Second looks are vital to upgrade officiating

By Ridge Mahoney

Claims of inconsistency have arisen in the wake of MLS imposing harsher punishments for players' transgressions, but critics miss the point that such reviews will increase consistency in the long run.

Jair Benitez, Danny Cruz, Brandon McDonald and Atiba Harris are the latest poster boys in a campaign being launched by MLS to crack down.

Critics were quick to point out fouls and other incidents that seemed equally unsavory or vicious and escaped further punishment, which is a natural offshoot of such procedures. As the league expands and adds games in different venues and playing conditions, the number of borderline situations increases, and so do the reviews of the reviews.

Benitez was suspended for one game and fined for violent conduct for throwing an elbow at Danny Cruz while they dueled for a ball in the D.C. United-FC Dallas game Friday night. Cruz received a fine for embellishment; he simulated being struck in the face.

Brandon McDonald, like Cruz a D.C. United player, was suspended for one game and fined for a reckless challenge in the same game. He tackled FC Dallas striker Blas Perez from behind.

Atiba Harris of Vancouver was also suspended for one game and fined for violent conduct. He elbowed Philadelphia defender Carlos Valdes in their game last Saturday, and was issued a yellow card for the offense.

Perhaps a dozen other incidents that occurred in the nine games played during the fourth week of the MLS regular season that seemed to be somewhat similar did not result in further punishment. “Inconsistency!” wailed the critics, and all I can say is, “Get used to it.”

News flash: there will never, ever, be the level of consistency from game to game that we all crave. Many soccer incidents are not nearly so cut-and-dried as, say, a home-plate umpire establishing his strike zone, or the rigid definitions on pass interference regarding contact between a wide receiver and a cornerback. The game is too fluid, the angles too numerous, the incidents too varied for widespread uniformity.

Soccer commentators say, rightly, that fouls for grabbing and pushing could be called on every corner kick and free kick. Football commentators say, also rightly, that offensive holding can be called on every play. The key factor in both situations is establishing a fine line between what is permissible and what is too blatant to be ignored. It’s not a perfect science and never will be, but a league – be it the NFL or MLS – can strive for a level of consistency through review and education.

The best we can hope for is what players and coaches want most: consistency from the officials within a particular game. The greater empowerment of referee’s assistants to call fouls as well as offside situations and balls out of play add a layer of difficulty to this operation, though over time as officials work with each other they get a feel for how the others call a game.

As evidence of the unique officiating problems presented by soccer, I submit: Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve been completely flummoxed as to what is handball and what isn’t. This isn’t unique to MLS; I’ve scratched my head at handball calls and lack of same in Merseyside derbys, Cascadia Cup matches, and Champions League finals. Deflections, rebounds, blocked crosses, weird hops, I’ve given up trying to figure it out. There have been all manner of directives and photos and charts released by FIFA during the past decade attempting to clarify situations but the same inconsistencies seem to persist.

I’ve also discussed with coaches and general managers one dreaded facet of officiating: calls which are guesses as to what the official thought had happened. It looked like the goalkeeper tripped the forward even though the contact wasn’t seen, so call the penalty kick. I think the player on the ground holding his face got hit by a forearm even though I didn’t see it, so I’d better pull out a card.

Not every referee can adhere to the credo, “Don’t call what you didn’t see.” Or maybe the referee did see the incident and wasn’t sure about the severity, so he issued a yellow card instead of red. If the league goes back and imposes a more severe punishment retroactively, in most cases I don’t have a problem with it for the following reasons:

a) Forcing a team a man down on a borderline call doesn’t serve the spirit of the game. Now if an official is constantly issuing cautions that upon review result in suspensions, that official isn’t doing his job properly. But if he’s unsure, he can err on the side of caution – pun intended – knowing the league can impose a harsher punishment. The German Bundesliga has been doing this for more than a decade and few other leagues have adopted the process. If the league can clearly establish what should be a straight red card, players and coaches and officials will know where they stand.

b) Reviewing incidents with the power of punishment establishes clearer strictures on what constitutes foul play, and increases the amount of relevant data not only for the officials, but for players, coaches, executives, fans and journalists. Over time, such scrutiny can improve consistency among officials and from game to game.

I will be interested to see how the hiring of English referee Peter Walton and the formation of a referee’s association, PRO, will affect the development of officiating in North America. One short-term remedy would be to adopt the use of goal-line officials as currently used in the Champions League and Europa League but doing math on that one can be daunting.

When a high-ranking MLS executive was asked about training, developing, and implementing goal-line officials, he replied, “It’s hard enough to get four [per game]. Where are we going to find six?”

He has a point.

9 comments about "Second looks are vital to upgrade officiating".
  1. Chris Lynch, April 4, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.

    Cruz should have received an extra game for his dive. And lose two weeks wages in the process.

    I'm a dc fan too. Diving is pathetic.

