That’s what I did and I reached the same conclusion.
“I know what I saw.”
More than a month after MLS Cup, Crew defender Josh Williams and I were discussing that play again. He insisted that Room swatted the ball. I’d watched the replay a bajillion times and still didn’t think it was a full-on swat. I reconfirmed that Opta and MLS officially ruled it as woodwork, and Elias Sports Bureau, who maintains the official statistics sanctioned by MLS, officially recorded it that way. Nothing I saw was enough for me to mentally overturn that sensible ruling, as much as I wanted to believe it was a save. At best, I thought Room might have tipped it off the post, but Josh was adamant that it was ALL Eloy.
“He swatted that thing away like Shaq!” Williams texted, reiterating the same analogy he gave to me when we first spoke about the game weeks earlier.
I had to concede that Josh’s of the play view was better than mine. He was looking directly at Room from six yards away whereas I was looking at inconclusive videos. Plus, Josh had previously talked to Eloy about that play. And Josh was so strong in his conviction that Room swatted the ball that I began to take the notion seriously. I was becoming a believer.
Pretty soon, we were texting back and forth about sound, or more specifically, the lack thereof. There was never any sound of the ball hitting the post, and the goals were mic’d up for television. Surely there would have been a ping or a gong or a rattle if the ball clanged off the pipe. And then I thought about the physics of how far the ball caromed away, and the ever-so-slightly faster speed at which it do so, which in retrospect didn’t seem possible on such a looping header unless propelled by a new force.
Josh and I were now fully invested. To get to the bottom of this once and for all, I was able to freeze-frame the video at each juncture of the ball’s journey, like I was analyzing the Zapruder film. And when I did, I found that THIS was as close as the ball ever got to the goalpost.
In that moment, you can still see an indisputable sliver of black background between the goalpost and the glove/ball combination. That was 100% swattage by Eloy Room.
As all those lightly colored objects converge for a split second, the video is too much for the brain to process all at once, but if you chop it up into an animation of individual frozen images, the save becomes clear.
Eloy Room made one of the greatest saves in MLS Cup history. It was almost Stefan Frei in MLS Cup 2016 levels of absurd. Given the stakes, it was surely one of the greatest saves in Room’s career.
Except it’s not.
Officially, it’s a shot off target that hit the goalpost. As explained to me by the always helpful Rick Lawes at MLS HQ when I asked him about this play more than six weeks after the game, league protocol is that the only official scorer decisions that are reviewed and potentially amended after the fact with Elias are goals and assists, and only within a very limited time window. That window may be extended only in cases of mistaken identity for goals, assists, and cards.
That’s all understandable because, realistically, it seems impractical to review and update all the events that occur in a soccer game. The decisions are made live and after reviewing replays at that time, and then you have to move on. Otherwise, the task would never end. But because of this reality, an unreality can take hold. In this instance, the record books will show that Eloy Room made two saves in MLS Cup 2020, neither of which was the save that Columbus fans will remember forever.
Only going frame by frame more than six weeks later did the impossible reveal itself to be true and correct. You can’t blame John Strong for calling the play as off the woodwork when he had to make a snap judgment live on the air based solely upon what he could see from the booth. You can’t blame Opta, MLS, or Elias for recording the ball as a shot off the post based on the live action and the wide-angle replay. Really, you can’t blame a single soul who didn’t have Josh Williams in their ear passionately evangelizing on his teammate’s behalf, prompting absurd levels of post-facto investigation.
On the biggest stage in MLS, Eloy Room made a save that was beyond belief.
Seeing WASN’T believing.
In the end, that’s nobody’s fault but Eloy’s.
[For a catalog of more posts about MLS Cup, including the “Through Josh’s Eyes” series and the “Crew Alumni Reaction” series, please click HERE.]
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