For referee training, MLS turns to -- of all people -- the Brits!

By Paul Gardner

A couple of quotes to start things off. Shakespeare, of course, comes first -- from "King Lear":

Oft striving to better, we mar what’s well.

I’ll update that -- this is not really a quote, merely a rather less poetic saying:

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Huge notices bearing -- in large type-size -- one, or better, both of those shafts of wisdom should festoon the corridors and offices of Major League Soccer.

Possibly someone would pay attention, possibly the league would step back from the abyss it is about to plunge into. To plunge happily into, it needs stressing.

This particular abyss concerns refereeing. The MLS biggies have got it into their heads that there is something seriously wrong with MLS refereeing. And that they therefore have to do something about it.

These same biggies are not good, not good at all, when it comes to detailing exactly what is wrong with MLS refereeing. They retreat behind generalities, ingenuously explaining that MLS is always seeking to improve all its activities, and what can be wrong with that?

It is of course, a pretty fatuous argument. One wonders how many potential alternative Commissioners they are interviewing, simply on the theory there must be a way of improving what Don Garber does.

As for refereeing, one learns that MLS is listening to all sorts of people who are critical of its refereeing. People like coaches, general managers, players -- and owners. Listening to them, being frightened by their criticisms and therefore being scared (possibly panicked) into seeking a solution to a problem that, in my opinion, does not exist.

Taking the group of complainers listed above -- why would MLS pay any particular attention to their bitching? All of them -- coaches, players, general managers, owners -- are deeply biased observers of referee activity. They’ll have plenty to moan about during a season -- every time a call goes against their team really, they’ll be heard from. When things go right, when the referee’s calls work in their favor, they’re much less likely to speak out.

I should also add another group of serial complainers, a comparatively new group that has risen to a flimsy sort of importance on modern technology: the busy cyber fans, who do seem to have it in for the referees.

A question for all these referee-baiters: this referee-perfection that you seem to be seeking ... where does it exist? Can any one of you name the country where the referees are perfect? A country where there are not constant complaints about the level of refereeing?

I’d be interested to hear about that place -- because I’ve been around the soccer world for a great many years now, watching games on all six continents, and I’ve never found this refereeing Eden. Never even got a whiff of it.

The very nature of what referees do -- a form of law enforcement -- so very obviously means they are not going to be the most popular people in the soccer world. Criticism and abuse is a natural part of their world -- it always has been, and as far as I can see it always will be. Some of it justified, most of it definitely not justified.

Much of the criticism is vitiated precisely because it comes from people who can’t stand the idea of calls going against their club or their players; occasionally they will have a case, but mostly they will not. In any case, when a similarly questionable call is made next week, but involves another team, will the original complainers be heard from? Of course not -- it is only what damages their team that interests them.

All their pleas for “fairness” and “consistency” in the application of the rules can be ignored. That is not what they are about. They are basically looking for a convenient excuse after they’ve lost a game. And it is equally likely that the game has been lost because the coach screwed up his tactics or the players proved hopelessly inept at putting the ball in the net.

Then there is the matter of the rules. How many of these critics actually know the rules of the game? I can tell you, from my own extensive experience -- not very many. I recently sat with a group of knowledgeable fans -- four of them. We had been having a lively, intelligent chat about the sport ... until we got on to the rules. I asked what must surely be the most basic question about the rulebook -- How many rules are there? None of the four got it right. The closest thought there were about 70. One of them said “Maybe 200 -- something like that.”

So I’m saying ... be very, very careful when listening to criticism of referees, because most of time it is based on nothing more than blind partisanship and/or ignorance of the rules.

Yet here we have MLS agonizing because its refs are being taken to task by people whose criticisms should be resisted, not caved in to.

I repeat: I do not believe there is anything disastrously wrong with MLS refereeing. Some of it’s good, some not so good, the refs have their good games and their bad games ... and I’m waiting to hear where that is not the case.

