By Paul Gardner
MLS Commissioner Don Garber and his right hand man Nelson Rodriguez, plus Peter Walton, the chief of the newly minted U.S. referee body, PRO, might be expected to issue an explanatory statement this week. They certainly should do so. But, of course, they won’t. They will keep their collective mouth shut, and carry on as though nothing untoward had happened. But plenty untoward did happen, this weekend. In England.
Garber and Rodriguez are the men responsible for importing Walton, the English ex-referee who, it seems, is going to bring about tremendous improvements in the standard of American refereeing. He is able to do that, you see, because of his nine years of experience refereeing in the English Premier League.
So there is an explanation needed: if English refereeing is so good, how come there were at least four decidedly dodgy decisions in the EPL this weekend? Poor decisions by top officials that decisively affected the results of important games.
There is, as it happens, a perfectly straightforward statement that Garber & Co could make, one that would be acceptable to everyone, even to me (well, nearly). They could state, simply, that EPL refereeing is like any other refereeing anywhere else in the world -- it has its good days and its bad days, and this weekend it had a couple of bad days.
But you can be sure that such a statement will not be made. Why not? Because it would seriously undermine the decision they have made that English refereeing is so much better than American. Hence the decision to fill a crucial position not with an American, but with Englishman, Peter Walton -- who has now brought in an English assistant.
Their experience is entirely of English refereeing. So that is what we shall be getting from them. The weekend’s tidings from England confirm that this is not necessarily good news.
Here’s a quick run-through of this weekend’s EPL refereeing misfeasances:
* Arsenal 1 Queens Park Rangers 0: Arsenal’s goalscorer Mikel Arteta was clearly offside.
* Everton 2 Liverpool 2: A “winning goal” scored by Liverpool’s Luis Suarez disallowed, apparently for offside flagged by the assistant referee. There was no offside. If the flag was not for offside, no one has yet worked out what it was for.
* Chelsea 2 Manchester United 3. ManU’s winning goal was scored by Chicharito, who was clearly offside. He was racing back from an offside position (which is usually enough for an offside call) but didn’t make it anyway.
So we have two games won on goals that should not have been allowed, and one game not won because of a goal that was wrongly disallowed.
There was more. Inevitably, given the current climate in English soccer, it involved diving. After going down 0-2 to ManU, Chelsea got the score back to 2-2 early in the second half. Ten minutes later, Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic was red-carded -- correctly -- for tripping Ashley Young as he broke away. Five minutes after that Fernando Torres got past ManU’s Jonny Evans, was tripped, went down -- and got yellow-carded for diving. His second yellow, so he was ejected. Chelsea was down to nine men.
Referee Mark Clattenberg’s call on Torres was ludicrous. Torres was clearly tripped by Evans, whose tackle was way late and never got anywhere near the ball. Evans later admitted that “there was contact, but not enough to bring him down.” ManU coach Alex Ferguson admitted that Evans “might have caught him,” so you can be quite sure there was contact. And when Ferguson also admitted that Chicharito “might have been offside” on the winning goal, nothing more need be said.
Clattenberg’s far from glowing performance was further complicated when, after the game, Chelsea announced that it had made an official complaint about him using “inappropriate language” to two Chelsea players. But it was Clattenberg’s actions during the game that were heavily criticized. Nobody went further in that criticism than Martin Samuel, the Daily Mail’s No. 1 sports writer, with: “Sadly, Manchester United won here courtesy of one of the worst performances by a referee in Premier League history. In fact, make that the worst.”
There you have it. It is not my intention to make out that this calamitous weekend proves that English referees are poor. It does no such thing. It merely demonstrates what I said earlier -- that EPL refereeing, like any other refereeing anywhere else in the world, can have its good days and its bad days.
In one respect, though, the English have managed to make matters much worse for themselves recently. Their obsession with diving has led to an increasing number of bad and stupid calls -- Clattenburg’s absurd carding of Torres being the latest, and most glaring example.
In the light of this weekend’s happenings, I invite anyone from MLS, from Commissioner Garber downward, to use this column to explain just what it is that makes English-style refereeing so attractive to them. Where, gentlemen, is the evidence that English refereeing is so much better than American refereeing?