New York City FC's blushes saved by controversial penalty against Chicago

May 22, 2022; New York, NY, New York, NY, USA; Chicago Fire forward Chris Mueller (8) fights for the
May 22, 2022; New York, NY, New York, NY, USA; Chicago Fire forward Chris Mueller (8) fights for the / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, New York City FC welcomed Chicago Fire FC to Citi Field, where the two teams met for the first time this season.  Despite being without Valentín Castellanos due to yellow card accumulation from Wednesday’s win at D.C. United, the Pigeons were expected to defeat the struggling Chicago side. 

However, last season the two sides were 1-1-1 against one another.  And as the story goes, anything can happen in soccer, especially Major League Soccer.  After all, NYCFC did change their season around in 2021, and ended up winning the MLS Cup. 

Alas, it was another match that was not pretty, but the Pigeons were able to scrape by with a 1-0 win.  There is no doubt the team should have gotten another goal or two, but at least defensively they were strong and compact.

On the other side, Chicago fans will likely find the NYCFC win to be controversial, and arguably, a case can be made.

Penalty kick leads New York City FC to 1-0 win over Chicago Fire FC

To the surprise of no one, there was another controversial penalty kick called in a MLS game.  This time, New York City FC was not victimized by the call, and instead was on the positive end of the call. 

After a corner kick, Héber was near goal and attempted to head the ball into the net.  At the same time, Chicago defender Miguel Ángel Navarro jumped into the air in an attempt to block the ball.  This resulted with the ball making contact with Navarro’s arm, and immediately NYCFC players called for a handball.  The referee originally did not make the call, but after a VAR review, it was called a handball, and a penalty kick was given. 

Now, this was a controversial decision because Navarro was jumping in the air.  As such, it is natural for the arms to move away from the body as one jumps in order to keep balance as one goes back to the ground.  FIFA even clarified this in 2021 after there were issues with implementing the new handball rules.

Per FIFA, "A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation." Conversely, it could be argued that the jump could have been made with the arms down, and whether it was natural can determine on the viewpoint of an individual. As such, Navarro's arm was away from his body, and there was contact, which in sense is enough for a penalty kick to be given.

Nevertheless, the decision was made, and Héber stepped up to take the penalty.  The Brazilian, with pure composure, sent Gabriel Slonina in the other direction, and swept the ball into the back, right corner of the net.  Not only did he put his team in front, but that would be the only goal in the match. 

Although, that does not mean NYCFC was not an offensive threat.  The Pigeons had 15 shots in total with five on target.  The issue at hand was that players did not capitalize on clear-cut opportunities. 

Meanwhile, Sean Johnson earned his fifth clean sheet in a row.  In fact, he almost had a third match with no shots on goal against him, but was forced to make a save right in the 90th minute.  That would have tied the record to not allow a shot on target after three games.  But, it was not meant to be, and truthfully, Johnson was probably not focused on that. 

It is important to recognize the defense though, for players like Alexander Callens and Thiago Martins kept the backline solid and composed.  This might have been one of Martins best performances of the year, which shows he continues to adjust to MLS play.  Still, it was Callens once again who protected Johnson the most, for he had a third of the team’s clearances.  He was also all over the backline too, and even got forward into the attack a few times.

Next, the team has two games to look forward to before the June international break.  They have the U.S. Open Cup match against the New England Revolution on Wednesday, and then an away game against Minnesota United FC.  Ideally, New York City FC will continue to win until the break, and of course, move on in the U.S. Open Cup.