Will refs respond to Garber's sensible request?

By Paul Gardner

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has recently had some pretty sensible things to say about the state of soccer within his league. He wants to encourage attacking play and he believes that some changes in the attitudes and actions of referees will help bring that about.

I wish him well. Of course referees should be harsher on studs-up tackles, of course they should not be so quick to make offside calls -- and ditto with holding and shirt-tugging and persistent fouling. Garber is 100 percent correct in noticing that defending players get away with far too much. Referees do, definitely, need to adopt a sterner approach.

I fear that Garber’s attention to refereeing will be taken by many as a sign that MLS referees are not doing a good job, that they are sub-standard.

That is not the case. As it happens, there is not a league anywhere in the world -- and that takes in England’s EPL, the Italian Serie A, Spain's La Liga, and all of South American soccer -- where people are satisfied with the refereeing. How can they be, when everyone involved is a devotee of this or that club -- leading to the inevitable bias that makes objective judgment impossible.

MLS referees are neither the best nor the worst in the world. I think that, on the whole, they do a good job. But the comparison I’ve just made with the rest of the world, reveals a problem. I’m judging MLS referees by the standards that are adhered to globally -- those either set by, or permitted by, FIFA.

The problems that Garber, rightly, wants to address start there. The global standards are not strict enough. They vary, of course. They are at their weakest, their most permissive, in England. They are probably at their strictest in South America. But in all instances, they are too lenient, and the areas singled out by Garber should, indeed, be tightened up.

Will it be possible for MLS referees, then, to referee in a way that will be considerably more punitive than anywhere else in the world? I have my doubts. Referees see plenty of foreign games these days, they are bound to be influenced by what they see. It’s decidedly unfortunate that the most frequently seen games are from the EPL, where the refereeing can often seem to be actively encouraging violent play.

Just this Saturday we had Manchester United’s Paul Scholes committing a foul eminently worth a second yellow card -- but referee Chris Foy merely administered a short talking-to. An approach that simply makes a mockery of the rules.

If there's one thing that MLS referees could be told not to do, it is to administer these little disciplinary chats, complete with the exaggerated arm gestures intended to make a feeble referee look tough. If it’s a foul, call it. If it’s a yellow card, give it. The same with a red. There is no need for explanations or any words at all. The players know the rules ... or they are supposed to. If they don’t, that is their problem.

Tactical fouling should be high up on Garber’s list. That is defined on page 115 of the rule book, and calls for an obligatory yellow card. Those yellows are usually not given. Even less frequently seen are yellow cards, also obligatory, for objecting to a referee decision -- “dissent by word or action” as the rulebook puts it.

Diving calls present a problem. Most of them, as currently called, are flat out wrong. If all of Garber’s suggestions were adopted (which, of course, they will not be) then I’d probably agree that referees should be looking for divers. But as long as the defenders are allowed great liberty to foul without punishment, my sympathies are with the divers. There is also, on these calls, the unmistakable suggestion that when they occur in the penalty area the referee is using them as an excuse not to call a penalty kick.

Garber does not have direct control over the referees. They are assigned by the U.S. Soccer Federation, so Garber cannot simply tell them how they are to interpret the rules. That calls for close cooperation between MLS and USSF.

But Garber has at his disposal another way of encouraging attacking play, one that does not involve working with the USSF. The most direct route to more attractive, attacking, goalscoring soccer is for MLS teams sign players who can provide it. Which, in turn, means MLS teams appointing coaches who understand and believe in that type of play.

At the moment, Garber’s attitude is that the clubs can appoint any coach they like. He will not interfere. That seems the correct way to do things, but it has led to some pretty awful appointments. Mostly because the league is full of ownership groups and general managers who simply do not understand the sport.

Dictating which coaches a club should sign, and then telling the coach which players he can sign, is clearly not a workable policy. But the creation within MLS of an atmosphere favorable to attacking soccer and hostile to defensive play, the encouragement to search out attacking players, the provision of help in knowing where to look for them, even the creation of a centralized scouting system -- these things are well within the power of Garber and his single-entity league.

It remains something of a mystery to me how easily MLS coaches find average defenders and midfielders to sign. But what difficulties they have finding good attacking players!

8 comments about "Will refs respond to Garber's sensible request?".
  1. . Lev, March 14, 2011 at 8:32 a.m.

    Agree, but for one statement. The 'talking to';
    yes, the players know the rules, but they don't always know the refs interpretations of the rules... Sometimes a whole other matter!! Also a 'talking to' can be a better diffuser than waving cards around to satisfy the masses..