But MLS is determined to fix what ain’t broke, to mar what’s well. It is looking, apparently, for a referee czar, someone of authority, of experience, who will be able to deal with all these complainers -- especially, one suspects, with apoplectic owners -- and, presumably, lay down the law about what is what on the field.

That sounds reasonable, or at least not unreasonable. Until one learns that the help MLS is seeking, this unnecessary help, is to come from the Brits. When it becomes a sick joke. This czar job has already been offered to former English referee Keith Hackett. He turned it down at the last minute, leaving MLS with a problem -- as the season is only about a month away.

But contacts with the Brits continue, and it looks likely that a Brit will come here to teach American referees how to get their calls right.

This is not merely a sick joke, it is downright obscene. Anyone who watches the EPL games that flood our screens these days will have seen plenty of Brit refereeing. They will have noticed that the Brit game features a good deal of -- unpunished -- reckless tackling. They will understand why there is a school of thought that blames England’s lack of success at the international level on its uniquely lenient refereeing. They will understand why the EPL’s red-card count regularly comes in below that of the other top European leagues.

That is the way refereeing is done in the EPL. There is a sort of consensus in English soccer culture that the “game should flow” (i.e. small fouls should be ignored), that the referees should be “sensible” (i.e. avoid giving cards by indulging in jolly little chats with the players), should try to keep 22 players on the field and should, overall, uphold the red-blooded notion that soccer is a man’s game and that the players must be allowed to get “stuck in.”

Would MLS mind telling me exactly what it has to learn from that deplorable mess? Because, make no mistake, that is the sort of mentality that will accompany an experienced Brit -- because his experience will be narrow-mindedly British. How can it be otherwise? (And if he’s not experienced, then why would he be coming?)

It’s virtually impossible to work out what improvements MLS thinks are supposed to arrive with a Brit refereeing czar. Will there be a sudden, noticeable improvement in ... well, what? We’re still going to get referees making unpopular decisions, which means there will still be irate owners and coaches. Maybe American referees will be taught how to deliver inane little on-field chats, the ones that allow an offender to escape unpunished when he should have been carded. Maybe the assistant referees will improve their flag-waving techniques.

A plausible theory can be advanced that American referees simply cannot be as good as they should be, because their training cannot include a key element that is available to referees in all major soccer countries: the steady climb up from third to second to first division games and the growing experience that accompanies it.

I am not about to argue the point -- which is at least theoretically solid -- but I will point out that, despite that apparently vital gap in their training, American referees do remarkably well. I have mentioned before the unprecedented happenings last year at the under-20 World Cup in Colombia, when FIFA selected the American Mark Geiger to referee the final -- even though Mark Clattenburg, an English referee with seven years of EPL experience, was available. If our referee training is so inferior, that simply could not have happened.

It is of concern that MLS, by bringing in a foreign referee czar or adviser or consultant or director or whatever he may be called, is publicly belittling the work done by the American and Canadian refereeing communities. It is also worrying that the appointment may have come down to a Brit, not on any special suitability for the job, but simply because he speaks the language.

But the biggest problem with the appointment of a Brit -- I consider it an ineradicable problem -- is the primitive soccer cultural values that will arrive with him. An MLS decision to promote Brit influence in the training of American referees is an appalling mistake.

22 comments about "For referee training, MLS turns to -- of all people -- the Brits!".
  1. Derek Dunmire, February 10, 2012 at 2:41 p.m.

    Once again, another negative diatribe from Paul. Soccer America PLEASE hire someone who will further soccer in America and limit Paul's constant bitching.

  2. Allan Lindh, February 10, 2012 at 3:23 p.m.

    I respect Paul Gardner's experience, BUT this is ridiculous. The problem is not just with enforcing the rules in MLS, it is the terrible spirit in which the game is played -- violent, ugly, out of control. Speed and force over skill. The EPL is hardly perfect, but the violence is less, and the spirit is better. And the ref's accept full responsibility for the rules and the spirit. And yes, I can name a lot of countries in which the refs are better -- all of Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, and England. Not to mention Spain and Italy, where players are expected to stay on their feet and actually play the game, rather than running around trying to destroy it.

