By Ridge Mahoney
Claims of inconsistency have arisen in the wake of MLS imposing harsher punishments for players' transgressions, but critics miss the point that such reviews will increase consistency in the long run.
Jair Benitez, Danny Cruz, Brandon McDonald and Atiba Harris are the latest poster boys in a campaign being launched by MLS to crack down.
Critics were quick to point out fouls and other incidents that seemed equally unsavory or vicious and escaped further punishment, which is a natural offshoot of such procedures. As the league expands and adds games in different venues and playing conditions, the number of borderline situations increases, and so do the reviews of the reviews.
Benitez was suspended for one game and fined for violent conduct for throwing an elbow at Danny Cruz while they dueled for a ball in the D.C. United-FC Dallas game Friday night. Cruz received a fine for embellishment; he simulated being struck in the face.
Brandon McDonald, like Cruz a D.C. United player, was suspended for one game and fined for a reckless challenge in the same game. He tackled FC Dallas striker Blas Perez from behind.
Atiba Harris of Vancouver was also suspended for one game and fined for violent conduct. He elbowed Philadelphia defender Carlos Valdes in their game last Saturday, and was issued a yellow card for the offense.
Perhaps a dozen other incidents that occurred in the nine games played during the fourth week of the MLS regular season that seemed to be somewhat similar did not result in further punishment. “Inconsistency!” wailed the critics, and all I can say is, “Get used to it.”
News flash: there will never, ever, be the level of consistency from game to game that we all crave. Many soccer incidents are not nearly so cut-and-dried as, say, a home-plate umpire establishing his strike zone, or the rigid definitions on pass interference regarding contact between a wide receiver and a cornerback. The game is too fluid, the angles too numerous, the incidents too varied for widespread uniformity.
Soccer commentators say, rightly, that fouls for grabbing and pushing could be called on every corner kick and free kick. Football commentators say, also rightly, that offensive holding can be called on every play. The key factor in both situations is establishing a fine line between what is permissible and what is too blatant to be ignored. It’s not a perfect science and never will be, but a league – be it the NFL or MLS – can strive for a level of consistency through review and education.
The best we can hope for is what players and coaches want most: consistency from the officials within a particular game. The greater empowerment of referee’s assistants to call fouls as well as offside situations and balls out of play add a layer of difficulty to this operation, though over time as officials work with each other they get a feel for how the others call a game.
As evidence of the unique officiating problems presented by soccer, I submit: Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve been completely flummoxed as to what is handball and what isn’t. This isn’t unique to MLS; I’ve scratched my head at handball calls and lack of same in Merseyside derbys, Cascadia Cup matches, and Champions League finals. Deflections, rebounds, blocked crosses, weird hops, I’ve given up trying to figure it out. There have been all manner of directives and photos and charts released by FIFA during the past decade attempting to clarify situations but the same inconsistencies seem to persist.
I’ve also discussed with coaches and general managers one dreaded facet of officiating: calls which are guesses as to what the official thought had happened. It looked like the goalkeeper tripped the forward even though the contact wasn’t seen, so call the penalty kick. I think the player on the ground holding his face got hit by a forearm even though I didn’t see it, so I’d better pull out a card.
Not every referee can adhere to the credo, “Don’t call what you didn’t see.” Or maybe the referee did see the incident and wasn’t sure about the severity, so he issued a yellow card instead of red. If the league goes back and imposes a more severe punishment retroactively, in most cases I don’t have a problem with it for the following reasons:
a) Forcing a team a man down on a borderline call doesn’t serve the spirit of the game. Now if an official is constantly issuing cautions that upon review result in suspensions, that official isn’t doing his job properly. But if he’s unsure, he can err on the side of caution – pun intended – knowing the league can impose a harsher punishment. The German Bundesliga has been doing this for more than a decade and few other leagues have adopted the process. If the league can clearly establish what should be a straight red card, players and coaches and officials will know where they stand.
b) Reviewing incidents with the power of punishment establishes clearer strictures on what constitutes foul play, and increases the amount of relevant data not only for the officials, but for players, coaches, executives, fans and journalists. Over time, such scrutiny can improve consistency among officials and from game to game.
I will be interested to see how the hiring of English referee Peter Walton and the formation of a referee’s association, PRO, will affect the development of officiating in North America. One short-term remedy would be to adopt the use of goal-line officials as currently used in the Champions League and Europa League but doing math on that one can be daunting.
When a high-ranking MLS executive was asked about training, developing, and implementing goal-line officials, he replied, “It’s hard enough to get four [per game]. Where are we going to find six?”
He has a point.