MLS making big mistake by courting Brit referee

By Paul Gardner

I mentioned some weeks back that the American Mark Geiger had been chosen to referee this year’s Under-20 World Cup final. This was a particularly notable honor, as one of the referees also in line for the job was England’s Mark Clattenburg, a man with seven years’ experience refereeing in the English Premier League.

Geiger got the job -- so, let’s ask a question: Which guy would you send to which country to help with referee training? The fact that the question is a sensible, reasonable one, tells you that the standards of American refereeing are not to be despised, that they are not to be automatically dismissed as inferior to those of the EPL.

This is a topic that will shortly come to the fore because of an initiative currently being worked on at Major League Soccer -- a scheme to upgrade the refereeing in MLS.

I have some questions about that -- but they are not going to get answered by MLS. At least not right now. MLS spokesman Will Kuhns put it like this: "MLS is constantly looking to improve in all areas. Officiating is one of them, and one that we consider to be intertwined with the actions of players and coaches. The League is in active discussions with the United States and Canadian soccer federations and with various international officiating constituencies. We are determining our next steps in continuing to improve the overall quality of our games including officiating. Once those plans have been finalized, MLS will share them publicly."

Which leaves me to ponder and speculate. Very well, then. For a start -- is there anything drastically wrong with the current standard of MLS refereeing?

No, there is not. It is not the best in the world, nor is it the worst. Very much like all other refereeing, in fact. Is there, has there ever been, a soccer league in any country where the refereeing has not been under constant criticism? I have never run across such a place.

And who is it who levels the criticism? Why, invariably the coaches and players and fans of teams that are looking for a convenient -- actually, the traditional -- excuse for games that have been lost. Not, in other words, the most reliable or objective of critics.

Yes, American referees make mistakes. Yes, there are one or two MLS referees that I would not employ if I were running things. Well, so what? Once again, those circumstances will be paralleled anywhere in the world.

All things considered, I think American referees do a remarkably good job. They do work at a disadvantage, because unlike referees in the main soccer countries -- say, Germany, Italy, England, Argentina, Brazil -- they lack the step-ladder of leagues of increasing toughness in which to learn their profession. The widespread and numerous games of national fourth and third and second division pro leagues are not available to them.

This is not an easy problem to solve -- and it is certainly not one that can be tackled by bringing in foreign referees. And that seems to be where MLS is heading.

We have been through this before. When the National Professional Soccer League began operations in 1967 it employed English referees. Later the North American Soccer League used foreign referees on short “guest” stints. And as Director of Officials, the NASL employed two English ex-referees -- firstly Eddie Pearson, then Keith Walker.

It was not clear what the working referees were supposed to be accomplishing. Were they here because the Americans were adjudged to be simply hopeless, so there was no alternative? Or were they supposed to be making everyone better by their example?

The referees -- and I saw all of them, I think, in action -- never seemed to me to be any better than their American counterparts.

On occasion they were demonstrably worse -- the worst occasion being a notorious 1976 game in which Englishman Gordon Hill allowed Pele to be mercilessly kicked and battered.

You will notice that throughout the NPSL-NASL years (1967-1984) there was always a strong British presence, and therefore influence, at the pro level. That influence has diminished since then -- a happening that I, for one, find agreeable.

Yet here we have MLS working to restore it. MLS has, of course, already been in contact with the English refereeing community. An English ex-referee, Keith Hackett, has already been brought over here for discussions about an MLS position of Director of Officials.

The 67-year-old Hackett has considerable experience for such a job. He officiated for 16 years in the old English First Division, then finished his active career with two years in the EPL when it replaced the First Division. After retirement, he spent five years (2004-09) as the general manager of the body in charge of England’s Professional Game Match Officials’ Board.

Hackett is also well-known as the referee contributor to artist Paul Trevillion's classic "You Are the Ref" series (currently published weekly in The Guardian) - which poses and answers tricky refereeing questions.

