If MLS wants kids to watch ...

By Mike Woitalla

How do you, a youth coach, address your players when they're victims of bad fouls, brutish opponents or bad refereeing?

Obviously, it’s prohibiting retaliation, clinging to your belief that skillful soccer will prevail, and zero-tolerance in ref abuse.

But youth coaches could use some help from the pros. That, in this country, would be Major League Soccer.

I’m assuming most youth coaches desperately want their players to watch good soccer as much as possible. And anyone who cares about American soccer wants MLS to succeed, so we’d like to steer youngsters toward becoming fans of the USA’s league.

But MLS should care more about what kind of soccer it’s presenting if it expects youth coaches to recommend it to their players.

The emphasis from many teams on a physical style over skillful possession, and the low-scoring are problems. You only get to see one goal every 35 minutes. The 2011 season set a record for scoreless ties. That doesn’t keep 9-year-olds glued to the screen.

More disconcerting is the tolerance of thuggish play, the behavior of some the league’s biggest stars, the disrespect shown to referees, and the TV commentators who practically condone cheating.

Who’s the player most American kids can name? David Beckham, who led the league in yellow cards. The Beckham who got into a screaming, nose-to-nose confrontation with Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis.

There’s Rafa Marquez petulantly throwing a ball at Landon Donovan, who to his credit walked away, but whose teammates turned it into a brawl. Thierry Henry was ejected twice this season.

Worse than those transgressions were the fouls that seriously injured four of MLS’s top players -- David Ferreira (broken ankle), Javier Morales (broken ankle), Steve Zakuani (broken leg) and Branko Boskovic (knee ACL). A fifth victim, Seattle’s Mauro Rosales, missed the playoffs with a knee injury inflicted from one of the many cynical fouls he’d suffered.

Hey, watch this league and see what awaits if you’re a superb dribbler.

The pool of talent in MLS isn’t deep enough for the league to lose so many players of such quality and expect to deliver soccer entertaining enough to lure young fans, who have many other options of soccer on TV to choose from.

We had New York coach Hans Backe encouraging his team to “play a bit dirty.” A Portland Timbers player offered this sage advice on how to approach a game: “You step onto the battlefield ... you've got to become that nasty person, that mean person.”

Especially disturbing is how MLS tolerates its players’ behavior towards referees – and the refs’ neglect of the rule mandating a yellow card for dissent. There should be zero tolerance on mobbing the referee after a call, but we keep seeing it and somehow the refs keep the cards in their pockets. (UEFA's head of referees, Pierluigi Collina, wants refs to show a red for such behavior and MLS should enter the next season instructing its officials to do so, and backing them up. One or two reds for a charging dissenter and that would end the practice.)

Of course, when adults play high-stake sports there’ll be some foul play and poor sportsmanship. It’s how the league, the refs, the coaches and the TV commentators react that concerns me about MLS.

The league must urge its refs get stricter with foul play, hand out longer suspensions for lethal tackles, and require players to pass a rules test to be eligible (because it's obvious that too many of these pros have no clue of what constitutes a foul).

And something must be done about the TV commentators who often display their ignorance of the rules – intent is only a factor on handball! – and are constantly defending thuggish play.

When Brian Mullan’s brutal foul broke Zakuani’s leg, more sympathy for Mullan seemed to come out of the Fox Soccer booth than for the player with the cracked bones.

Instead of denouncing the cheating, TV commentators are constantly reacting with euphemisms that virtually celebrate fouls.

They actually say things like “good foul,” “smart foul,” “intelligent foul” and “he had no option but to foul.” (Yes, he had another option! Not to foul, and remember there’s a goalkeeper back there who will most likely make the save.)

A rookie gets hammered and we get an enthusiastic, “Welcome to the big leagues!” from the booth. A defender gets lavishly praised because if he “has the ability to get a piece of you he absolutely will.” A player throws a punch and gets described as “feisty.”

When TV commentators stop excusing foul play and start getting the rules right, youth coaches will feel more comfortable about having their players tune in.

