By Paul Gardner
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has recently had some pretty sensible things to say about the state of soccer within his league. He wants to encourage attacking play and he believes that some changes in the attitudes and actions of referees will help bring that about.
I wish him well. Of course referees should be harsher on studs-up tackles, of course they should not be so quick to make offside calls -- and ditto with holding and shirt-tugging and persistent fouling. Garber is 100 percent correct in noticing that defending players get away with far too much. Referees do, definitely, need to adopt a sterner approach.
I fear that Garber’s attention to refereeing will be taken by many as a sign that MLS referees are not doing a good job, that they are sub-standard.
That is not the case. As it happens, there is not a league anywhere in the world -- and that takes in England’s EPL, the Italian Serie A, Spain's La Liga, and all of South American soccer -- where people are satisfied with the refereeing. How can they be, when everyone involved is a devotee of this or that club -- leading to the inevitable bias that makes objective judgment impossible.
MLS referees are neither the best nor the worst in the world. I think that, on the whole, they do a good job. But the comparison I’ve just made with the rest of the world, reveals a problem. I’m judging MLS referees by the standards that are adhered to globally -- those either set by, or permitted by, FIFA.
The problems that Garber, rightly, wants to address start there. The global standards are not strict enough. They vary, of course. They are at their weakest, their most permissive, in England. They are probably at their strictest in South America. But in all instances, they are too lenient, and the areas singled out by Garber should, indeed, be tightened up.
Will it be possible for MLS referees, then, to referee in a way that will be considerably more punitive than anywhere else in the world? I have my doubts. Referees see plenty of foreign games these days, they are bound to be influenced by what they see. It’s decidedly unfortunate that the most frequently seen games are from the EPL, where the refereeing can often seem to be actively encouraging violent play.
Just this Saturday we had Manchester United’s Paul Scholes committing a foul eminently worth a second yellow card -- but referee Chris Foy merely administered a short talking-to. An approach that simply makes a mockery of the rules.
If there's one thing that MLS referees could be told not to do, it is to administer these little disciplinary chats, complete with the exaggerated arm gestures intended to make a feeble referee look tough. If it’s a foul, call it. If it’s a yellow card, give it. The same with a red. There is no need for explanations or any words at all. The players know the rules ... or they are supposed to. If they don’t, that is their problem.
Tactical fouling should be high up on Garber’s list. That is defined on page 115 of the rule book, and calls for an obligatory yellow card. Those yellows are usually not given. Even less frequently seen are yellow cards, also obligatory, for objecting to a referee decision -- “dissent by word or action” as the rulebook puts it.
Diving calls present a problem. Most of them, as currently called, are flat out wrong. If all of Garber’s suggestions were adopted (which, of course, they will not be) then I’d probably agree that referees should be looking for divers. But as long as the defenders are allowed great liberty to foul without punishment, my sympathies are with the divers. There is also, on these calls, the unmistakable suggestion that when they occur in the penalty area the referee is using them as an excuse not to call a penalty kick.
Garber does not have direct control over the referees. They are assigned by the U.S. Soccer Federation, so Garber cannot simply tell them how they are to interpret the rules. That calls for close cooperation between MLS and USSF.
But Garber has at his disposal another way of encouraging attacking play, one that does not involve working with the USSF. The most direct route to more attractive, attacking, goalscoring soccer is for MLS teams sign players who can provide it. Which, in turn, means MLS teams appointing coaches who understand and believe in that type of play.
At the moment, Garber’s attitude is that the clubs can appoint any coach they like. He will not interfere. That seems the correct way to do things, but it has led to some pretty awful appointments. Mostly because the league is full of ownership groups and general managers who simply do not understand the sport.
Dictating which coaches a club should sign, and then telling the coach which players he can sign, is clearly not a workable policy. But the creation within MLS of an atmosphere favorable to attacking soccer and hostile to defensive play, the encouragement to search out attacking players, the provision of help in knowing where to look for them, even the creation of a centralized scouting system -- these things are well within the power of Garber and his single-entity league.
It remains something of a mystery to me how easily MLS coaches find average defenders and midfielders to sign. But what difficulties they have finding good attacking players!