MLS: No change, despite Garber's Plea

By Paul Gardner

We're just about a week into the MLS season now -- we've seen all 18 teams at least once, so in the dodgy tradition of instant experts, I feel perfectly justified in making at least one assertion. To wit: that Commissioner Don Garber's plea for a more offensive game and his appeal to referees to be harsher in punishing certain defensive fouls has had no effect whatsoever.

This is far from a final judgment, of course, given that the season has many more months to run. But the immediate impact of Garber’s diktat, if that’s what it was, has been undetectable.

Well, that’s not too surprising. We’re talking about referees here, who are -- like all other branches of the law-enforcement profession -- a highly conservative bunch.

Trying to get soccer referees to change the way they do things may well be one of the least rewarding tasks in the sport. Maybe you remember various FIFA attempts? An example: before the 1994 World Cup, a major crackdown was announced on “the tackle from behind.” To general applause, and murmurs of “about time,” FIFA announced that such tackles would be penalized in the World Cup with a red card.

The idea behind the FIFA clamp down was precisely the same as that motivating Garber’s ideas: To allow more scope for attacking play. The FIFA ban didn’t last very long. Just 14 minutes, really -- that was how long the opening game between Germany and Bolivia had been going on, when Germany’s Thomas Haessler launched himself into the back of Bolivia’s Luis Cristaldo, and knocked him down amid a nasty tangle of legs. Right in front of the referee, Mexico’s Arturo Brizio, who had been specially selected as the man to make sure the new severity started off well. Brizio blew it, big time, calling a foul, but failing to give Hassler even a yellow card. And so it went during the tournament -- to my recollection there was one red card for a tackle from behind. But there were certainly plenty of such tackles.

It evidently takes a good deal of time for officials to alter their mindset. We saw the same thing after the 1997 alteration to the offside rule (that a player in line with the last defender was to be judged on-side and not, as previously, off-side). It took nearly a decade for that new thinking to sink in.

It almost looks as if referees, as a body, decide to ignore any changes, but that of course, is ridiculous -- not least because referees have never been known to act in concert. The reason for their intransigence is evidently that, quite simply, they do find it difficult to adjust their way of doing things.

Hence the opening MLS games that revealed nothing new. Scoring: 25 goals in the first 9 games, an average of 2.8 per game, perhaps marginally higher than might have been expected. A total of 32 cards doled out, an average of 3.6 per game - and only one red card.

Looking more closely at the 31 yellow cards (I’m using the stats published on the MLS website) reveals that 20 of them were for physical fouls, mostly reckless tackles. The good news is that there were no calls alleging that a player had dived -- this is positive whichever way you look at it. Either there were no dives, or the referees are reluctant to make those calls -- which they should be, given that most of them are inaccurate.

Less encouraging is that only three yellow cards were given for tactical fouls. Only three tactical fouls in 10 games? How likely is that? The game that I attended, the Red Bulls vs. the Seattle Sounders, featured at least three such fouls, but no cards.

There is just nothing in any of those figures to suggest there’s anything different in the way that MLS games are being played or refereed.

What Garber -- quite correctly, in my opinion -- wants to see is more attacking play, more goalscoring. He sees, again correctly, that defensive play dominates. Certainly that can be countered, to some extent, by getting referees to be tighter in their calls, but, as I’ve tried to explain above, that will not happen overnight.

It is, anyway, the performance of the players, not the referees, that is at the root of the matter. MLS has built itself the reputation of being a physical league. That seems true enough to me. MLS is a league that contains too many average defenders, and certainly too many destructive players. And those players are there because there are too many MLS coaches who want such players. Who want a physical league.

In the game I saw, Seattle’s Colombian forward Fredy Montero suffered a good deal of physical contact, as usual (“I thought we handled Montero well,” said Bulls coach Hans Backe after the game, apparently without irony). Asked later if he considered MLS a particularly physical league, Montero replied with a laconic “Si.” More physical than the play in his native Colombia? Montero’s eyes flashed as he instantly replied Muchissimo! .

How to counter that Muchissimo!? A quick fix that might have some effect is the one tried by the old North American Soccer League -- that of awarding points for goals scored. Briefly, that scheme awarded a team 6 points for a win, 3 for a tie, none for a loss, and one point for each goal scored up to a maximum of three. Thus, in a 4-3 game the winning team would get the maximum 9 points, while the losing team would get 3 points for its three goals.