And if MLS cracks down on violent play and better protects its talented, attacking players, its games will be higher scoring, more entertaining, and more likely to turn youngsters into fans.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at

20 comments about "If MLS wants kids to watch ... ".
  1. Andrew Ziemer, November 19, 2011 at 12:55 a.m.

    I can only say one word.....Amen.

    Thanks for telling the truth.

    I'm heading to Europe (Holland and Spain) to watch Voetbal/Futbol because of the quality of possession soccer.

    I want the MLS to succeed, but agree with everything you wrote.

    Keep up the good work.
    Andrew Ziemer
    Sebastopol, California

  2. Harry Castleman, November 19, 2011 at 9:41 a.m.

    Hear, hear, Mike! As a referee of youth soccer, where dissent is, as it should be, properly and effectively (i.e. you don't usually have any further dissent from anyone else in the game) punished with a yellow card, I am amazed and perplexed at how and why MLS referees take so much abuse from petulant players without ever reaching for yellow, let alone red, as the master, Collina, suggests. One can only conclude that they're being told to not caution by higher ups, which is unforgivable because it further dilutes the ref's ability to manage the game and, to your main theme, encourages similarly bad behavior from the precious few youth players who are watching MLS.

  3. Sean Rose, November 19, 2011 at 10:06 a.m.

    Great article. Also keep in mind the poor TV schedule ... MLS Cup is on after 9 pm on the east coast. Tough to expect a kid to tune in.

  4. Amos Annan, November 19, 2011 at 10:12 a.m.

    Dumb! Referees are way too sensitive to any negative comments. Soccer is a physical and intense sport. Any serious soccer player is going to question a bad call and referees should be more tolerant (not less).

  5. Brian Something, November 19, 2011 at 10:26 a.m.

    And we wonder why US soccer doesn't produce any Messis or Ronaldos.

    So disappointing that for for the 2nd year in a year, the two most exciting teams in MLS (RSL-SEA this year and RSL-DAL last) had to play in the first round.

  6. Brian Something, November 19, 2011 at 10:28 a.m.

    One of the other idiotic things you often hear from announcers (including former announcer and new NE boss Jay Heaps) is how it's "too early" for the ref to show a yellow card. Aside from persistent infringement, time shouldn't matter. Either an infraction is a card or not.

  7. Clear the Ball, November 19, 2011 at 10:54 a.m.

    Agree completely. I don't know how many times I saw Mastroeni and the cRapids go after an official with a profanity laced tirade every time a major foul was called against them. Should be a yellow or red EVERY time.

  8. . Lev, November 19, 2011 at 11:27 a.m.

    Solution: start young. Youth refs should step in early - forcing play rather than allowing fouls. It works.

  9. SG Robbo, November 19, 2011 at 11:39 a.m.

    Totally agree. I take my kids to watch NCAA and MLS, but then they ask me why those teams don't play like EPL and La Liga. Klinsmann can be successful if he not only improves the senior team product, but also can influence the successful implementation of a more technical style of play the US can embrace. We always will have physicality as part of our style, but it can and should be much more refined (see EPL).

    Great article!!

  10. Carl Walther, November 19, 2011 at 11:58 a.m.

    It all comes down to the "Goober." He needs to go. He just doesn't care about good soccer, only the dollar bottom line. The man has no moral standards.

  11. R2 Dad, November 19, 2011 at 11:59 a.m.

    This concept is especially relevant at the youth level, where the kids have learned to interact with the referees by watching their coaches. Coach dissent breeds player dissent. We need role models, and every MLS player/coach/referee has signed up to be one. Good article, glad to see comments are running 10-1 against the "football is a physical sport, let's all get stuck in and break a leg" supporters.

  12. Jay Allen, November 19, 2011 at 1:55 p.m.

    Thanks for writing this. My son has quit local soccer because of the brutish, physical, low-skill level of play.

