Excellent Salazar makes the case for American referees

By Paul Gardner

Wednesday night we got a spicy taste of what MLS playoff soccer should be. It wasn't exactly a playoff game, but Seattle vs. Real Salt Lake had plenty going for it in terms of gaining home-field advantage when the playoffs do start, and a growing and intense rivalry between the two teams.

Plus something else -- that the Sounders fans provide. There is nothing else like this in MLS. You can sense it, but on a smaller scale, in Toronto and Vancouver and Portland. But the Seattle atmosphere is overwhelming -- the color, the noise, and of course, the numbers. On Wednesday, yet again, CenturyLink Field was jammed -- 38,356 fans.

So that was RSL’s first problem -- to blot that constant cascade of sound and that not-so-friendly atmosphere out of their minds. Which they did brilliantly. They came to play open soccer -- that is something RSL does well -- and Seattle, of course, on its home turf, responded in kind.

I’m not about to pretend that this was a great game, but the enthralling thing about it was that there was always purposeful attacking action. It was a constantly eventful game. Plenty of skillful play. With Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales at work for Seattle, and Javier Morales and Fabian Espindola responding for RSL -- how could it be otherwise?

The danger was that, in the red-hot atmosphere, physical play would take over. It never quite did -- and for that referee Ricardo Salazar deserves credit for his early ejection of Seattle’s Zach Scott. Two yellow cards, both justified, saw Seattle down to 10 men with an hour to play.

As sometimes happens, it made little difference. Seattle seemed inspired rather than deflated by the red card, while RSL never seized the opportunity to pile on attacking pressure. RSL, nonetheless, should have won the game -- it was prevented from doing so in the last few minutes by some wonderful goalkeeping from Michael Gspurning.

Which meant that a game that had been taut with surprises and sweeping play, with chances, with errors, with skill and with resolution, ended on a wonderfully high and thrilling note.

I shall repeat my praise for referee Salazar -- not least because he and his American colleagues come under repeated criticism for “not being good enough.”

This is an unpleasant slur on a group of guys who function well -- as well, I would say, as any other group of referees in any other country.

So it was massively disappointing to hear Seattle coach Sigi Schmid complaining at halftime about Salazar’s performance. Obviously Schmid was miffed about the red card to Scott. But he should direct his abuse at his own player, Zach Scott, and not at the referee.

Sadly, it is nothing new to hear referee criticism emanating from Seattle. It started early -- just two months into the Sounders’ first season. In March 2009, after a 1-1 tie with the LA Galaxy, Schmid declared himself “disappointed with the refereeing”, and “disappointed with the ejection” (a Sounders player, of course). Seattle GM Adrian Hanauer backed him up with a series of fatuous observations outlining exactly what a referee should be doing -- i.e. he should not be making calls against the Sounders.

So in three years, nothing has changed. In fact, things are substantially worse. The Sounders’ astonishing success in drawing fans has made the club the pride and joy of MLS. A superb success story to show off to sponsors, to the media, to foreign biggies ... a convincing argument for taking MLS seriously.

To feel the excitement of CenturyLink Field jammed with raucous fans is to have a glimpse of the future of American soccer. Very similar to what happened back in the late 1970s when the New York Cosmos began to dominate the NASL.

Domination on the field was on thing (that is something that the Sounders have yet to achieve), but there was also a clear feeling on the part of the Cosmos that, whenever they lost a game, they were being victimized. This quickly transformed into an assertion that they were constantly on the receiving end of bad referee calls ... and so on, exactly as with the current Sounders, leading to the assertion that American referees were inadequate.

This is a difficult accusation for any league to deal with. The NASL did experiment with foreign referees, without any noticeable change in standards, which were perfectly respectable anyway. The only way in which they fell short was in treating the Cosmos like any other team.

The Cosmos, because they were the league’s main attraction, expected something better. One senses the same attitude with the Sounders. The name that crops up most frequently when I discuss this matter of referee criticism with soccer people -- including referees -- is that of Sounders’ majority owner Joe Roth.

To its deep discredit, MLS has buckled under the constant criticism coming from Roth’s Sounders. It has admitted -- wrongly -- that American referees are inferior, and has hired -- even more wrongly -- a Brit, Peter Walton, to put things right.

A move to professionalize American referees is absolutely in order, as are any schemes to improve fitness and to rationalize schedules. But these are all things that could be more than adequately handled by Americans. By bringing in foreigners, MLS is making two big mistakes. First: Such a move will not satisfy the Joe Roth’s of this world anyway -- what they are looking for is not improved refereeing, but refereeing that is friendly to their own club -- that is their definition of better refereeing. Second: By turning to foreign referee administrators -- who, by definition, know absolutely nothing of the setup and the peculiar requirements of this country -- they are publicly declaring their lack of faith in the American refereeing community, and thus seriously undermining it.

On Wednesday night, Ricardo Salazar gave a resounding rebuff to the MLS’s lily-livered attitude to its own referees.

26 comments about "Excellent Salazar makes the case for American referees".
  1. David Sirias, October 19, 2012 at 6:15 a.m.

    Zach Scott is a Goon. That's all
    Look at his card/ minute data
    MLS used to have a lot if guys like this. They are becoming more rare
    Seattle, you can do better

  2. Tom Symonds, October 19, 2012 at 8:09 a.m.

    Paul: As a Sounders' fan since '74, I've seen a lot of ownerships and managers. It's too bad that we can't vote on our ownership...I like Adrian, he's a Sounder at heart...but I would not hesitate an instant to dump Roth & Carey and give Sigi his marching papers. I know I'm swimming against the current, but Sigi's "attitude" is what underwhelms players like FL10, Nkufo, and other quality players he's had over the years. I think his negatively affects our current roster; but his attitude is in sync with Roth and Carey. Unfortunately, only another first round playoff exit would possibly result in Sigi's departure.
    Regarding Salazar, he has his moments as do all referees. I was not unhappy with his calls at the match. With his first booking of Scott, he correctly set the bar for all the players on what was always going to be a very physical match between two top clubs. His 'no call' on the handball claim was correct. His 'extra time' in injury time for the RSL corner was not out of line with current practice since Clive Thomas' shameful display in '78. Sigi was way out of line in criticizing the referee at halftime...saying he was being 'passionate' is just a cover for him being 'hot-headed'.

