By Paul Gardner
Wednesday night we got a spicy taste of what MLS playoff soccer should be. It wasn't exactly a playoff game, but Seattle vs. Real Salt Lake had plenty going for it in terms of gaining home-field advantage when the playoffs do start, and a growing and intense rivalry between the two teams.
Plus something else -- that the Sounders fans provide. There is nothing else like this in MLS. You can sense it, but on a smaller scale, in Toronto and Vancouver and Portland. But the Seattle atmosphere is overwhelming -- the color, the noise, and of course, the numbers. On Wednesday, yet again, CenturyLink Field was jammed -- 38,356 fans.
So that was RSL’s first problem -- to blot that constant cascade of sound and that not-so-friendly atmosphere out of their minds. Which they did brilliantly. They came to play open soccer -- that is something RSL does well -- and Seattle, of course, on its home turf, responded in kind.
I’m not about to pretend that this was a great game, but the enthralling thing about it was that there was always purposeful attacking action. It was a constantly eventful game. Plenty of skillful play. With Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales at work for Seattle, and Javier Morales and Fabian Espindola responding for RSL -- how could it be otherwise?
The danger was that, in the red-hot atmosphere, physical play would take over. It never quite did -- and for that referee Ricardo Salazar deserves credit for his early ejection of Seattle’s Zach Scott. Two yellow cards, both justified, saw Seattle down to 10 men with an hour to play.
As sometimes happens, it made little difference. Seattle seemed inspired rather than deflated by the red card, while RSL never seized the opportunity to pile on attacking pressure. RSL, nonetheless, should have won the game -- it was prevented from doing so in the last few minutes by some wonderful goalkeeping from Michael Gspurning.
Which meant that a game that had been taut with surprises and sweeping play, with chances, with errors, with skill and with resolution, ended on a wonderfully high and thrilling note.
I shall repeat my praise for referee Salazar -- not least because he and his American colleagues come under repeated criticism for “not being good enough.”
This is an unpleasant slur on a group of guys who function well -- as well, I would say, as any other group of referees in any other country.
So it was massively disappointing to hear Seattle coach Sigi Schmid complaining at halftime about Salazar’s performance. Obviously Schmid was miffed about the red card to Scott. But he should direct his abuse at his own player, Zach Scott, and not at the referee.
Sadly, it is nothing new to hear referee criticism emanating from Seattle. It started early -- just two months into the Sounders’ first season. In March 2009, after a 1-1 tie with the LA Galaxy, Schmid declared himself “disappointed with the refereeing”, and “disappointed with the ejection” (a Sounders player, of course). Seattle GM Adrian Hanauer backed him up with a series of fatuous observations outlining exactly what a referee should be doing -- i.e. he should not be making calls against the Sounders.
So in three years, nothing has changed. In fact, things are substantially worse. The Sounders’ astonishing success in drawing fans has made the club the pride and joy of MLS. A superb success story to show off to sponsors, to the media, to foreign biggies ... a convincing argument for taking MLS seriously.
To feel the excitement of CenturyLink Field jammed with raucous fans is to have a glimpse of the future of American soccer. Very similar to what happened back in the late 1970s when the New York Cosmos began to dominate the NASL.
Domination on the field was on thing (that is something that the Sounders have yet to achieve), but there was also a clear feeling on the part of the Cosmos that, whenever they lost a game, they were being victimized. This quickly transformed into an assertion that they were constantly on the receiving end of bad referee calls ... and so on, exactly as with the current Sounders, leading to the assertion that American referees were inadequate.
This is a difficult accusation for any league to deal with. The NASL did experiment with foreign referees, without any noticeable change in standards, which were perfectly respectable anyway. The only way in which they fell short was in treating the Cosmos like any other team.
The Cosmos, because they were the league’s main attraction, expected something better. One senses the same attitude with the Sounders. The name that crops up most frequently when I discuss this matter of referee criticism with soccer people -- including referees -- is that of Sounders’ majority owner Joe Roth.
To its deep discredit, MLS has buckled under the constant criticism coming from Roth’s Sounders. It has admitted -- wrongly -- that American referees are inferior, and has hired -- even more wrongly -- a Brit, Peter Walton, to put things right.
A move to professionalize American referees is absolutely in order, as are any schemes to improve fitness and to rationalize schedules. But these are all things that could be more than adequately handled by Americans. By bringing in foreigners, MLS is making two big mistakes. First: Such a move will not satisfy the Joe Roth’s of this world anyway -- what they are looking for is not improved refereeing, but refereeing that is friendly to their own club -- that is their definition of better refereeing. Second: By turning to foreign referee administrators -- who, by definition, know absolutely nothing of the setup and the peculiar requirements of this country -- they are publicly declaring their lack of faith in the American refereeing community, and thus seriously undermining it.
On Wednesday night, Ricardo Salazar gave a resounding rebuff to the MLS’s lily-livered attitude to its own referees.