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Fingering MLS referees as the villains misses point
July 5th, 2011 6:58PM

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TAGS:  mls, referees, television

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One has grown used, over the years, to the Alexi Lalas personality. I did not particularly like it at first -- all that dopy long-hair and “Hey, man ...” stuff.  But things change -- I’ve changed, and so has Alexi - to the point where, particularly during last year’s World Cup, during that impenetrable Brit fog that ESPN landed on us, I found Lalas about the only guy worth listening to.

As his TV persona developed, so too did his tendency to wave his arms around as though constantly fighting off swarms of pesky insects -- but I guess TV will not allow its experts to just sit there any more. Compensating for the obviously synthetic, and really quite comical, gesticulations is the fact that Lalas always comes over as a genuine human being -- and an articulate one with a sense of humor.

His opinions shouldn’t really come into it -- I don’t expect to agree with him all the time or even most of the time, but I’ve found that Alexi, on the whole, has shed the shallowness of his hippie days for a much more meaningful view of things.

In short, Alexi has become a "voice" on the US soccer scene, someone who people listen to.

So what happened to him on Monday night, then? Too much Independence Day reveling? Simply a bad day at the office? Suddenly, there’s Alexi, pumping his arms all over the place as usual, but uttering the most fatuous nonsense about the refereeing of Yader Reyes in the Real Salt Lake-New England game.

Just listen to this: “I mean, this was the worst refereeing job -- definitely this year and probably in history. Absolutely horrible.”

What got Lalas going -- and what got the game and Reyes off to a controversial start -- was that Reyes had the audacity to award the Revs a penalty kick after only three minutes, and to red card RSL defender Nat Borchers on the same play.

“It wasn't a foul,” said Lalas with truculent authority, adding redundantly, “It wasn't a red card.”  To make out that Borchers’ clumsy challenge on Benny Feilhaber was a “clean” tackle is absurd. There was considerable contact between the two players -- all of it initiated by Borchers, who can hardly be classified as one of the league’s more elegant defenders (he reminds me, actually, of Alexi himself).

The replays make it pretty clear that Borchers did get to the ball first, before he flattened Feilhaber. It would not have been easy for Reyes to see that as he was following the play -- considerably behind it, the inevitable result of a long-ball play.

What I’m saying is that Reyes’ call was not as wacky as Lalas would have us believe. There is also this. After the tackle, the ball remained within playing distance of Feilhaber, who might well have been in a position to play it -- had he not been taken out by Borchers.

So: a correct call? No - with benefit of replays, no. An outrageous call? Of course not.

Would there have been so much spluttering from Lalas if the call had come later in the game -- say at the beginning of the second half? I wonder. I’ve had my say, repeatedly, on this business of a team having to play with 10 men. I do not like it, it can wreck a game -- though it did not wreck this one, whatever the coaches may say, for this ended in a highly eventful 3-3 tie.

One of the reasons I don’t like the “down-to-ten-men” scenario is because it clearly weighs on referees, making them reluctant to issue justified red cards, or any cards, early in a game (we saw exactly that reluctance at work with Howard Webb in last year’s World Cup final).

So here we have a totally different way of looking at Reyes’s call: that he should be praised for making a gutsy call.

Not by Lalas, obviously, who decided that this was the “worst refereeing in history” -- a slice of over-the-top hyperbole that destroys its own credibility as soon as it’s uttered. What else was so wrong?  The second penalty -- given for an obvious hand ball (and Kevin Alston’s arm was away from his body, something that is usually used as an indication of intent)? The red card for Ryan Cochrane -- after two fully justified yellow cards? The second one was simply madness on Cochrane’s part - a player who knows he’s carrying a first yellow but grabs an opponent and brings him down?  Who’s making the mistake here -- the ref or the player? Yet we have to put up with Cochrane making matters worse by arguing the point, while, over on the sidelines, Steve Nicol was going through a whole repertoire of Sarah Bernhardt histrionics.

And I simply do not know what to make of this: "When you see  Jason Kreis on the sideline with his counterpart Steve Nicol, go over to him after has been awarded a penalty kick and propose, ‘Why don't we walk off because this is so horrible?’ -- this is the situation MLS is in right now.”

I have to assume that Lalas knows that’s what Kreis said -- I mean, Lalas would not just make that up, would he? -- in which case MLS should fine Kreis heavily, because withdrawing your team from the field has always been the ultimate no-no in any sport -- not to mention encouraging your opponents to do the same.

But talking of the coaches is appropriate. Lalas is going on about the referees as though they are responsible for “the situation MLS is in right now.” He doesn’t spell out that situation, but we can safely assume that he doesn’t mean anything good, and that it’s all the referees’ fault.  Which is also a shock of crit.

There are, as it happens, too many boring games in MLS. Soccer America editor Paul Kennedy recently drew attention to the record number of 0-0 ties so far -- with half a season still to play! -- and that is a problem. Are we going to blame that on poor refereeing?

