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MLS refs getting tougher with second cautions
by Ridge Mahoney, May 21st, 2012 3:25AM

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TAGS:  mls, new york red bulls, philadelphia union, referees

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Freddy Adu and Victor Palsson don’t have much in common, other than their incredulous reactions to be dismissed with second cautions during the past two weekends of MLS play.

They’d better get used to it. Though in both cases the incidents that prompted the second yellows could be interpreted as borderline situations, the referees are using cautions precisely as they are supposed to be: as deterrents to further infringements.

Rather than ignoring subsequent offenses by cautioned players, as dozens of MLS referees have done hundreds of times over the years, at least a few officials are ensuring that players get the message of what a caution is supposed to mean: Clean up your play, or you’ll be off. There are fewer occasions when an already-cautioned Landon Donovan – to cite just one example – could blatantly pull back an opponent by the jersey at midfield to stop a counterattack and stay in the game.

Adu, who’d received a first caution for scything an opponent’s legs with a very dangerous tackle, got a second when he veered past Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty in the penalty area and tumbled to the ground. From his knees he saw referee Jorge Gonzalez pull out the yellow card for diving, and then the red.

Palsson’s first caution was much like Adu’s, a reckless foul absolutely deserving of a caution. He’d also been warned by referee Ismail Elfath, yet couldn’t believe his eyes when Elfath came out with a second yellow after Palsson had clattered into Miguel Montano and knocked him down without getting a foot to the ball.

Of the two situations, Adu’s is the more murky, as he may have simply lost his balance when McCarty's challenge barely nicked him. It’s rare to see a referee warn a cautioned player but the referee is empowered to do so. However, Freddy’s flopping reputation is well-established, and while I don’t want a referee to send off a player with a second caution in a somewhat ambiguous situation, I also want the official to stand firm if he’s absolutely sure that a second yellow is warranted.

I hope MLS officials aren’t reverting to the days when waves of cautions handed out for diving, and too many bang-bang incidents in the goalmouth resulted either in a penalty kick or a card for diving. In a contact sport, there’s going to be contact, and sometimes the best call is no call.

What fans and pundits often forget is that a second caution, just like a first one, can be administered for persistent infringement. Again, too many times a cautioned player would commit subsequent offenses with impunity as if the first caution wiped the slate clean instead of putting the player on probation, so to speak.

It can be argued that dismissing a player and leaving his team a man down is too severe a punishment for cautionable offenses, but those are the rules. When officials are too reluctant to dismiss cautioned players who keep fouling, games can degenerate into free-for-alls, which of course trigger strident cries that the referee has lost control of the game.

In the case of Palsson, he’d also been warned by the referee in addition to being cautioned, and thus had no valid complaint – though of course he pleaded his case – when his very stupid foul prompted an early exit. The Red Bulls, playing 10 against 11, went on to beat Montreal, 2-1, anyway for their fifth straight victory, so not always does the punishment of dismissal doom a team to defeat. It did in the case of Adu, whose Union lost to those same Red Bulls a week earlier.

The officiating so far in MLS this season has been very uneven, which isn’t surprising, since a fair number of new referees have been getting their first experiences in league matches and a 90-minute match is a tough enough test for anyone. The league’s review process is handing out suspensions, such as Brek Shea’s three-game ban for kicking a ball at an assistant referee, that make very clear its intent to monitor closely peripheral incidents as well as those that occur during play.

A few stars aren’t monitored as closely and consistently as they should be: in recent games, David Beckham received a justifiable caution for barking at a referee’s assistant over an offside call – which was judged correctly by the way – but in another incident wasn’t disciplined for raking his studs over an opponent’s shin.

The proper and effective use of yellow cards is a vital element as a referee and his fellow officials administer and manage a game. Play-acting to dupe the referee into giving a second yellow is yet another nettlesome offshoot of this topic. Yet if MLS officials are taking a firmer stand regarding second cautions, it’s up to the players and their coaches to be on guard.



12 comments
  1. Ronnie j Salvador
    commented on: May 21, 2012 at 10:42 a.m.
    Nice to see a mention of the ”persistent infringement” rule. The head referee instructor in our section is [Thankfully] really good about regular reminders on this rule. However, in all my kid’s games in other areas, this rule doesn’t seem to be implemented at all. I’ve handed out yellows because of persistent infringement, and players and coaches were totally oblivious to the rule. Perhaps as referees, we need to do a better job with coaches and players education. Or, somehow require travel and high school coaches & players to actually read the LOTG.