  13. Barry Ulrich, November 19, 2011 at 5:02 p.m.

    I don't know why players rush to the referee to complain about a call. Has anyone ever seen a ref change his/her mind about a call because of all the complainants circling about? And why referees tolerate the complaining assemblage (and being bumped and handled!) is beyond me. One of my early trainings involved positioning when calling for a penalty kick. Blow the whistle, point to the spot, then move quickly off the field. Anyone following me off the field was to be shown a yellow card for leaving the field without my permission!

  14. El Terror, November 19, 2011 at 5:42 p.m.

    The way you have written this article gives a feeling that this style of play is new to you and American soccer. It has always been like this. I started to complained about this brutal style of play back in the 70's. I have always stated that FIFA should sanction the refs for letting the games get out of hand. It is always better for the refs to call everything that way the players would think twice about fouling someone.

  15. Clayton Berling, November 19, 2011 at 6:03 p.m.

    If you want your children (an adults for that matter) see GOOD soccer, then have them watch a high quality WOMEN'S game as exemplified by the women's soccer team from Stanford university. Actually I'm a UCBerkeley grad (my wife from Stanford), but this is a team that has a quality standard of play, great athleticism, and
    a low record of fouls, even minor ones.
    They should be featured every week on the NSCAA Game of the Week. It's a marvelous, exhilarating experience. It is soccer at its best.

  16. Tyler Dennis, November 19, 2011 at 9:08 p.m.

    Wonderful article! Great approach. This should be sent to every player, coach, and administrator in the MLS.

    I'm tired of hearing:

    "intent is only a factor on handball!"

    Just because he didn't mean to take the guys knees out doesn't mean its not a foul... pure stupidity... you hear this on some of the EPL games too.

  17. Alex Michalakos, November 19, 2011 at 10:18 p.m.

    Thank you. But what astounds me is why WOULDN'T the MLS bosses want to stamp out the thuggery which is so frustrating to watch? After trying or considering all sorts of things to make the game more exciting for Americans, like the shootout, bigger goals, etc, this would seem like an easy way to make the game more attractive, and would be a win-win for the soccer side AND the business side. Who benefits--who has an interest--in allowing the thug mentality to thrive? It doesn't make any sense, business-wise and soccer-wise.

    By the by, why are refs so quick and gleeful to call a penalty in some situations--for example, when the attacker basically kicks the ball into a defender's hand (which is by his side), or to red card someone who is assaulted but then retaliates ever so slightly,but a foul in the box or on an attacker needs to be an attempted murder before it is called. What is the mentality among the refs? Whe doesn't the league say at the beginning of the year, "grabbing and pushing on free kicks WILL be called a penalty, mouthing off like a jerk WILL be a yellow, standing in front of the ball after a free kick is called WILL be a yellow, etc etc, and that behavior WILL stop. In the NBA, nobody grabs the ball after a foul and refuses to give it back, and then tosses it high in the air, so his defense can get set. Anyway, the point is that a simple enforcing of the rules on fouling is the easiest and most inexpensive way to make the game more attractive to watch (especially for TV purposes) and to improve the bottom line of MLS. So why the tolerance of the fouling?

  18. Eric Hendrickson, November 20, 2011 at 8:26 a.m.

    I whole heartedly agree. I also feel that this would make the games more watchable for adults as well.

  19. Thomas Hosier, November 20, 2011 at 7:38 p.m.

    Calling proper fouls should of course start at the top and work down, but on the other hand calling proper fouls should also start at the bottom and work up. I just watched a youth club soccer match where virtually no fouls were called for pushing and shoving from behind and body checking when they was no chance of the opponent getting to the ball. Thuggery and Muggery sucks as much in youth soccer as it does in the Bigs ... how about the REFS at all level read the rules and call thd fouls properly.

  20. James Madison, November 21, 2011 at 5:29 p.m.

    Bravo, Mike! And, like Clay, I am a huge fan of the Stanford women's team. Great model for all of us, men, women, boys and girls.

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