It sounds good on paper, but we have no proof that it worked in practice. One is inclined to think it did have a positive effect, but as we have no way of knowing what the NASL would have been like without that points scheme, that is no more than guesswork, or wishful thinking. Incidentally, back in 1996 when MLS was still in formation, before a game had been played, its fledgling competition committee considered that points-for-goals system - and thumbed it down.

While I applaud Garber’s efforts to promote a more entertaining game, the sad reality is that his strictures on refereeing are not likely to accomplish too much, certainly not any time soon. Hence an opening round of MLS games which proclaim that it is very much business as usual.

13 comments about "MLS: No change, despite Garber's Plea".
  1. Marc Silverstein, March 21, 2011 at 8:16 a.m.

    definitely feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the NASL have the shootout and thus no ties? Thanks.

  2. Joe Hosack, March 21, 2011 at 8:52 a.m.

    Could we just enforce the rules as written?
    "Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the
    front, from the side or from BEHIND using one or both legs, with excessive force
    and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play." LAW 12
    It is pretty easy to see if an action taken results in an unsafe recovery from the player being challenged.

  3. Kent James, March 21, 2011 at 10:13 a.m.

    I agree that the games need to be more offensive, and yes, it is difficult to get referees to adopt a new way of viewing (and judging) the world. I have three recommendations that would increase scoring. First, for a player to be called offside their should be space between their torso and that of the defender (to make the judgment easier for the AR, and giving a greater advantage to the attacking team). Second, allow ejected players to be replaced (as long as the teams have subs), making refs less hesitant to eject players (so players engaging in foul play are more likely to be punished) and not changing the game so dramatically (and often for the worse). Finally, make the goals bigger (1 foot higher, 1 yard wider). Keepers are bigger and much more agile than they used to be, so a bigger goal is not unreasonable. It would also allow more effective long range shooting, which would allow teams to punish defenses that pack the box and look to counter. How many times are their 8 or 9 defenders in a 20x 30 yard space at the top of the 18, where nobody can do anything because it's so congested? If people could effectively shoot from 25-35 yds out, that would force defenders to come out to challenge them, which would then open up more space in the box. Knocking the ball around is fine, but for the game to be exciting, teams have to go for goal. Bigger goals would reward those teams that do.

  4. Doug Kieffer, March 21, 2011 at 10:33 a.m.

    I totally agree that using the NASL point system would be a fantastic experiment. It doesn't interfere with the rules (laws?) of the game at all. It just modifies how we judge the outcomes. It rewards attacking play. I know this is far too radical to gain any traction but it would be fascinating to see how it affects the mentality of the players.

  5. Carl Walther, March 21, 2011 at 11:31 a.m.

    This lack of attacking (scoring) in MLS is why soccer will only have limited appeal in the U.S. This type of soccer my do well in Europe, but in the U.S. you have to score to make the game entertaining to most Americans. MLS is destined to remain a niche sport here.

  6. James Froehlich, March 21, 2011 at 12:03 p.m.

    Reducing the emphasis on physical play in MLS definitely needs to include tightening up the usage of red cards. However, the problem is much bigger than just enforcing the Laws of the Game. IMO, the majority of US fans prefer this aspect of the game -- indeed relish the idea that MLS is a physically tough league. Technical skills have never attracted a great following here. Even our announcers (following some of their Brit counter-parts) continuously applaud the physical players and physical, "manly" play. It is only very recently that words like skillful and technical have crept into their commentary. And it is the unique and exceptional announcer who comments on crude tackles and egregiously awful passing. Part of this latter can be attributed to MLS demands that their "product" not be disparaged. (Look at what happened to Wynalda!!)
    In other words, US soccer culture needs to change. Having referees lead this change is fine but it isn't sufficient. It would be a big positive for our coaches (National Team especially), players, and announcers to stop praising the work-man-like players and start praising the skilled and creative ones.

    With ALL that said, I did like two of Mr. James' suggestions. The best was a change to the offside rule. Besides encouraging scoring it would make it easier for the linesmen. Currently you get offside calls being made when an arm, a leg, or part of the torso are on/off.
    His second suggestion regarding substituting for the red carded player sounds good but deserves some more thought.