  2. Steve Stoehr, March 14, 2011 at 10:20 a.m.

    I'm inclined to agree that there is a lot of inconsistency the world over in the interpretation of the laws of the game.

    But I wonder, Paul, if you are under the delusion that the laws of the game do not allow for contact? That's the approach you seem to be taking by saying ALL referees are too lenient.

    Foy should have given Scholes a second yellow. MLS referees shouldn't let defenders get away with some of the things they do. This is all correct. But on the flip side, I've seen plenty of players in MLS sent off for breathing on a player. For me, the issue isn't the allowance of physical play - it's the inconsistency of every call, and no referee is above THAT criticism. But reducing soccer to a non-contact sport would kill the game.

  3. Amos Annan, March 14, 2011 at 10:55 a.m.

    More cards are not needed and referees already have too much negative influence. Very often they are simply wrong on red cards and ruin the game.

    If they change the rules to not have teams play short, then it would be fine to tighten-up on the calls.

  4. Amos Annan, March 14, 2011 at 10:57 a.m.

    The other problem is that whatever MLS referees do, the recreational league refs will follow. I don't want more red cards at U10, I want more "talking to".

  5. Robert Kiernan, March 14, 2011 at 12:36 p.m.

    I can remember instances of Referees controlling games and of others never having establishing their control of a match from the start and totally going overboard throwing cards left and right. Angelo Bratsis comes immediately to mind, somehow he was elevated to full FIFA international status for the USA and he had that same ability to totally lose control whether it was an NASL match or some big International match.I remember him to this day precisely for his lack of control and since he was often "our" only representative to the rest of the World back before our National Team was good enough to successfully compete at a high level, he was often someone I would find myself rather embarrassed to have to admit was "that American Referee".
    But that often is the problem in a nutshell, you talk about an Official not talking to a player (or a coach I suppose as well?), but I've found that as both a player and a coach I was never comfortable with a "chatty" Ref, I still think that a good official can gain control more with a word or two, without throwing cards over each and every infraction, keep the play flowing and have both teams reasonably confident that will call the match, but and this is a crucial but, unless both players and coaches are taught to LET THE REFEREE CALL THE MATCH, whether happy or not about a call, accept it as made and continue to play, then we will continue to see officials either overreact, throwing cards willy nilly and destroying the flow of a match, or back off and let things get so chippy that by the time they do re-engage it is completely out of hand.
    It is a very difficult thing to remain inconspicuous yet be fully in charge when needed and it is very often the treatment of this person by both players and coaches that drives them to behave in less than wise ways themselves. There are some great players I have watched who have played in defense that I could happily watch play all night long and barely care what the score was, say Carlos Albeto, but there were always hacks as well and there always will be, but the flip side is the players, often very talented, out to cheat by tricking the Referee, C.Ronaldo comes to mind and so help me, I find myself rooting for someone to drop his diving ass HARD and while I'm not proud of that, if I'm feeling that way in the stands I can only imagine just how a defender who has been called for taking him down who barely got near him feels. An Official that throws cards, but has no "people skills" isn't good for the game either and while you talk of how hard it seems to find attacking players, something that is by no means limited to MLS, think about how hard it is to find and cultivate officials who can both control a match but not "become" the center of the match.

  6. James Froehlich, March 14, 2011 at 2:10 p.m.

    MLS has the reputation for being a very physical league and I believe that is a fair assessment. If Garber's statements get the referees to clamp down a bit and remove the more rugbyesque elements, I would be thrilled. However, I don't hold much hope for that since the general US attitude (see several comments above) is that more physical is better. For me personally the refereeing in la Liga would be a good model -- I'm not holding my breath!!!

  7. Joe Shoulders, March 15, 2011 at 9:45 a.m.

    a reader comment above suggests that PG may be "...under the delusion that the laws of the game do not allow for contact?" Paul Gardner is a Hall of Fame soccer writer that has been one of US soccer's most influential soccer minds. (not enough influence for my liking) I agree with 90% of his opinions. He's right on here again. Of course we all know that soccer allows contact, but fair contact. You simply can't kick people and not the ball. Michel Platini once suggested (maybe jokingly) that the game would be better without slide tackles. Now I don't necessarily agree with that but, if it was the case, we would find out who can play and who can't play pretty quickly. I would think MLS wants players that CAN play.

  8. Carl Walther, March 15, 2011 at 11:39 a.m.

    This 'talking to' that refs often use instead of issuing a card is just nonsense. These are professional players, not some high school team. They know the rules, and too many try to see how much violence they can get away with. It's similar to when a incompetent parent say, "I told him not to do that 22 times, and he still does it. I don't know why." The reason is that that parent, or referee has no clue (or gonads.)

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