By Ridge Mahoney
Two weeks ago, D.C. United players, officials and fans were outraged by the work of referee Baldomero Toledo, who they believe flubbed four critical calls – three of which went against United – in a 2-1 loss at New England.
On Saturday, forward Charlie Davies fell to the ground upon being hand-checked by Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, and drew a penalty-kick ruling from referee Abiodun Okulaja that has drawn blistering criticism. Davies has been ripped for taking a dive, Okulaja is getting grief for buying it. David Beckham called the call “disgusting,” Landon Donovan – who didn’t travel for the game – offered to buy Davies a scuba mask.
The adage that refereeing decisions will balance out over the course of a season, and they are part of the game, shrouds a more important issue: How many of these calls are narrow, 50-50 decisions that could go either way, and how many are simply badly botched rulings. Unfortunately, cases of the latter seem to be stacking up rather rapidly, a clear indication that officiating of MLS matches isn’t keeping up with an increased burden of games and responsibilities.
Expansion means more teams and more games, and thus, more officials. Its persona as a fast, physical league loads extra burdens on MLS officials, who are also struggling to correctly oversee experienced players being lured from foreign teams and more polished products coming out of the college game. Any good official is going to occasionally miss a tough, bang-bang call; while offside calls seem to have improved, in other areas MLS officials are falling behind.
For at least a decade, many complaints from coaches and general managers have centered not just on the traditional precepts of accuracy, consistency and fairness, but finding men who can use good judgment and common sense. The Davies incident highlights a weakness among some MLS officials who tend to flub critical calls in the penalty area; they seem obsessed with either calling a foul of some sort or cautioning players for diving when there’s contact.
Most observers would say Davies took a dive and should have been cautioned, yet by a strict interpretation of the rule book, Gonzalez pushed an opponent, which is a foul. The mark of a good referee is finding truth in these gray areas, deciding what is a trip and what is incidental contact, or discerning what is a punishable push and what is permissible at the pro level.
San Jose fans howled last week when a Sounders defender clearly tripped Ryan Johnson in the penalty area, yet referee Edvin Jurisevic let play continue. This incident occurred in the same part of the field as the Davies’ play; on the attacking left side of the penalty area, which is the furthest away from the referee and his assistant. (This is one reason why goal-line officials are stationed on the side of the goal away from the referee’s assistant, to give a different viewing angle of goalmouth incidents as well as the goal line.)
MLS decided not to follow the lead of the Europa League, as well as the Mexican league, to add goal-line officials for the 2011 season. The logistics and duties of this system are still being developed, and in any case, the ultimate decision of whether to award a penalty is up to the referee. Perhaps Jurisevic believed he saw the Johnson incident clearly and decided no penalty was warranted; the replays indicate otherwise, but at least he didn’t caution Johnson for diving as some of his colleagues might have.
Other referees seem prone to over-officiating when letting play continue might be the best decision. In stoppage time of the New England-D.C. game, defender Dejan Jakovic received a red card for jostling Revs keeper Matt Reis as he collected a ball inside the penalty area. The contact seemed incidental, though Reis raised his knee as he grabbed the ball and upon contact tumbled to the ground as if struck by a truck. As Jakovic jogged back to his position, he jawed with D.C. players and took a swipe at one of them, a patently stupid move given the circumstances and Toledo’s poor performance to that point.
Toledo indeed issued a red card -- not for Jakovic’s errant swipe -- but for supposedly roughing up Reis. Jakovic could have just crashed into Reis, but he didn’t; Jakovic checked his challenge as Reis caught the ball and extended his arms to stop his momentum, which Toledo apparently viewed as a deliberate shove.
Jakovic wasn’t fined; the league rescinded the fine that normally accompanies a suspension but only in the case of mistaken identity can a suspension be lifted, so he sat out United’s April 2 match.
Three players were sent off in RSL’s 2-0 defeat of the Revs Saturday; rather than go over each of those incidents in detail, it can be said instead that in general, neither the players nor officials are satisfied with how games are being played, and officiated, so far in 2011.