It’s just too easy, Alexi -- blame the referee. A simplistic answer to a serious problem: how to improve the quality the league in every area -- yes, including refereeing. But, frankly, the league could so with some better coaching, too -- and some better players, if it comes to that.  And, no doubt journalists, and TV commentators.  But of all those contributors, it is the referees who are the traditional scapegoats, the favored victims. Of course they are to be criticized -- but they should not be singled out for their errors -- certainly they should not be pilloried while the poor coaches, bless their generous hearts, are exculpated as the innocent targets for atrocious calls.

Think about it: if we are getting too many boring games, too little scoring (and too many idiotic post-game excuses) ... does it really make any sense to finger the referees as the villains?

It does not -- and, in this particular game, I do not believe that it was justified. We got a game full of “incidents” -- it was none the worse for that. In fact, this was one of the liveliest MLS games I’ve seen in a while.

No, the refereeing was not the worst in history ... but the half-time rant may well have been.



0 comments
  1. Tim King
    commented on: July 5, 2011 at 7:30 p.m.
    When Lalas comes on the tube in our Seattle soccer pub we turn down the volume. As a general rule; what ever Lalas says, do the opposite. He is irritating to listen to and his perspectives are superficial and shallow. He is hardly worth the time it took to post this.

  1. Kevin Lash
    commented on: July 5, 2011 at 7:46 p.m.
    Except that it really was not that clumsy of a tackle by Borchers, not in real time at the stadium, and not on the replay either. And the two fouls that led to the other NE goals were not correct calls, either. RSL gets the blame for poorly defending those two kicks, but Borchers is a critical part of their set piece defense and he, of course, was missing. So it radically changed the outcome of the game based not on what the players were doing but on the referee's interpretation of what the players were doing.

  1. Ken Jamieson
    commented on: July 5, 2011 at 8:30 p.m.
    For a man who was known more for his hair style and beard than his play, Alexi Lalas is hardly in a position to pontificate about the job a referee is doing. Alexi's play was more often referred to as clumsy and lacking technically, depending more on size and brute force than skill. For this he no doubt fell afoul of many a ref in his career, thus developing a deep hatred for the man in the middle. Alexi has let his prejudice of referees prejudice his analysis. Having worked as an amateur referee for over 30 years, I know it is a thankless job and one mistake can label you for many years. Not that any player ever made a mistake. I agree that the officiating in MLS this season has been a point of contention, however I think that the officiating is up to the level of play in the league, if you know what I mean. MLS is still a long way from the Premier League, so don't expect Premier League calibre officiating.

  1. Tom Kondas
    commented on: July 5, 2011 at 9:07 p.m.
    Hard to imagine that Lalas who was called leaky for letting the opponent by him would criticize someone else for not doing their job. His analysis was "the worst in history". as was he.

  1. Ric Fonseca
    commented on: July 5, 2011 at 9:12 p.m.
    Thank you Paul, thank you Tim King, thank you Kevin Lash, and thank VERY much Ken Jamieson. And y'all know, I was sort of beginning to like the "likes of Alexis," including his dated long side burns (his trademark?) and his unkempt hair (the now "in style?) But when he goes on to, in Paul G's words, "pontificate" (oh lordy lord, don't begin to canonize him ... just yet!)about the officiating, well, I hereby CHALLENGE and CALL OUT Mr. Alexis Lalas to put on a game official's uniform, and do a game for the full 90 minutes and then interview him to see just how "easy" he claims game officiating to be. And for MLS lack of quality play, WOW! after watching the Gold Cup, Copa America, the Women's WC, the U17 competition, and then tune in for an MLS game, no wonder I get very tired and dose off, with my very knowledgable wife at my side! PLAY ON!

  1. seth inglis
    commented on: July 5, 2011 at 9:54 p.m.
    As a player Lexi Lalas was a goat. Against Colombia in the 1994 World Cup he was lucky he got away with one goal(accidentally scored by Colombias defense). His brother, Greg, I believe is much more suited to do his Brother's job because he leaves the bulls*** out of it and asks the tactical questions. Should be doing commentaries not editing for bloody MLSSoccer.com if you ask me.

  1. clarke harris
    commented on: July 6, 2011 at 12:07 a.m.
    did you see the replay? it was a nice play by Bortchers, he kicks the ball into Feilharber's face. Certanly not a clumsy tackle. Agree ref's job is tough. The point is if the ref is clearly out of position, why is he calling stuff that he can't see? He calls a red on a play because he thinks maybe he saw something???

