By Ridge Mahoney
Another close call went against Real Salt Lake Wednesday in its 1-1 tie Wednesday, and another pointed criticism from Coach Jason Kreis followed.
But how he criticized the officials in that match and a 3-1 loss in San Jose last weekend points out an added burden brought about by expansion. More teams bring more games and just as is feared among some fans and journalists that the process dilutes the caliber of players with a limited talent spool spread wider, so too can it affect the quality of officials.
Commenting on a penalty kick called on defender Tony Beltran, who was adjudged to have handled the ball while slipping to his knees in the penalty area, Kreis said, “I am again disappointed in another referee’s decision. I have not watched the replay yet. For me, there is just no way that can be called a penalty kick.”
As he had done last weekend when two RSL players were sent off with straight red cards in a 3-1 loss at San Jose, Kreis followed with some very pointed words: “Someone who reads the game or is involved with the game more knows that is never a penalty kick.”
Referee Geoff Gamble was working his 11th MLS game, which is only of statistical interest, since plenty of coaches and players and team executives will tell you officials with many years of experience make some of the worst decisions. The referee for the San Jose game, Elias Bazakos, was working his 22nd MLS match, and Kreis obviously felt that even with twice as much experience as Gamble, he didn’t do so well, either.
“We’re taking a position in our league this year that we need to get some new, talented referees, and in order to do that you need to give guys like that an opportunity, and then hopefully correct their mistakes,” said Kreis outside the RSL locker room at Buck Shaw Stadium.
“My big hope is that this week and hopefully through the next 10 days or so that folks who do the teaching are going to be doing do a lot of teaching with him.”
Bazakos sent off Fabian Espindola for a two-footed lunge on which the RSL forward may have lost his footing as he challenged for the ball, and dismissed Jamison Olave for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity when he jostled Steven Lenhart as they chased a ball played over the top.
Down to nine men, RSL battled to keep the score at 1-1 until two stoppage-time goals sealed the result. In addition to praising the defensive resilience of his team and an excellent goal scored by Kyle Beckerman, Kreis gave his versions of the two ejections. Though biased, they aren’t off-base.
“I had the worst angle on Fabian’s ejection,” said Kreis. “It’s always tough when two players slide into a ball together and you end up ejecting one. I would have to assume that Fabian exposed his cleats and that’s the reason he’s ejected, but from where I stood I was shocked to see [Bazakos] going to his back pocket so quickly.
“All I’m saying is that Espindola I didn’t see it, so it was shocking when there’s two players that slide in like that that you send one off. I thought maybe he was going to send them both off because they kicked each other or something, I had no idea what was going on. The Olave decision, I don’t know again. I think if the last defender makes a foul in that way you give the referee a choice. And this one seemed to show us all night the choices he was going to make.”
That last comment echoes similar diatribes during Kreis’ first few years as a head coach. In addition to winning an MLS Cup (in 2009) and imbuing RSL with an attractive and successful playing style, Kreis has learned a diplomatic yet direct method of dealing with officiating issues.
When he took over as head coach four games into the 2007 season, he rather quickly established a reputation of trotting out comments to the effect of, Woe is us, the league is against Real Salt Lake, just about every a time a bad call went against his team. That act grew tiresome in the press, yet on the training field and in the locker room it’s not the first time “us-against-the-world” struck a chord. RSL is one of the league’s best teams, year after year, and while they can be physical, they can also play good stuff.
He’s not so much toned down that approach as found ways to address specific issues. He will most likely be fined by the league for these public criticisms of officials. Yet he’s not completely wrong.
From this corner the verdicts are: a) Espindola always goes in hard and his reckless reputation may have influenced the decision, yet this was a bad foul, a borderline red; b) Lenhart may have been bumped by Olave though not grabbed or tripped, yet the ref believed a foul had been committed; and c) bad call, the ball bounced off Beltran and a nearby teammate and then rebounded onto his arm as he slipped.
One can quibble about Kreis’ interpretations of specific incidents, yet irrefutable is his assertion that along with other growing pains of an expanding league, officiating continues to be one of the most daunting. And as is the case with players, coaches, executives, broadcasters, etc., for officials at the pro level, there’s no substitute for experience.