  3. Marc Silverstein, February 10, 2012 at 3:27 p.m.

    Paul, wasn't Eddie Pearson from Britian? If so, the NASL didn't collapse because of him did it?

  4. Americans '75, February 10, 2012 at 3:30 p.m.

    I nominate Brian Hall. He was an excellent official. Knowledgable, composed, fair. He would be just right. He's American of course, but his name could pass for English.

  5. Scott Baxter, February 10, 2012 at 3:34 p.m.

    If not Brian Hall then what about Pierre Luigi Colina? Colina was perhaps the best referee the world has had. Bring him out of retirement to be the czar. He should only be around 50 yrs old. He doesn't have to center, just teach.

  6. Millwall America, February 10, 2012 at 4:05 p.m.

    Personally I prefer the English football culture that Paul so despises. I like a bit (not a lot, but a bit) of physicality in the game and don't see much wrong with players getting stuck in. In my mind a lot of nations have gone too far the other way, with no contact tolerated, which leads to all the flopping and diving we see in e.g. La Liga. It's true that if the English culture were applied world-wide it would make it impossible for teams like Barcelona to continue playing their tiki-taka brand of football -- but in my mind that's not a bug, it's a feature.

  7. John Soares, February 10, 2012 at 4:49 p.m.

    Once again Paul goes "overboard" to make his point. However a point is made.
    IF MLS is to improve it's referees.
    The EPL is not the best place or example to look for "leadership".
    Colina! Now there is an idea (individual) worth persuing!

  8. Gak Foodsource, February 10, 2012 at 5:38 p.m.

    I think it is presumptuous to write an article lashing out at US Soccer honchos for possibly hiring a British czar to control refereeing when it hasn't happened yet. You are usually in the know with these things so perhaps it is about to come. Nonetheless, I actually think this is a fairly proactive step by MLS and US Soccer. If US Soccer is serious about attacking play, a 4-3-3, and emphasizing technical play, referees do play an important, structural part by enforcing fouls and discouraging physical play (all through a legal interpretation of the game, of course.) Creating the type of advanced referee training programs that can facilitate the development of junior referees into senior ones in my mind is laudable. And with respect to the British part of this equation, I would only point out that the definition of an acceptable foul has changed considerably in the past 20 years in the EPL. Look at the recent red card given to Kompany in the Man City-Man United FA cup match. The loud chorus of boos coming from all angles in the British press was from a remarkably concentrated group of players - those that had played in the 70s and 80s. The fact that a tackle like that is now a red card and a 3 match ban should suggest that British referees can and have changed.

  9. Attila Nagy, February 10, 2012 at 5:41 p.m.

    Paul keep up the good work. Millwall you should not call it tiki-taka brand of football, but technique-technique brand of football.Barcelona's style reminds me of a team from the fifties that beat the Brits 6:3 at Wembley.
    By the way where is Millwall?

  10. Attila Nagy, February 10, 2012 at 7:32 p.m.

    54 or 66 I guess you have 12 years on me there. As I currently read the Puskas biography he did say that is the problem with Hungarian football they do not practice with the ball enough in otherwords they are not technical. The English players are the same. I love watching the EPL don't get me wrong. There are also great English players but are there enough? Look at the starting lineups where are the players from?

  11. Albert Harris, February 10, 2012 at 7:37 p.m.

    England hasn't done anything of note at the world cup since 1966 when they played every game at Wembley so I'm not sure I see Super Man's point except for his endless bitching which only proves he's Paul's most loyal reader. If the MLS refs need help, Collina is a far better suggestion than any ref I see in the Premier League although I don't know if language would be a problem. I think Gardner overdoes his anti-Brit attitude sometimes but only because so many fans this side of the pond seem to feel we need to genuflect in the general direction of the FA whenever we discuss soccer so he serves as a nice counterweight to that attitude.