  1. Tito Messi
    commented on: July 6, 2011 at 12:14 a.m.
    Alexis Lalas is totally wrong to say that kind of crap...the MLS coaching (style of play) is horrible, only a couple coaches are decent and that's about it. Players are not as good as we would like to have in a professional league, but it is what it is and end of story. The refereeing is also not as good, but to say "this is the worst refereeing in history I've ever seen"? LMFAO, I've seen worst and not only in the MLS, but in college, high school and youth level....and I've seen terrible refereeing in other parts of the world as well. Lalas, do us all a favor, get a haircut, go take your wife/partner out to dinner and have a good time....but please, do not complain about the chef or waitress, and please, don't call them the worst you've ever seen!!!!

  1. Saverio Colantonio
    commented on: July 6, 2011 at 1:46 a.m.
    The problem wasn't that the refereeing in this game was the worst, although it could have been, the problem is the at the referees have consistently under performed in the MLS. In a recent Whitecap game that I watched on TV, there were 3 consecutive calls made on non fouls. The first call resulted in a goal from a free kick for the Whitecaps and the third call resulted in a pk goal for Sporting KC. It takes away from an enjoyable game. A number of games go down hill because of the lack of respect from the players that the referees are generating. As for the number of tie games-- it is a function of parity in the league. Having a salary cap keeps many teams from going out and purchasing a lot top players. Teams have to improve by having smart management and the salary cap protects ownership from themselves of going out and spending like drunken sailors. Having parity has both positives and negatives. Its up to the league to weigh the pros and cons. On the subject of ties, they aren't in themselves bad. I'd rather have exciting games that are tied at the end than have a game with a winner that was boring to watch. I happen to follow the Whitecaps and even though they are in last place, they have played some exciting games, many being ties.

  1. Marc Silverstein
    commented on: July 6, 2011 at 8:09 a.m.
    As a referee for well over 25 years...my question...how could the referee be so far out of position? He should have been much deeper on the goal kick and then he wouldn't have had to make up a call that he couldn't have seen from probably 30 yards away.

  1. Rick Figueiredo
    commented on: July 6, 2011 at 11:35 a.m.
    I like Alexi Lalas. I did not, as you, like him previously, around 1998 but he has grown and is learning to decipher this game much better. I only listen to 2 American commentators: Lalas and Brandi Chastain. Yes Brandi Chastain. Love that girl's thoughts! Chastain is rather brilliant at times with her tactical analysis. I am puzzled as to why she has such a small part in the Women's world cup. Oooh. Probably cause the rest of the group are not smart enough to realize how bright Chastain really is. But, back to Lalas. Let's give Lalas a bad day at the office card. The play was a penalty but I would not have given a red card. Yellow was good enough but the refs in the MLS are, to put it politely, borderline pathetic in general. I'm still in your corner Lalas. But that Harkes guy needs to go. The american fans will not learn this game if the commentators do not know this game either.

  1. Adam Kunz
    commented on: July 6, 2011 at 5:15 p.m.
    Paul, You are an idiot. Try watching the game rather than writing an article from the highlights. This ref missed calls all over the pitch and called phantom calls all game. Watch NE second goal and you will see Lekic pull Soborio off the wall which is why they got the goal. Where was the call??? Lekic should be sited by the disciplinary committee. The Alston hand ball you can't even tell in the slow replay whether it is his arm or back. Granted he should keep his arms in or he is begging for a hand ball call. This ref was the worst I have seen so far this year. And Borchers' play was anything but clumsy he has every right to go for that ball just like Benny. The problem was Benny's name has given him privileges he doesn't deserve. Same is true for Charlie Divies.

  1. Edward Kilgarriff
    commented on: July 7, 2011 at 2:06 a.m.
    This article is a joke. Borchers, who 'MADE NO CONTACT' with Feilhaber now misses two games because the ref made a call from 40 yards away, and the Refs assistance wasn't even looking at the play. Watch the reply on MLSsoccer.com folks... NO CONTACT = NO PENALTY. Yes the refs are a joke. The MLS is expanding the number of teams, thus the number of games and therefore US soccer has to provide more refs, and is rushing through refs who aren't up to the standard. It's time the MLS started importing good referees. Paul, since you know nothing about soccer, why don't you just start writing about cricket. I'm sure you'll do an equally good job there mate!

  1. Brian Something
    commented on: July 7, 2011 at 9:51 a.m.
    Two issues here... first, why is the ref making a call that significant (two huge calls, actually) from 40 yards away? Second, where was the assistant ref (AR) on that side? Third, are we both wrong and was it the AR (who should have been much closer to the play) who told the ref to make that call? We don't know. However, the ref had a horrible game from start to finish, not just on one or two calls. He missed big calls and little calls alike.

  1. Brian Something
    commented on: July 7, 2011 at 9:53 a.m.
    I completely agree that refs are too often scapegoated by coaches more interested in deflecting blame from themselves and their players. But that doesn't mean the refs should have no accountability. Think of it this way. If Borchers did indeed commit a foul and make a boneheaded decision that changed the game, he will be suspended for two games because of it. If it was in fact the ref who was wrong and HE was the one who made the boneheaded decision that changed the game, will the ref be suspended for two games instead?


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