By Paul Gardner
We're just about a week into the MLS season now -- we've seen all 18 teams at least once, so in the dodgy tradition of instant experts, I feel perfectly justified in making at least one assertion. To wit: that Commissioner Don Garber's plea for a more offensive game and his appeal to referees to be harsher in punishing certain defensive fouls has had no effect whatsoever.
This is far from a final judgment, of course, given that the season has many more months to run. But the immediate impact of Garber’s diktat, if that’s what it was, has been undetectable.
Well, that’s not too surprising. We’re talking about referees here, who are -- like all other branches of the law-enforcement profession -- a highly conservative bunch.
Trying to get soccer referees to change the way they do things may well be one of the least rewarding tasks in the sport. Maybe you remember various FIFA attempts? An example: before the 1994 World Cup, a major crackdown was announced on “the tackle from behind.” To general applause, and murmurs of “about time,” FIFA announced that such tackles would be penalized in the World Cup with a red card.
The idea behind the FIFA clamp down was precisely the same as that motivating Garber’s ideas: To allow more scope for attacking play. The FIFA ban didn’t last very long. Just 14 minutes, really -- that was how long the opening game between Germany and Bolivia had been going on, when Germany’s Thomas Haessler launched himself into the back of Bolivia’s Luis Cristaldo, and knocked him down amid a nasty tangle of legs. Right in front of the referee, Mexico’s Arturo Brizio, who had been specially selected as the man to make sure the new severity started off well. Brizio blew it, big time, calling a foul, but failing to give Hassler even a yellow card. And so it went during the tournament -- to my recollection there was one red card for a tackle from behind. But there were certainly plenty of such tackles.
It evidently takes a good deal of time for officials to alter their mindset. We saw the same thing after the 1997 alteration to the offside rule (that a player in line with the last defender was to be judged on-side and not, as previously, off-side). It took nearly a decade for that new thinking to sink in.
It almost looks as if referees, as a body, decide to ignore any changes, but that of course, is ridiculous -- not least because referees have never been known to act in concert. The reason for their intransigence is evidently that, quite simply, they do find it difficult to adjust their way of doing things.
Hence the opening MLS games that revealed nothing new. Scoring: 25 goals in the first 9 games, an average of 2.8 per game, perhaps marginally higher than might have been expected. A total of 32 cards doled out, an average of 3.6 per game - and only one red card.
Looking more closely at the 31 yellow cards (I’m using the stats published on the MLS website) reveals that 20 of them were for physical fouls, mostly reckless tackles. The good news is that there were no calls alleging that a player had dived -- this is positive whichever way you look at it. Either there were no dives, or the referees are reluctant to make those calls -- which they should be, given that most of them are inaccurate.
Less encouraging is that only three yellow cards were given for tactical fouls. Only three tactical fouls in 10 games? How likely is that? The game that I attended, the Red Bulls vs. the Seattle Sounders, featured at least three such fouls, but no cards.
There is just nothing in any of those figures to suggest there’s anything different in the way that MLS games are being played or refereed.
What Garber -- quite correctly, in my opinion -- wants to see is more attacking play, more goalscoring. He sees, again correctly, that defensive play dominates. Certainly that can be countered, to some extent, by getting referees to be tighter in their calls, but, as I’ve tried to explain above, that will not happen overnight.
It is, anyway, the performance of the players, not the referees, that is at the root of the matter. MLS has built itself the reputation of being a physical league. That seems true enough to me. MLS is a league that contains too many average defenders, and certainly too many destructive players. And those players are there because there are too many MLS coaches who want such players. Who want a physical league.
In the game I saw, Seattle’s Colombian forward Fredy Montero suffered a good deal of physical contact, as usual (“I thought we handled Montero well,” said Bulls coach Hans Backe after the game, apparently without irony). Asked later if he considered MLS a particularly physical league, Montero replied with a laconic “Si.” More physical than the play in his native Colombia? Montero’s eyes flashed as he instantly replied Muchissimo!.
How to counter that Muchissimo!? A quick fix that might have some effect is the one tried by the old North American Soccer League -- that of awarding points for goals scored. Briefly, that scheme awarded a team 6 points for a win, 3 for a tie, none for a loss, and one point for each goal scored up to a maximum of three. Thus, in a 4-3 game the winning team would get the maximum 9 points, while the losing team would get 3 points for its three goals.
It sounds good on paper, but we have no proof that it worked in practice. One is inclined to think it did have a positive effect, but as we have no way of knowing what the NASL would have been like without that points scheme, that is no more than guesswork, or wishful thinking. Incidentally, back in 1996 when MLS was still in formation, before a game had been played, its fledgling competition committee considered that points-for-goals system - and thumbed it down.
While I applaud Garber’s efforts to promote a more entertaining game, the sad reality is that his strictures on refereeing are not likely to accomplish too much, certainly not any time soon. Hence an opening round of MLS games which proclaim that it is very much business as usual.