  1. Richard Broad
    commented on: May 21, 2012 at 10:59 a.m.
    The entire card system is a travesty. It places far too much power in the subjective judgment of one person to influence not only the outcome of a particular game but also of subsequent matches. In all the other major team sports throughout the world penalties are imposed for inappropriate actions and unsuitable behavior, but they are nowhere near as arbitrary, and even capricious, as in soccer. Consistency in officiating is always a major concern. Despite the articulation in the Laws of the Game of what constitutes a caution or ejection, there is a WIDE range of interpretation from official to official, from game to game, as to the awarding of a red card, a yellow card, or no card at all. As soccer grows in popularity as a mainstream sport, its full acceptance by the sporting public is still being impaired by an antiquated system of punishment that those who are not familiar with the game find strange, incomprehensible, and bizarre. Total revision, and perhaps complete abandonment, of the card system, bringing the officiating process in line with other sports would go a long way to enhancing the image and facilitating the growth of soccer throughout our culture.

  1. Ric Fonseca
    commented on: May 21, 2012 at 11:40 a.m.
    Interesting reading indeed, the article and the two comments. However, I've been wondering for quite a few years now, if the author ever officiated a game at any level in order to make a valid point, observation, and interpretation of what a center referee or the AR's go through? Probably not, though it seems that if a ref doesn't give yellow cards, then there is a hue and cry, and now because the officials are now being more stringent in whipping out a second yellow and thus are becoming "yellow card" happy, there is even yet more hue and cry. Can't have it both ways. As for the comment by Mr. Broad, no way will they do away with the card' cause after all it took FIFA quite a few decades to even conjure up the caution and ejection cards. Besides, doesn't volleyball also use a yellow and red? If Mr. Broad says there is "WIDE range of interpretation...(sic)" on the LOTG, yet when people from other parts of the world see an American football game with all the bizarre calls, hand signals, game stoppage to discuss whatever, or injury time outs, etc., American football can also be seen and considered "strange, incomprehensible, and bizarre..." and to bring our sport in line with other sports would be in and of itself bizarre. Lastly what I've been advocating is that players, parents, coaches, and writers familiarise themselves with the LOTG and even officiate games at various levels of competition.

  1. James Griffin
    commented on: May 21, 2012 at 12:59 p.m.
    Agree with Mr Fonseca. FIFA is like a giant wheel --- slow to start moving and even slower to stop or change directions. Maybe it's time for MLS to take a page from the National High School rule book. Second yellow cards result in the ejection of the offending player but allows a substitute. This punishes the player, not the team. It might help eliminate the often obvious prejudice toward marquee players by some referees.

  1. Brent Crossland
    commented on: May 21, 2012 at 3:31 p.m.
    I guess a "soft" red works for schoolboys, depending on your perspective. If your priority is to keep people on the field -- mission accomplished. If your priority is to protect players -- not so much. It's not hard to envision a scenario where, with the league/season/tournament on the line, a professional level player would decide to "take out" the key player on the other team if the only real penalty was a forced substitution. Welcome to the world of hockey-style 'enforcers'. Players like Lionel Messi and David Silva wouldn't last a season.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: May 21, 2012 at 3:50 p.m.
    The Adu red card highlights a few aspects of the issue quite well. First, at the point Adu was red-carded, he was the most exciting player on the field, so his loss (as an individual) hurt the game. But I think the ref got it right; Adu was looking for a PK. There was a little contact, so perhaps going down was not entirely fabricated; had he gotten up and tried to play, maybe it's a no-call. Instead, as he's down, he reaches out and tries to grab the ball, forcing the ref's hand. So while harsh, Adu can only blame himself for that one. But it did hurt the game, and that is not unusual for a send-off. And that is the primary reason FIFA should reconsider its red-card rules. I think ejected players should be allowed to be replaced (as long as the team has subs). Then 2nd yellows would punish players for being stupid while playing with a yellow (as they should be), but not hurt the game. Paul Gardner had an interesting suggestion to award a PK to the opposing team when a player is sent off, but I think that would make referees once again hesitate to eject players. Instead, a PK should be awarded only if the red card is issued because the player prevented a goal scoring opportunity. But if a player deserves a second yellow, the ref should give it, otherwise the game will get out of control.

  1. Ronnie j Salvador
    commented on: May 21, 2012 at 4:35 p.m.
    I do like the ‘soft’ reds in NFHS games. It allows a gradient between a send off/person down, and simply a send off. In the enforcer scenario, that player would warrant a ‘hard’ red, in theory. Unsure if I’d describe the discrepancy we see as "…WIDE range of interpretation…”. Whether it’s Howard Webb with just a yellow in a World Cup Final for a studs up kick to the chest [which he admits afterwards was a call he flubbed], or refs in your local league who allow studs up slide tackles that make contact go unpunished: it’s really just a BAD call [or non~call]. I think the LOTG is relatively clear.

