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So far, not bad
by Ridge Mahoney, November 4th, 2008 7AM
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[MLS REF WATCH] For the MLS referees in the quarterfinal, first legs, the bottom line read: One red card, certainly justified; the same for two disallowed goals; and no penalty kicks. Neither of those figures would be reassuring if officials had ignored a savage off-the-ball incident meriting an ejection, or somehow missed a stone-cold penalty, or whistled for a phantom infraction and pointed to the penalty spot. Fortunately, in most cases the officials rose to the occasion and performed at their own playoff caliber.

Concerns about the officiating began right away in the Revs-Fire match last Thursday, when referee Alex Prus adopted a rather laissez-faire attitude regarding a few tough tackles early in the match. Yet when Bakary Soumare plowed into Kenny Mansally from behind in the 16th minute, Prus promptly and firmly cautioned him for a reckless foul.

In this hard-hitting game, tacking on a few additional yellows to the five Prus handed out might have been somewhat heavy-handed. Prus permitted a few fierce challenges to go unpunished, and several times players held up multiple fingers, indicating their belief an opponent had hacked enough times to be cautioned for persistent fouling.

In some ways, referees are like goalkeepers; they can perform flawlessly for 89 minutes, but if in that other minute they err egregiously, nobody remembers anything else. Somehow the officials must manage the ebb and flow of the game, let the minor stuff pass, and still be ever vigilant, since a decisive play or serious incident may arise at any moment.

On this benchmark, too, Prus and his assistants made the grade. A desperation tackle by John Thorrington in the final minutes did get a piece of the ball as Sainey Nyassi prepared to shoot, and a wonderfully headed goal by Brian McBride from a Justin Mapp cross turned out to be a marginally offside play, and thus properly disallowed. Prus also got it right in the 65th minute when Thorrington tackled Mansally forcefully but legally in the penalty area.

One might quibble about two handballs on the dribble, both occurring when a ball bounced up and struck either the hand or the arm of the dribbler, and in only one case did Prus whistle for handball.

Referee Kevin Stott handed out three cautions in the Red Bulls-Houston game, a rather low total for a frenzied match played at a high pace on artificial turf. Stott should have cautioned Nate Jaqua when he accidentally head-butted Andrew Boyens as they dueled for a bouncing ball. Players from both teams jostled and shoved as they surrounded the prone Boyens yet no cards were issued. Boyens needed a few minutes to recover and Jaqua, the target of furious Red Bull protests, sportingly helped the dazed defender to his feet, but still the reckless foul should have been punished more severely.

Juan Pablo Angel used a forearm to clunk Richard Mulrooney a few minutes later as they jumped for a ball to demonstrate his fury at Jaqua escaping sanction, and Stott duly cautioned the Red Bull captain. Angel didn't hit Mulrooney viciously but did knock him down.

The referee had earlier cautioned Dane Richards (reckless foul) and Brian Mullan (unsporting behavior) after Richards had felled Mulrooney and Mullan jumped into the ensuing scrum to exact some payback. After cautioning Angel, Stott put away his cards for the rest of match, and as in the case of Prus, let a few marginal incidents pass unpunished. Prus, though, after cautioning Mansally in the 42nd minute, handed out three cards in 14 minutes as the goalless stalemate dragged on. When the tensions and frustrations escalated, the referee tightened his strings.

Referee Ricardo Salazar disallowed a Real Salt Lake goal in the 76th minute of a 0-0 game, and heard plenty of protest from the raucous Rio Tinto Stadium crowd. Yura Movsisyan, though, had clearly shoved Carey Talley before putting the ball into the net, and Salazar whistled decisively as Talley fell, his waving arm appealing for the foul call.

The only red card of the quarterfinal first-leg games occurred when Wizard Herculez Gomez, who'd been knocked over trying to win a ball near the touchline, lashed out with both feet as Crew defender Gino Padula took possession. Gomez lunged for the ball with his left leg and as that leg tripped Padula, his right leg whipped around and also made contact. Referee Jorge Gonzalez adjudged Gomez guilty of serious foul play and sent him off.

Gonzalez also cautioned three players in a typically bruising playoff game that produced 32 fouls. Had Gomez merely tripped Padula with a late tackle he'd have been cautioned. One could argue that Gonzalez could have been more lenient. The case could also be made that Gomez committed a dangerous, two-footed foul with his team leading in a playoff game, 1-0, and unlike many of the hard, tough tackles witnessed by Prus and Stott, it clearly fit the definition of serious foul play.

Playing a man short from the 75th minute, Kansas City surrendered an equalizer in the second minute of stoppage time when it fluffed several attempted clearances and Steven Lenhart stuck the ball into the net. We'll never know if the presence of Gomez in that goalmouth melee might have prevented the goal, but in this case, the result can't be pinned on a bad refereeing decision.



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