By Paul Gardner
In Philadelphia's John Hackworth and Portland's Caleb Porter, MLS has two excellent young coaches. Both comparatively new to MLS -- Porter is in his first year -- but these guys have plenty of coaching experience.
Young Americans, intelligent students of the modern game, the sort of coaches who are essential to the growth of soccer in this country.
I have a lot of time for both Hackworth and Porter. But not when they go after referees. Which both of them have done recently. In both cases, their team tied a game which, they feel, they ought to have won: Philadelphia 2 Seattle 2 and Dallas 1 Portland 1 were the results. According to Hackworth and Porter, the failure of the Union and the Timbers to win those games came not because of bad or loose play by their teams, but because of bad calls from the referees.
Listening to coaches moan about referees is never a particularly rewarding experience. Even if the complaints are justified -- which they rarely are -- they are always fatally tainted by bias.
Hackworth is well aware of that. In his rant against referee Jorge Gonzalez, Hackworth tried to make sure that his accusations were even-handed, saying that the bad calls from Gonzalez were “not against us necessarily.” He did not cite any such calls, but he had plenty to say about the red card given to his defender Sheanon Williams, and, in the final seconds of the game, a non-call on a hand ball in the box by Seattle’s Leo Gonzalez.
The red card was fully justified -- Williams and the Sounders’ Lamar Neagle indulged in a prolonged shoving and pushing match, Neagle pushed his hand into Williams’ face, then both butted heads -- not violently, but there was clear contact. Gonzalez gave a red card to both players. Harsh? Possibly, but by no means an outrageous call. Players indulging in that sort of contact, especially when prolonged, as this was, are simply inviting trouble.
Hackworth’s other beef -- the lack of a penalty-kick call when Leo Gonzalez clearly handled the ball in the Seattle penalty area -- has much more substance. Gonzalez did handle, and his arm was well away from his body. You could argue that the ball -- it was a shot from Conor Casey -- hit the hand, rather than the reverse. Nevertheless, I think most referees would give a PK for this -- assuming they saw it. It’s possible that Gonzalez did not see it clearly -- bodies, including the formidable one of Casey himself were in the way.
So the Union didn’t get the PK. And here comes the normally soft-spoken and sensible Hackworth after the game: “Look, I'll raise my hand and take the fine, because it has to be said that we cannot be in this league and have this level of play and have officiating be as bad as that ... This can't happen in this league. I'll get what's coming to me, but I'll make a bold statement and say that is not allowed. That should not be allowed. And that guy [referee Jorge Gonzalez] has come here before and done the exact same thing."
Caleb Porter was slightly more circumspect -- he didn’t name referee Juan Guzman, but when you’re talking about poor officiating decisions, what need to name the guy? Portland defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste was called for pulling down Dallas’ Blas Perez in the penalty area. There was massive contact -- pulling and pushing -- between the two as a cross came into the area. Perez went down, and Dallas got the PK from which Kenny Cooper tied the game.
Over to Porter: "I'm not going to criticize anyone specifically, but that's just unacceptable -- an off-the-ball call where two guys get tangled, I mean, there were 20 other plays in the game that were just like that exact one that could have been called in both boxes. Again, I think it's just an absolute travesty. For the game to be decided on that type of call . . . I just think that can't happen at this level. I'm held accountable for doing my job, and these guys need to be held accountable for doing their job as well. I haven't complained all year, and there have been some other calls, but this one for me was over the top."
Did Porter have a case? Yes -- and, equally, no. We do see plenty of those battles between defenders and forwards, but it is usually -- almost always - the defender who gets the call. This was probably a 50-50 call, and Guzman gave the benefit of the doubt to the attacker. An unexpected call, yes, but justifiable, and not by any means outrageous.
Neither Hackworth nor Porter used the words, but both were alleging “We wuz robbed.” The time-honored, crystal clear slur on the umpire or the referee. Both coaches have been fined by MLS. That’s understandable, though it does, in my book come under the heading of censorship. I’d rather the coaches spoke out -- but I’d also rather they chose their words and the occasions more carefully.
I’ll admit to lurking suspicion that experience has taught me to ponder in these “blame-the-ref” outbursts: is this really the coach speaking, or are we getting the bile of a frustrated ownership?
Because Hackworth and Porter should understand that partisan bitching like this -- over calls that are not necessarily wrong, but simply calls that they don’t like -- will not get them anywhere. The complaints are bound to come over as sour grapes. And sour grapes leave a sour taste. A strange tincture to add to a future that looks so bright for both of these guys.