There’s more, because in 1982 Hackett spent two months in the USA as a guest referee, officiating at 17 games -- an experience he wrote about in his book “Hackett’s Law,” published in 1986. Reading his chapter “American Experience” does resolve a question I asked earlier, because Hackett says nothing about helping to improve American referees (in fact he doesn’t even mention them) -- but he does state, three times, that he accepted the trip because “I felt sure it would improve my refereeing.” (Maybe it did -- but it did nothing for his geography. Hackett displays typical English ignorance in calling Mexico a South American country.)

I think that Hackett’s self-centered view was probably that of all of the guest referees -- it is not necessarily a blameworthy one as they do not seem to have been asked to do anything more than simply officiate. Anyway, refereeing 17 games in two months -- what time would there have been for anything else?

Despite his impressive background, Hackett has one absolutely fatal blot on his refereeing escutcheon, one that should immediately rule him out of consideration for any job in American soccer. Simply that he is English.

This means that Hackett comes with some 40 years of experience of the English game. Back in the NASL days we didn’t know that much about English referees -- other than to assume that they must be good (though the iniquities of Gordon Hill ought to have warned us that something was amiss).

That naivete has long since been banished. Now, with the saturation TV coverage that we get of the EPL, we see English (or British) referees at work all the time. We know their style -- in particular, we know their approach to physical play. That approach can only be described as tolerant. More tolerant, I suggest, than that of referees anywhere else on the globe.

Certainly more tolerant than should be permitted in MLS. Don’t take my word for it -- we had Commissioner Don Garber’s appeal to referees, at the beginning of this season, that they should do more to protect skillful players.

MLS, struggling to find a place on the American sports scene, not only for itself, but for the sport of soccer, needs to offer the American public something more than another overtly physical game -- the NFL has that specialty sewn up. English-style refereeing would effectively undermine that necessity.

There is also the Hispanic factor. As the number of Hispanic players coming into American soccer grows, bringing with them a style of play that is neither known to, nor appreciated by, British referees. A more comprehensive approach to refereeing, an American-style refereeing, is needed as the game changes in this country.

To summarize: I am not saying that the refereeing in this country cannot be improved. Obviously it can -- as can refereeing everywhere. But I have total objection to any search for perfection. There is not -- nor can there be -- any such thing in refereeing. What we have at the moment, in MLS, seems to me to be working pretty well. Trying to make it better, praiseworthy as that sounds, presents some intractable problems.

Firstly, bringing in foreign referees accomplishes nothing. We’ve done it before, on a number of occasions, with little or nothing to show for it. The biggest obstacle to the education of American referees -- one that they have coped with remarkably well -- is the shortage of top-level game experience. The short-term answer to that suggests itself: fully professionalize American referees, and then work out deals with other countries whereby they can spend half their time as guest referees overseas.

A complicated and, no doubt, costly procedure, and one with no guarantee at all that the referees would come back to the USA greatly improved. Again the blight of a refereeing lex Britannica England descends: What would one expect from American referees returning from a six-month spell officiating in the lower levels of the Football League (I’m assuming the English would not consider them up to EPL’s standards)?

If there existed a country that consistently produced top referees, that seemed to have discovered the secret of turning out referees who regularly made the right calls, who invariably, immediately, and impartially applied the correct interpretation of the rules, then OK, let’s get together with those guys.

But such a scenario is a pipe dream. We know it is because we regularly see, at the World Cup, top referees making total asses of themselves -- the two worst errors, and they were really bad, at last year’s World Cup were made by experienced officials from Uruguay and Italy. That same World Cup also served up excellent performances by referees from New Zealand and Uzbekistan, soccer-minnow countries that must have the same referee-education problems as the USA.

By engaging in a campaign to up the level of its refereeing, and by immediately involving foreign referees, MLS is not helping matters. In general -- whatever may be its professed intention -- it is sending a message that it is not satisfied with American referees.

It is also opening the way for -- indeed, seems to be inviting -- the very influence that refereeing in this country assuredly does not need: the British influence. Under no circumstances whatever should a Brit hold any position of authority in the American refereeing structure.

The sooner that MLS lets us know exactly what it is up to, the better things will be for everyone -- for MLS, for the sport in this country and, not least, for the American refereeing community, which does not deserve to have this implied criticism hovering over it.

