By Paul Gardner
I am not one of those who feel that the refereeing in MLS is inferior. We hear from time to time -- quite often, from Brit imports -- that MLS referees are incompetent and not in the same class as the English Premier League refs. What those critics forget -- or, more probably, haven't the wit to realize -- is that we have by now seen years and years of English Premier League games and we know quite a lot about the standard of English referees. It is good, certainly, but not perfect by any means.
This is just about what you would expect for a high-speed human activity that involves so much instant judgment. The level of achievement will vary from ref to ref -- and even with the same ref, from game to game.
What the Brit critics mean is that the refereeing here is rather different from what they're used to. That may, by their narrow thinking, make it inferior. Not by mine, it doesn't. In one crucial respect -- that of handing out punishment for violent play and rough tackling -- I see the Brit refs as palpably inadequate. MLS refs do a better job in applying the rules in that area.
Having said all of that, having, I hope, established that I am not a serial criticizer of MLS refs, I shall now do just that: criticize the performance of two MLS refs this weekend.
I'm not sure how to explain Kevin Stott's performance in the Houston-Los Angeles game. It's best described as EPL style reffing at its most lenient, with Stott repeatedly allowing all sorts of fouls to go unpunished. Mostly these were not violent -- but they were certainly fouls that altered the complexion of the game. Granting a team possession when it should have been penalized is the sort of decision that changes games -- and there were plenty of those decisions from Stott.
This was not an easy game -- I suppose it would be termed chippy. The fact that Stott called 31 fouls, but should have called probably a dozen more, tells the tale. Stott's cards should have come out a lot earlier -- he did eventually give five, but all came in the final minutes of the game.
With his laxity, Stott gave us a game that was tailor-made for the likes of the Galaxy's Dema Kovalenko. Not highly watchable, I mean.
As I happen to think that Stott is normally one of the best refs in MLS, I shall assume that he just had a bad day ... and pass on to the action of referee Jorge Gonzalez in the New England- Chicago game.
This all boils down to about one minute of play: A breakaway by Chicago's Chris Rolfe in the 62nd minute. Rolfe was clean through when Revs goalkeeper Matt Reis confronted him -- in the Revs' penalty area. Rolfe went down.
Now: ref Gonzalez was well behind the play -- as much as 40 yards. But that was hardly his fault, the ball had been played quickly upfield and reached Rolfe in an instant. So Gonzalez was not in the best position to see what happened. We waited for a second or two for Gonzalez to arrive on the scene and give the obvious penalty kick to Chicago and the obvious red card to Reis.
Reis's foul could hardly have been more clear, one didn't need the replays to confirm that -- which they did (even the MLS web site admits that Reis "appeared to make contact to haul the Fire striker to the ground"). But to the amazement of everyone I've spoken to -- and of the FSC announcers -- Gonzalez stood over Rolfe ... and gave him a yellow card for diving.
A decision so bad that one can only laugh. An obviously vital call, in a vital game. So the Revs' Steve Nicol got lucky. Well OK -- he's been on the end of bad calls, that's life. And one can say the same, in reverse, for Chicago's Denis Hamlett.
But there is another aspect to this ludicrous call that MLS should look at. Chris Rolfe is one of the best, most inventively skillful forwards this country has yet produced. I have watched him closely for five seasons now. He has repeatedly impressed me with his ability to create goals with unlikely moves.
And more: his stats show what I have always felt -- that this is a very sportsmanlike, very clean player. In five seasons, he has never been ejected, and has received only nine yellow cards.
I have never seen him dive.
But referee Gonzalez has now labeled Rolfe a cheat, which I think is an enormous injustice. So enormous, that Gonzalez owes Rolfe an apology. Gonzalez could do that, should he wish to.
This spectacularly absurd decision from Gonzalez underlines the problem with the anti-diving witch hunt. There must be a strong suspicion that the call was made by Gonzalez to justify not giving giving a PK and red-carding the goalkeeper. And, if you like, "deciding the game" -- something refs admit they do not like to do, even though it is not them, but the players doing the fouling, who are the guilty ones.
With a diving call, the sport's rulemakers have provided referees with a convenient escape route. We're almost asked to believe that any collision must either be a foul or a dive. Most soccer collisions involve incidental contact. Many are fouls. Very few involve outright simulation.
This was not one of them. Instead we were treated to a classic punish-the-victim scenario, whilst the perpetrator of the foul went unpunished. A farcical travesty of justice, and a calumny against a fine player.