  1. Glenn Auve
    commented on: May 21, 2012 at 7:41 p.m.
    Donovan actually showed us a more recent example on Saturday night. Already on a caution he decided to hit a Chivas player on the end line with the ball already out of play. No reaction from the referee. While you can point to new referees, the one who blew the call on Shea was Baldomero Toledo who has been around the league for many years and is (was?) one of the full time referees. And Mark Geiger is the one who didn't send off Donovan on Saturday, and lots of people consider him to be the top referee in the country.

  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: May 22, 2012 at 12:17 a.m.
    Part of the competitive game is for the players and coaches to read what the referee is calling and understand what will be allowed. A good referee (with the aid of the ARs) is communicating with the players and coaches throughout the match, to set the tone. Both players and coaches seem to be tone deaf in this regard. I've had a 10 year old kid whine about a card for a studs-up tackle, proclaiming "That's how I play my soccer", as if each player is issued their personalized Laws Of The Game. This is a big shortfall in coaching today, and few coaches spend any time on discussing the LOTG, how to deal with referees, etc.

  1. Brian S
    commented on: May 22, 2012 at 11:32 a.m.
    James Griffin et al - the "soft red" is being eliminated by NFHS in the 2012-2013 HS season (i.e. starting Aug 2012). Now NFHS Rules for a 2nd yellow match IFAB Laws. Also, contrary to popular belief, FIFA does *not* make the Laws. The IFAB (International Football Association Board) does. USSF/MLS/FIFA/FA etc have adopted the IFAB Laws. http://www.chsaa.org/sports/soccer/pdf/2012_13_Soccer_Rules_Press_Release.pdf

  1. Carlos Thys
    commented on: May 22, 2012 at 2:47 p.m.
    As a referee (presently now inactive), I would do just as R2 Dad mentions. Before a contentious match, I would speak (not more than 30 seconds) very distinct bullet points to both coaches and players. I was telling them up front what mattered -- often based on the reputations and previous game reports involving those teams (or if I had officiated them before and knew from personal experience). In the game I would usually specifically make the point to tell a player sitting on a yellow to mind himself. I made it clear that I did not relish the thought of sending him off, but would not hesitate to do so if the foul play and unfair play in the Laws of the Game were again breached. I would also communicate that to the team captain; the intent being that the captain could also have a word to the wise -- if he so chose -- to his teammate. The only times I sometimes could not do this was when the captain was not a field player, rather the goalkeeper (keep that in mind, coaches). And if I let an infringement go (where I was not over 90% sure), I would look to the player and say, "Well, that one will not have consequences. But that was the last time I will let play proceed with you still on this field." R2 Dad's first point is key: Referees are different just like players, goalkeepers and coaches. It is very, very rare for a player to be ejected from a match in the first 20-25 minutes. Thus, it is incumbent on all players and coaches to comprehend the particular style and focus of that game's match referee. Most referees do reveal themselves in just the first 25-30 minutes of play -- very clearly.

  1. Carlos Thys
    commented on: May 22, 2012 at 3:03 p.m.
    Thank you, Mr. Brent Crossland. I always read comments about how the game goes sour when a player is yellow-red or red carded off with a lot of head scratching. Sure, there are mercurial decisions by referees. And that is why coaches can write well written match reports of their own. All the leagues I have ever been associated with take well written, fact centered letters -- where it is clear the writer is balanced, focused AND very knowledgeable about the Laws of the Game -- those letters are taken very seriously. A match referee or linesman with just a few such game infringements might very well expect to see a league official keeping tabs and book at that referee's next outing, watching and listening like a hawk. Yes, that referee will now come under more scrutiny. Look: This is not hard. Referees in leagues like the MLS are extremely fit, extremely competent. Are they perfect? No. But I am sure that the MLS and the MLS referees use several junctures in a season to clearly communicate to each club where the points of emphasis are. (We fans may not necessarily be privy to that.) Just as the FIFA referees do prior to World Cups for all 32 participants. The German DFB/DFL referees do this exceptionally well each season in the 1st, 2d, and now 3d Bundesliga. They, in fact, send out match referees to spend a day with the teams to emphasize key points and stand directly before players and coaches for long sessions of Q & A. The real lapse here is almost always the same: Faulty or absent knowledge by fans, functionaries, players and, yes, coaches too on the Laws of the Game.


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