17 comments about "MLS making big mistake by courting Brit referee".
  1. Theodore Eison, November 2, 2011 at 9:27 a.m.

    Paul Gardner is British. His continual Brit-bashing is evidence of self-hatred and it's very sad.

  2. Rick Figueiredo, November 2, 2011 at 9:47 a.m.

    I saw the U20 finals. What stood out the most was the referee's lack of knowledge of the nuances of the game. Brasil - Portugal was a good game but could have been a great game if it had not been affected adversely. These are things only cultures that have played this game for years understand. The American did an adequate job at best!

  3. Walt Pericciuoli, November 2, 2011 at 10:43 a.m.

    As the level of play improves, so will the refereeing. MLS should worry more about the standards of play.

  4. Tito Messi, November 2, 2011 at 10:56 a.m.

    Paul Gardner is correct, in this country we have too much British influence in our soccer development, from youth soccer coaches, college coaches to professional coaching, and as you can see our national team sucks!!!! our kids learning the game from British coaches are terrible, without imagination of how to play the game, they are a bunch of robots in the field!!!! will it change in the future? no way, people here in the US love the Brits, so for the next 1000 years we'll be a country of 330 million plus playing soccer as if we only had a population of 330...sad very sad!!!!

  5. Brian Something, November 2, 2011 at 11:49 a.m.

    The fundamental problem with English referees is that they don’t call fouls or show cards. This is the main reason England doesn’t produce any world class attacking players any more -- and why the very few they are even pretty good, like Gazza and Joe Cole, end up playing in continental Europe where refs actually do apply the laws of the game. There’s already too much permissiveness in US refereeing at all levels. The last thing we need is more. Officiating (as does weather, though you can’t control that) has far more of an influence on the style of play of a nation/region than most people realize.

  6. Carl Walther, November 2, 2011 at 12:47 p.m.

    Bringing in British Refs would improve MLS? It's almost to the point in England that if a defender pulls out a gun and shoots a forward, but throws up his hands right away, he doesn't get carded.

  7. todd burkett, November 2, 2011 at 2:10 p.m.

    More than Garber asking the refs in MLS to protect "skillful players", I'd like to see them allow skillful play to exist. Cynical play and blatantly late and/or reckless challenges need to be dealt with far more harshly. I'd rather see a month of matches finish 8v8 while players get it through their thick skulls that that type of play will no longer be tolerated, than sit through another season of the thoughtless thuggery and skill-less defending that diminishes our league.

  8. Albert Harris, November 2, 2011 at 3:35 p.m.

    I guess we could learn that a karate kick to the chest isn't a sending off offense if it happens early enough. A British ref showed us that. Just saying!

  9. Rick Figueiredo, November 2, 2011 at 3:40 p.m.

    I love all this discussion. That why they call us fanatics! You know one of the most interesting things about sports is that we all get to argue our own points of view after the game is done and over with. Right and wrong make no difference. On Guard!

  10. Talley Berry, November 2, 2011 at 5:05 p.m.

    To answer your question more correctly, you. You are who levels criticism at MLS referees. You do it constantly. You write entire articles about it. Now they're trying to improve the standard of refereeing and you are unhappy about it.

    Do you even like soccer? It honestly seems to me that you dislike the game. It makes you unhappy every day.

  11. Jake Brodesky, November 2, 2011 at 6:18 p.m.

    Talley--Paul did open himself up to the argument that he's a hyprocrite, but he's not. His stance is that refereeing should and can be improved, but that it takes more than just improved refs to protect players and enhance play. It takes more coaches like Sigi and Kreis and Hyndmann (i.e., coaches who like to play and not ruin and destroy). It takes players who want to play and who can play!

    Also, it takes someone who knows the American game to improve the quality of refereeing. Where is our national pride? We need to be more proud of the Geigers of the world and reward qualified Americans and place them in these positions. This is an American ship that should have an American captain! One of the most interesting statistics out there is that no World Cup Team has ever won a WC with a foreign coach. Maybe the same applies in referee management?

    Also, there should be a study done by someone on the amount and percentage of injuries that occur on artifical turf. But really we know they should just get rid of it anyhow!

