By Paul Gardner
Michael Bradley has had his say about MLS refereeing. He doesn’t think much of it, and says that making it better should be the league’s No. 1 priority. We, and Bradley, await the inevitable fine.
Meanwhile, we’ve heard some comments from Peter Walton, the English ex-referee who was brought in two years ago to do exactly what Bradley evidently believes has not been done: improve the refereeing.
Bradley’s harsh words, though directed at MLS refereeing in general, were specifically linked to the officiating in the recent Toronto-Kansas City game.
During that game, there was one particularly horrible call by referee Ted Unkel -- a non-call, when he failed to penalize KC’s Aurelien Collin for a blatant tactical foul on Gilberto. But one call is hardly enough to justify Bradley’s overall panning of MLS referees, with which I strongly disagree.
At the same time I find it impossible to support Walton. Given the opportunity to discuss matters on the ESPN FC show, Walton proceeded to make an ass of himself by choosing to defend the indefensible, and to insist that Unkel’s rotten non-call was the correct call.
As soon as Walton announced that he was not sure there was any contact on the play, the three panel members burst into riotous derision. Absolutely the correct response to such an absurd statement.
That Walton should support those whom he likes to call “my referees” is understandable, but that he is unable to tell when he’s backing a loser suggests extraordinary naivete.
And not just naivete, but also an unacceptable confusion about just how referees are expected to make their calls. The key word that Walton used in attempting to defend Unkel’s non-call was “guess.” “Part of the learning curve for referees is ‘don’t guess,’” says Walton. “You don’t want referees to guess, you don’t want officials to guess. You want to make sure they’re certain.”
All of which, while superficially unarguable, is in fact totally specious. Walton is insisting on cast-iron 100% certainty, and that is simply not a practical aim in soccer.
No, referees should not be guessing -- but they are obliged, repeatedly, to use their own judgment to make calls. The rulebook, of course, does not use the word “guess.” But -- by my unofficial count -- it contains seven instances where the referee is instructed to use his “opinion” or his “discretion” in making calls. There are 11 more such instances in the “Interpretation” section.
These judgment calls are always based on something less than total certainty. They inevitably involve an intelligent estimation of probabilities, and a greater or lesser degree of guesswork. But with a referee, it is informedguesswork, based on experience and a referee’s “feel” for the game. It is not, as Walton implies, random, totally blind -- and therefore almost certain to be inaccurate -- guesswork.
In the case of the Collin foul: According to Walton, Unkel made the correct non-call because it was not clear that there was any contact. To assume there was contact would have been guessing.
The reasoning is not sustainable. If the matter of contact is unclear, then how could Unkel be certain that there was nocontact? He couldn’t, so his non-call is every bit as much a guess as if he had made the call.
In these cases, we expect the referees to then apply their informed judgment (which Walton would call guesswork) to sort out the call. In the Collin case everything points to a tactical foul by Collin.
But Walton’s confused ideas about guesswork and his impractical belief in absolute certainty ensure that the wrong call will be made.
They also ensure that a destructive foul by a defender will go unpunished. This is highly worrying, because it exactly typifies English-style, pro-defense, negative refereeing, something that MLS decidedly does not need.
Unkel’s non-call does not stand alone as an example of that unpleasant trend. This past weekend there were two examples in MLS games where palpable penalty kicks were not called. There is no possible excuse for referee Allen Chapman’s non-call after Red Bulls’ defender Ibrahim Sekagya had blatantly tripped New England’s Charlie Davies. If Walton insists on certainty, it was all here. Chapman ignored all of it and instead invented a diving call against Davies. Dreadful refereeing.
Things were less clear-cut in the 66th minute of the Galaxy- Timbers game. The Timbers’ Kalif Alhassan, being chased and harried by Robbie Rogers, went down in the penalty area. No call from referee Kevin Stott. For sure, any contact was not easy to see, so Stott guessed ... that there hadn’t been any, even though everything indicated that Rodgers had clipped Alhassan’s heel.
In both cases, the defense prospers, the attacker is penalized. Is that Walton’s idea of improving the performance of MLS referees?