  7. James Froehlich, March 21, 2011 at 12:23 p.m.

    With all due respect Mr. Walther, I would ask how many goals per game would be sufficient to garner your support? 5, 10, 20, 30???? Maybe soccer should change the points so that a goal is worth... oh let's say .... 7 points!! Then a 3 to 1 game would be 21 to 7 ... better?? If all you're looking for is a ball in the net, I would recommend the NBA. Soccer is continuing to grow and I personally, along with a slowly growing number of Americans, am quite happy to watch skillfully played 1 to 0 games.

  8. James Froehlich, March 21, 2011 at 12:25 p.m.

    BTW -- lack of scoring doesn't mean a lack of attacking.

  9. Ted Westervelt, March 21, 2011 at 1:03 p.m.

    Does anyone really think that pleas from a league commissioner make a difference? Perhaps it's time to wonder if his pleas are meant to have an impact on the supporters, and not the game itself? If Ronald McDonald plead for cheeseburgers to get better, would that placate McDonald's fans, even if the cheeseburgers remained the same?

  10. Steven Jeremenko, March 21, 2011 at 4:22 p.m.

    Ted, I don't like cheeseburgers or McDonald's for that matter but I think you hit the nail on the head. Garber's plea was just that a plea, rhetoric if you will. No one had to listened and take action so no one did but politically it looks good for him to be pushing for a more attacking style game in the MLS. It's almost as though he threw it in as an publicity stunt before the season opener to create some sort of false anticipation of what we all want but rarely get. Kent's rule changes would make a difference but would FIFA and the rest of the world look down upon the MLS as not playing real soccer, sort of like the way the NASL was viewed. I am afraid though that with larger goals evolution would generate even larger goalkeepers (7-8 feet tall) that would leave their lines 2-3 seconds before a penalty kick is actually taken - another rule that has seemed to be forgotten. I say we do it. The U.S. pushes it's issues all over the world in many arenas why not soccer. Maybe we should take the bull by the horns and show the world that this is what they should be doing instead of following a deaf concrete shoe wearing sinking ship called FIFA. I had the pleasure of watching what I hope is a resurgent D.C. United. United played with the enthusiasm and attacking style that made me all but forget about last year. Their chemistry and rhythm was slightly off but evidence that they were trying to entertain was definitely apparent. They almost looked like a not-so-good pre-winter break Borussia Dortmund with their high press defense and barrages of attack after attack. They obviously have taken steps to reinvent themselves while still holding on to their core beliefs. It can be done. It's called change. Tonight I'll be dreaming of putting the ball so elegantly and with force past an 8' goalie whose red floppy afro, extravagantly eccentric kit and ski size shoes could not prevent me from screaming for all the world to hear, " GOAL!"

  11. C R, March 21, 2011 at 8:28 p.m.

    Yes, of course, let's change the rules and scoring to appeal to a crowd that ironically states a 10-7 American Football game is a "defensive battle." Let's go back and experiment with formulas that failed along with the NASL. Instead of tweaking the game how about shifting our thinking and coach more offensively and as a few here already stated enforce the rules that are already on the books. This defensive mindset while maligned here is ingrained, applauded, and coached in American Soccer culture especially in the youth levels where clumsy and dangerous tackles are cheered by coaches and parents and the tactic for neutralizing finesse players is to shove, elbow, trip, and hack.

  12. Steven Jeremenko, March 22, 2011 at 8:45 a.m.

    Chris you hit the other nail on the head. As I said, change is needed. Of course rule changes are an obvious solution that will have an immediate impact on the game and will force the unwilling to comply but as you stated, changing the WAY we think is the healthy choice that in the long run has to be the predominant factor in making soccer what we know it can be. I don't have an A license, I am not a pop-star, or a smooth talking politician - not yet anyway - so right now I can only shout it for the world to hear if they want to. Besides, the thought of taking a penalty against an 8' giant is a little scary.

  13. Doug Kieffer, March 22, 2011 at 9:08 a.m.

    There's nothing in the rules that says that you get 3 pts for a win, 1 for a tie and 0 for a loss. It's just a way of deciding which teams should be higher up in the standings than others. The NASL bonus point setup rewarded goal scoring. Although the NASL had no ties, I would expect a bonus point system would encourage teams to go forward. The point system has already been changed from 2 for a win to 3 so there's a precedent for changing how league standings are calculated.

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