By Paul Gardner
'Tis the season, or postseason anyway, of playoff soccer. Whatever that means. The phrase gets repeated and repeated -- the TV guys love it, of course, without giving us any clear explanation of what they mean.
Obviously, there oughtto be such an animal as playoff soccer. These are much more pressure-filled games than the regular-season contests. You can’t really afford to lose even one of them. So -- over the course of 90 or 120 minutes -- there’s much more knife-edge stuff than you get during regular season games.
That much is pretty obvious. What is not so clear is how each team -- each coach, I suppose it is -- chooses to react. In a two-game series -- do you play the first game cautiously? Well, that depends -- on whether it’s a home or a road game, for example. With away goals not counting, is there any point in taking risks trying to score them? Isn’t a tie good enough? Which might well lead to a negative, defensive bore of a game. Is that playoff soccer?
Or maybe things depend on whether you feel pretty superior to the opponents (and given that the initial matchups depend on seeding, you might well feel that). Or whether, because of injuries and suspensions, you have something less than a full team available. Or whether they do.
Or, as has been the case this year with the Houston Dynamo, maybe you’ve hit a schedule logjam (seven games in 17 days even sounds exhausting). So when Houston ran up against Sporting Kansas City (who had played, as had Houston, an overtime game only three days earlier) it was not a setup that promised much in the way of sparkling soccer.
And so it proved. This was dire stuff, and of course there were injuries, which is what you expect when tired bodies are being pushed to the limit. So, was this labored, often crude game, a typical example of playoff soccer?
Hardly -- but it did let us know that trying to make out that playoff soccer can be neatly defined is really a waste of time. As is usually the case with soccer, there are simply too many variables. I’ve already mentioned some -- let me add another highly important one. Refereeing. After all, referees will feel the extra pressure every bit as much as the players. If playoff soccer is held to take on a special, more vital nature, surely the refereeing should respond to that?
But in what way? By becoming more lenient, perhaps -- on the grounds that the more committed play will inevitably mean more physical contact, and that most of it will be minor and should be ignored by the referee. To call every “coming together” of players would hopelessly fragment the game, so “let ‘em play” becomes the refereeing order of the day?
Or should the opposite approach be applied, with the referee -- particularly early in the game -- strictly calling every foul, to let the players know that they will not be getting away with borderline reckless tackles? One wonders what PRO has to say about this.
One officiating aspect that ought not to be altered in any way, of course, is the referee’s response to serious fouls. If anything, the referee should become more severe on these calls during playoffs.
But that was not what we saw from the highly experienced Kevin Stott during that Houston-Kansas City game. If there be hawks and doves among referees, then Stott played the dove in the 72nd minute, when he turned a blind eye to a clear foul by Kansas City’s Aurelien Collin. In the Kansas City penalty area. I say “clear” because there were no other players around, it was just Collin and Houston’s Cam Weaver. Stott was some 25 yards away, not ideally positioned, which meant that he may have had his sight line impeded. But no one was blocking the sight line of his AR, who had a perfect view as Collin stepped heavily on Weaver’s right foot and, in effect, tripped him.
Stott made no call. But one didn’t need the replay to show solid contact, a blatant foul, and a penalty kick to Houston ... but not if you’re refereeing with the “let ‘em play” motif running through your mind.
The ideal, of course, is that there should be no such thing as “playoff refereeing” -- because refereeing should be consistently good and of a consistent style in both regular season and playoff games. But penalty kicks are always likely to be the ultimate test. It is surely clear that referees do not like giving them, especially when -- as here -- they are likely to decide a key game. A penalty kick means the likelihood of a goal, and in the playoffs -- I’d say crucially in this Houston-Kansas series -- a botched call can have very damaging, maybe fatal, influence. Houston has every reason to consider itself hard done by.