  12. Kent Pothast, February 10, 2012 at 10:49 p.m.

    I became a soccer fan while living and working in England in the 1970's. Returning to USA and having a son that I hoped would play soccer, I went to referee school at Portland State University. I did that so I could have some influence on American soccer. I did not want it to turn into the semi-controlled battle that I saw from pros on BBC to pickup games at work. No high refereeing standards there.

  13. R2 Dad, February 11, 2012 at 12:25 a.m.

    There is no doubt that English football has been much more loosely refereed, even into the the past decade. But the FA has definitely made efforts over the past couple of years to crack down on the reducers and other such rugby tactics that defined the game, and the play is much better for it. There is nothing inherently negative about PL referees. They are employees like any other, and will do as they are directed by their league. Yes, Collina would be great, but that is the kind of intelligent, forward-thinking type of investment I would not expect of MLS. US referees are capable, and can live up greater expectations if we hold them to a higher standard. It also helps if MLS coaches aren't instructing their teams to play cynical, negative football.

  14. Mj Lee, February 11, 2012 at 3:05 a.m.

    Such nonsense, Mr Gardner. If USSF male referees had any respect at the international level, we would have had real representation at WC 2006 and 2010. Jair Marrufo was the best we had, and he needed a water break to make it through an MLS game. Brian Hall has initiated major upheavals in MLS refereeing in the past 2 years, and it is only a start. Mr Gardner, if you think MLS refereeing is not at all broken, then my guess is that you are not watching enough MLS games. Are you only reading about them? Are you only researching on BigSoccer?

  15. Robert Kiernan, February 11, 2012 at 7:35 a.m.

    Well first off, if Howard Webb had done a better job in the last World Cup final... say having instead of handing out a record number of yellow cards... instead given a direct RED card to DeJong when he managed to plant his boot solidly in Xabi's chest WHILE HE WAS STANDING UPRIGHT!!!... well the Spanish would have had a man advantage and the resulting score likely would have forced the Dutch to play soccer... but the Referee DIDN'T see fit to do this and the final was something of a bust...was this because he was an English Referee??? I don't know...but he was selected by the FA to represent England at that event and FIFA dutifully chose him for that final, ergo if this is the "British" official deemed the best available, well I think some of us then tend to have by association a bit of a jaundiced view on British officiating. I'd say that some things can clearly be measured and compared, Fitness, ability to be in the right location the majority of the time and such...but other things are just not that easy to "correct" and bringing in foreign officials just like bringing in Foreign players or coaches is still going to be something of a crap shoot. The reality of MLS is that it can be a rather physical league partly because of the types of players who are making up the majority of the league, the fact that many of the players are still in effect rookies at age 22 does little to help this matter... simply bringing in a new "Uber Ref" in and of itself won't change this fact and I'd say that getting back to the English FA again there is evidence of this if you look at a typical "second division" aka forth tier match as compared to the top flight of the EPL... some of the same officials but the league itself determines what is truly possible...
    However when Gardner states that most of the bitching comes from Players and coaches and ownership...well what does he truly expect? And coming from my experiences as a player and a official that is "consistent" in that as a player or as a coach you have a good clue what to expect from the guy well BEFORE he makes a call, well that DOES effect how you try to play the game and hardly deserves such automatic ridicule.

