I have written to ask about the application of “involvement in play” by a player in an offside position. Specifically, three plays prompt questions. First, a fullback headed successfully a high and hard pass at the 18, rather than allow the ball to continue toward his keeper, because he anticipated and feared a challenge for the ball from a nearby player in an offside position. The successful header, however, was not as effective as a free kick would have been. Should offsides have been whistled? If the header had gone to a teammate of the player in the offsides position, should offsides have been penalized at that later time?
Similarly, a fullback stopped with an outstretched leg a pass attempted through the defensive line at the 12, rather than allow the pass to proceed to the keeper, because the ball would otherwise have proceeded to a player in an offsides position and that penalty may not be called. Should offsides have been called? Also, in this case, the ball rebounded to a stop at the 18. If that defensive stop had set up a very good shot for another offensive player, should offsides have been penalized?
Finally, a player who had been in an offsides position approached from behind the fullback who had stopped easily a through pass and, consequently, induced a quicker and longer pass than otherwise might have been made. Should offsides have been penalized in this instance?
USSF answer (November 4, 2008):
The answer for all three is that the referee (and the assistant referee, if his or her view is better) must decide whether the defender had clearly established possession and control of the ball or whether the play was simply a deflection of the ball. If possession was clearly established, then there is no offside, no matter that the ball then goes to the player who was in the offside position when his or her teammate played the ball. If the referee decides it was a deflection or misplay and no control had been established, then the decision should be for offside. The AR is expected to make a recommendation, based on his or her view, but the referee has the final decision. However, if either the AR or the referee is unsure, then there is no offense.