  2. David Sirias, April 4, 2012 at 3:18 p.m.

    I rarely agree with Ridge on coach or player peformance, especially when it comes to the national team. But this article is spot on. Would you rather NOT have MLS doing reviews?
    My long standing recommnedations to MLS:
    1. All "professional" fouls that break up an attack/counter = auto yellow. The refs seem to be getting pretty good at showwing red when the foul is by the last defender. But they are terrible at not issuing yellows otherwise. Hit and miss at best.
    2. Petition FIFA for the "daylight" rule for offsides. "Even" is supposed to go to the attacker. Rarely does and we get boatloads of goals disallowed.
    3.Finally, no more handballs when the defender is not intending to use his arm or hands, especially in the box. This one is not that hard. 99% of us usually agree when a defender is using his arm to stop the ball intentionally, rather than just having his arms hang natually at his side or being used for balance to turn. This is a fair quid pro quo in light of the other changes proposed.

  3. R2 Dad, April 4, 2012 at 3:22 p.m.

    "Where are we going to find six?”
    Why, they grow for free on the referee tree!
    I'll beat Luis to this one. There are hundreds of thousands of good bilingual soccer players who won't go to college and won't turn pro. Where is the program to sweep promising young referees into a national pool of future college/MLS/Concacaf CL refs? Right now the pay is poor, getting sufficient game count to get from an 8 to a 5 takes years--how can anyone do all those games and all that traveling while still going to school? It's not possible given the high cost of living and low wages for referees. So we don't get "our best athletes" (sorry, it's become a gag meme by now). And we wonder why there are no men's WC referees (hat tip to Kari Seitz).

  4. Allan Lindh, April 4, 2012 at 3:36 p.m.

    David's comments are good ones, but he doesn't mention the obvious elephant in the room, as any basketball fan well knows. Limited video review, at the discretion of the ref, does not ruin the game. And if limited to dubious goals, penalty kicks, and truly vicious tackles, it would only be a minor disruption; those are situations where there is almost always a stoppage in play anyway. And if linespersons knew that dubious uncalled offsides would be reviewed if they resulted in a goal, they might with time learn to err on the side of the offense when calling offside -- as they are supposed to do now. So if we're gonna petition FIFA for a little common sense, might as well add video review as well.
    Or maybe N. America, Europe, and South America should form our own association, and put an end to the massive corruption and stupidity that is FIFA. FIFA does not own the game, the players and fans of futbal own the game, and FIFA is just an albatross around our necks.

  5. Andrzej Kowalski, April 4, 2012 at 5:55 p.m.

    MLS is a " FAULISTA League " and to bring an English referee ( English referees are famous for tolerating to foul play ) to supervise MLS referees will make MLS referees even more tolerant to foul play.

  6. Don Shaffer, April 4, 2012 at 8:41 p.m.

    Ok, here we go, Thanks Ridge for your insight on where our referee system is right now. Being a player, coach, and now referee(all at high levels)we have big issues. First, the numbers are staggering from Grade 8 to just the 7 and then to 6, take a look at the big drop, why? The mentoring of referees is not there. Something needs to change, many of the training referees(assessor's) never played soccer, let alone a high level. The expectations from them assessment wide is a joke, I recently passed my 7(waiting for assessment/200 games?), and look forward to moving on, but the fees and training are not cheap. To get former players(like NBA does& other sports)and pay them well(won't happen).This will not change until they attract the former player pools. Many of the Coaches and players I know say the same thing as your article, Some of the top officials will never make it to help because of the politics and basic BS. You have to be invited to a State Camp,National Camp, etc. Believe me when I tell you, I've attending thousands of matches, and I see the same crews over and over again, just ask the Top College Coaches. I'm not saying make it simple, but if you have High level playing experience(Like the National Coaching Courses, if you played College or SemiPro you go straight to "C")it would only enhance the game for us and improve our pool of officials. I personally know it's a tough job to be a referee, but it's an asset that I have played the game(at a higher level) when it comes to higher level games. Many players coming out of College would be perfect canidates for these positions, but they have to go thru a process that is long and not very financially worth it to them. Good Luck with getting any of these folks to move at USSF, maybe next Century.

  7. James Madison, April 4, 2012 at 11:31 p.m.

    It would surprise me if the assessments of the officials involved were not affected by reviews that result in fines and suspensions when only cautions were issued during the match.

  8. R2 Dad, April 8, 2012 at 6:07 p.m.

    Good points Don. It sounds like the USSF referees, when they finally get to the MLS level, don't get aged out. Is there an age (45) beyond which the old guys can't keep up with the game but are still there because of their connections? There was recently a 27 year old doing premier league matches in england. The way our system is configured we will never see young/able/accomplished referees doing top matches.It also seems to me that once they're a 6 or a 5 it's impossible to get these people off of matches where they can't keep up. There should be a process for de-rating referees as well.

  9. Dave Roberts, April 10, 2012 at 8:56 p.m.

    Re: Paragraph 5 - you can't be sent off nor suspended for a 'reckless' challenge. Reckless is the determining criteria for a caution (yellow card). It's not just referees who need to be more consistent!

    International Referee.

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