    Lastly, I agree with Walt. MLS should be doing more about the quality of players.

    And people, don't be so averse to Paul's criticism. His criticism is a product of his desire for improvement and the knowledge that things can be so much better.

  12. R2 Dad, November 2, 2011 at 8:44 p.m.

    I would argue that the English FA is the body responsible for the standards enforced in the Premier League, and their referees apply those standards. I believe that there has been a slight change in the FA's application of the laws and directives to their referees (finally) this season. There seem to be a few more cards given to excessive force tackles, fewer managers whinging about it, and fewer broken legs as a result (I know, the season is still young). I believe the FA has realized their looser application of the LOTG has been detrimental to the players, the teams and their referees vv opportunities to ref internationals. The English referees still have superior game management skills compared to our MLS counterparts, so there is always more our people can learn from theirs. Since the jump (as mentioned) between college and MLS is quite a big step, I would like to see a high profile ref exchange program with the BPL, La Liga and Serie A for our most promising youth referees (who can speak those languages, obviously). We need our referees to improve as much as our players have over the past 20 years.

  13. Margaret Manning, November 3, 2011 at 8:49 a.m.

    Having sat (stood) through more than a decade of MLS games with too many miserable referee performances, I disagree with at least two of your premises. First, the notion that "invariably," coaches, players and fans are looking for a convenient excuse for games that have been lost. Not at all. Although the bad call or failure to control a game that costs (or potentially costs) one's team a win is frustrating, I find myself just as upset by bad calls in games our team is winning--often joined by 15,000 other fans who just saw the same bad call. Second, I'm not certain what the "Hispanic" effect is, but if by that you mean allowing "south of the border" cynical fouls and diving and delay, then who needs it? MLS is already tolerating it far too much. Finally, the tolerance our referees have shown for crushing, hacking "defense" of late is worst of all. "Letting the lads play" is one thing; letting them break bones is another.

  14. Margaret Manning, November 3, 2011 at 8:55 a.m.

    Having said that, I do appreciate the difficulty of the job. I know that I have never had the stamina or skills it requires to referee. With MLS attendance setting records this year, it seems like a good time to ask the league to pony up recruiting, training, and travel funds to try to solve the problem.

  15. Ginger Peeler, November 3, 2011 at 5:13 p.m.

    I've been watching soccer for years... long before MLS came into being. Heck, my kids took the FIFA classes and became referees themselves before MLS existed. The US had a ref at the 1998 World Cup. He had extensive experience prior to the World Cup; some people thought he blew a call in the group stage Norway/Brazil game and they dropped him from the WC referee roster. It turned out he had made the right call. He did our country proud and he is still active in refereeing circles. Please go to the following website to see what HE says about American refs: Also, gentlemen, if you dislike Ridge and Paul and what they have to say so much, just cancel your subscription to Soccer America! One more thing: I wish we could get away from the British announcers, especially Ian Darke. I listened to him argue with Julie Foudy about a referees call during the women's World Cup. C'mon, she PLAYED the game and knew what she was talking about. He finally, grudgingly agreed with her after an embarassing amount of time. Also, during one of the men's games he was calling, he kept talking about the player named "Chimichanga". I admit, I have real trouble understanding him...about halfway through the game, I realized he was talking about Jimmy Chandler.

  16. Clear the Ball, November 3, 2011 at 5:20 p.m.

    It's worth a try to improve the referee standard. If it doesn't work out, we're really not out anything. Regarding "English" style and "Latin" style referees, I'd be happy to have our officials up to the standard of La Liga, the Premiership or the Bundesliga. I don't want it to look like Serie A, the Central American Leagues or the South American Leagues. All in all, lets just improve the product.

  17. James Madison, November 5, 2011 at 10:12 p.m.

    Leave us (and Paul, least of all) not forget that it was an English referee---Ken Aston by name, who, among other matters, devised the card system and became an outstanding referee instructor in, among other places, our own United States. And Rick Fonseca, by the 1970s the NCAA had abandoned striped shirts, knickers and the quarter system. I know because then is when I began officiating.

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