  16. Robert Kiernan, February 11, 2012 at 8:08 a.m.

    Clearly we have had both pretty good and some rather awful officials in the US that represented us as well. I clearly remember back in the 70's watching David Socha do many an NASL match and while at times I could as a fan complain with a call, the fact was that Socha was nearly always in position to MAKE the call and usually quickly did so...he also was one of our full FIFA International Refs and did some good work in our name. The flip side of this was another NASL referee who was also an International Referee, Angelo Bratsis, who it seems has made his opinions made about the state of the MLS ...and generally he was a nightmare often losing control of a match and later trying usually unsuccessfully to get some control of the match by throwing cards around rather like Webb did in the World Cup. Both these guys did similar matches in the same league around the same time, but one for my money was a much better official... so why was that? Clearly it's more than where the official comes from, but just like a player there are some real intangibles involved. The biggest difference for Me was how Socha would establish his presence EARLY in a match and then back off a bit, but if need be step back in...and his being physically in close position to make that call meant that the player involved usually didn't get too tweeked about it at the time... I've found that the best officials have an ability to do this and then the players and coaches accept that a call was made and go on about their game, where as those officials who chat up the players a bit too much and who often try to regain control by throwing too many cards... often for something that wasn't even stopping play earlier in the match tend to piss off EVERYBODY and that leads to the match getting ragged and play getting rather nasty... I know this is anecdotal but I still think that if you have played or coaches enough you can quickly recognize a wise/experienced official and how he controls not just the play but the "mood" of a match early and when you get a good one you feel lucky to have him around, the same goes for an indecisive official and a fear of the chaos and potential injuries that come with his presence.
    None of this can simply be measured by statistics... just like a player, a good referee tends to stand out. ...

  17. Robert Kiernan, February 11, 2012 at 6:53 p.m.

    Yes Esse Bahamast would indeed be a good choice... but the problem of officiating in MLS has as much to do with whom the officials are trying to manage as well as their inherent abilities or lack there of... there simply is no quick fix for one without dealing with the other. ...(ICE)

  18. beautiful game, February 11, 2012 at 9:28 p.m.

    It is obvious that the MLS head of referees has no handle on his crew. There is too much thuggery that goes unpunished and simple rules such as encroachment and blatant delay of game tactics go unpunished. A ref can have a bad game, but there are too many refs in the MLS who have them. As a former high school and travel ref, there was more consistency in the officiating.

  19. Mj Lee, February 11, 2012 at 9:32 p.m.

    I discussed Paul Gardner's article with someone in the know, who said that there were 3 major criteria in selecting candidates for this new MLS ref position: (a) referee credentials, (b) ability to manage a $M budget/organization, and (c) ability to deal with the media. This limited the field to international candidates, but the long-term stipulation is that the person must develop an American successor.

  20. Kent James, February 11, 2012 at 11:57 p.m.

    Refereeing is always a challenge, and of course, people with vested interests rarely provide unbiased views of ref's abilities. While PG's ingrained Anglophobia is a on display, his point is not a bad one. Having someone from outside the MLS provide additional oversight is not a bad idea, but I'd guess it won't have too much of an impact. What I would like to see is for the MLS to take a more aggressive stance in using video evidence to punish transgressions after the game is over. So if a foul should have been a red card, suspend the player after the game as if it had been a red card (or even for an additional game because the team was not properly punished during the game). Likewise, if video evidence shows a player dove, add a yellow card to their season count after the game (and if they got a yellow card in the game, then they'd get a suspension). Referees are not perfect and cannot see everything, but this would help discipline the most egregious fouls. The match official should be included in the decision (since the video may not show everything), but I think most officials would like to do what they could to correct any mistakes they made during the game.

  21. Robert Kiernan, February 13, 2012 at 1:10 a.m.

    Kent, they actually did something like that this past season with Charlie Davies... he dove and got a PK call... but was suspended over this dive after the match. But in general I'd say that if a player is a "Marquee" type like Henry or Beckham... well there is just always going to be pressure to NOT give them a card and whether or not this is outright STATED... it certainly must be understood by the Officials. I'm really not sure what can be done to deal with this aspect of the league... and I do believe that a great deal of stuff that is outright dangerous gets left alone... this won't change regardless of just whom they choose, but needs to be addressed. ...

  22. Millwall America, February 13, 2012 at 3:32 p.m.

    Attila Nagy: I agree, Barcelona's play is definitely technique-technique. I have to disparage them with the word "tiki-taka" only because it makes me feel better about the fact that they win all the time... Also, I am in America but Millwall refers to the east London team in the second tier of English football. The mighty Millwall Lions fear no foe -- but we need to get our act together or we're going to be relegated to the third tier...

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