The United States and Canada played one of the more incredible matches in recent memory on Monday, which was only made better by the stage: the Olympic semifinals. It was a match chock full of great goals, near-misses, nail-biting and exhilarating moments that eventually saw the U.S. come away 4-3 winners in the 122nd minute of extra time. It was also a match full of dubious refereeing, and that is being kind.
From the very start, Christina Pedersen looked horribly out of her depth. She was regularly out of position, taking terrible angles and seemingly guessing with each blow of the whistle.
But nothing Pedersen did compared to her decision to whistle Erin McLeod for a six-second call in the 78th minute. Canada was leading the U.S., 3-2, and on the verge of a massive upset when seemingly out of nowhere, Pederson blew her whistle. Everyone was confused at Pedersen's whistle and when it blew, not a single person thought of the six-second call. It was a decision that perplexed even the most veteran of soccer watchers and led some to even wonder, "what is a six-second call?"
To wonder that would not be an indicator of a novice to the sport. While the six-second call is in the rule book, you would be hard-pressed to find a single person who has ever seen it called above the U-10 level, let alone at the professional level in an Olympic semifinal.
The six-second rule limits the goalkeeper to holding the ball for a maximum of six seconds, but it is never, ever called. Goalkeepers routinely hold the ball for longer than six seconds, and if referees wanted to, they could whistle goalkeepers for violating the rule at least a dozen times per match. But they don't. They let the goalkeeper take their time, eventually yell at the goalkeeper to kick the ball if s/he takes an extraordinarily long time, the goalkeeper kicks it and everyone moves on.
Yet there was Pedersen, in the 78th minute of an Olympic semifinal, whistling for it without even warning McLeod, which might be the most incredible part. The closest thing to a warning that McLeod got was a word from the assistant referee at halftime not to waste time, but that didn't stop Pedersen from putting her whistle to work.
The call gave the U.S. an indirect free kick inside the box, a rarity in soccer, but more common than a six-second call. Megan Rapinoe hit the free kick, it was handled and the U.S. got a penalty that Abby Wambach converted to tie the match. Eventually, Alex Morgan scored in the 122nd minute and Canada lost, while the Americans were through to the gold-medal match.
Even after the match, though, the talk was on the six-second call. It was still a baffling call and the Canadians had a legitimate claim that without that call, they would have held on to beat the U.S. Instead, they will be playing for bronze, not gold.
Canada's hat trick hero and captain didn't mince words after the match, telling Grant Wahl: "The ref decided the result before the game started."
That is the lowest of blows that one could deliver a referee, but was it fair? Not so much.
The six-second call was undeniably awful, but awful wasn't out of the norm for Pedersen on Monday at Old Trafford. Just like the Canadians were furious at Pedersen for the six-second call, the Americans could have been just as upset at one of the several non-penalty calls when the Canadians hacked down Morgan in the box. Canada could have directed their attention at the non-call on Rapinoe's handball in the box that could have handed them a penalty. The U.S. could have also wondered why it took so long for Pedersen to produce a yellow card when Canada was cynically tackling them all match long.
There is a long list of gripes about Pedersen, and while the six-second call gets top billing, it is hardly the only one. This was not a matter of a referee whose one call turned a match, because any one of her other missed calls could have turned the game in the direction of either team at any point.
Pedersen was not a one-trick pony, at fault for just the six-second call. It was an exhibition in referee incompetence that, in its own special way, contributed just as much to the absurdity of the event.
The match featured a hat trick, an Olimpico, a 20-yard rocket, a team coming from behind three times and a 123rd-minute game-winner. Could one call, as crazy as it might have been, really stand out in the 120+ minutes of absolute absurdity? In the end, the U.S. and Canada played one of the most mind-boggling matches anyone has ever seen on Monday, and that included the referee.