    David: Scott is a minimum wage player; as such, he is probably one of the better minimum wage versatile defenders in the league.

  3. Thomas Sullivan, October 19, 2012 at 9:31 a.m.

    Love your work Paul, please don't stop writing as you do and pointing out the gaping holes in institutional logic.

  4. R2 Dad, October 19, 2012 at 10:46 a.m.

    I don't think it's such a disgrace to give Walton a run-out. The BPL is a well-oiled machine and we can learn something about how the English FA works with their referees to ensure consistency. If we don't appear to be gaining from this arrangement we can send him on his way. I'm actually hoping he may have a hand in revising the current structure and requirements for USSoccer referees--but maybe that's not his responsibility. I'd like to see more ex-collegiate players in the ref pool, since they have a wealth of experience to draw from.

  5. Ramon Creager, October 19, 2012 at 10:53 a.m.

    Ricardo Salazar is my favorite referee. He is consistently good, and what makes him good is his obvious unwillingness to put up with goonery. He doesn't overdo the silly "talking to" that is considered good refereeing by too many. Players aren't stupid. When they understand this, they know they won't get a free pass and will not attempt to get in a shot to see if the ref puts up with it. Games he referees tend to be watchable and exciting. Fans, play-by-play and color commentators, and coaches who do the Schmid: it IS possible, believe it or not, to enjoy this game without your partisan blinders on. When it becomes obvious that you are incapable of acknowledging that your team does all the same things that other teams do, you become annoying and not worth listening to.

  6. Carl Walther, October 19, 2012 at 11:27 a.m.

    So the bottom line is that in the MLS, coaches can bad mouth the referee when he does a good job in ejecting a goon player, and the Goober does nothing about it?

  7. beautiful game, October 19, 2012 at 12:28 p.m.

    Sounders have underachieved...the mix between the quality and non-quality players is obvious...this franchise needs to put a better product on the pitch. their fans deserve it.

  8. Who Cares, October 19, 2012 at 1:01 p.m.

    This article is factually inaccurate and the author is a hack.

    This is Sigi's quote about the red card issued/not issued.

    "I don't want anymore questions about (referee Ricardo) Salazar, but the thing is, our fans know his name. I don't think many fans know the name of the referee. I think that's an indication. How that's not a red card on Schuler... I didn't know Borchers was that fast that he was able to get in behind him. I thought that's a last-man foul, and it's not a red card? I'm not going to argue the red card on Scott."

    He did not question Scott's deserved red card. He questioned Schuler not being given a red card on a last man goal scoring opportunity foul.

    With commentary like this, SA is no longer a soccer site I will visit.

  9. scott mars, October 19, 2012 at 1:09 p.m.

    I am a Sounders fan and I do not have any problem with either of the yellow cards given to Zach Scott. They were both deserved. I definitely have a problem with the non hand ball call, as Salazar called one exactly like it against the Sounders in the Open Cup final that cost us the game. I have a problem with the yellow card given to Real Salt Lake that should have been a red as the player was the last defender and Fredy had gotten past him and then was dragged down from behind. We mostly have a problem with Salazar because it is a long history of him calling things against us.

  10. Michael C, October 19, 2012 at 1:11 p.m.

    Well, the fact is that Salazar is connected to Seattle in kind of a unique way. Great ref, good ref, or bad ref, whether you think it's just chance that he happened to be the man with the whistle in those moments, it's not just the standard ref griping some make it out to be.

  11. John Polis, October 19, 2012 at 1:23 p.m.

    Paul, you will remember when you came to Portland back in 1975 to do a story on the Timbers' phenomenon. With MLS coming back to the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle-Vancouver-Portland rivalry is alive and well. Like it did back in the 70's, Seattle's entry into the league preceded Portland's in MLS. I've been to quite a few Portland games this year and the frenzy (which by the way is happy and jovial) seems to be unmatched in Portland. The sound reverberates around a stadium that is covered, making it even more loud. Fans line up 2-3 hours in advance to queue for the best Timbers Army seats. One entire block on one side of the stadium is rimmed with maybe 500-600 bicycles as Portland's famous bicycling community cycles to the games. Quite a sight. Paul, I think it's time for you to take another trip to Portland. Dinner is on me, my friend.

  12. jack cavanaugh, October 19, 2012 at 1:42 p.m.

    Paul Gardner

    Everyone loves to hate the Sounders, and you seem on the bandwagon.

    If you watched that game and thought the officiating was consistently good, then you are either blinded by your dislike for the team...or just not very bright.

    the first card on Scott 8 minutes in on his first foul was REALLY soft

    we should have had a pk

    Schuler should have been sent off

    fouls went against us all night (as is the case whenever Salazar calls one of our games)

    Salazar has been uncommonly hard on Seattle 3 times this year (usoc final, PDX away)

    this article is garbage

  13. Jeff Madera, October 19, 2012 at 2:36 p.m.

    I think Mr. Gardner simply does not have a clue when it comes to this particular refereee and his inherent bias against the Sounders. Who can forget the US Open Cup final.....called the PK back for M.Gspurning while totally ignoring Jimmy Nielson coming off his line and doing the exact same thing. That was completley biased and it changed the course of the game. The latest fiasco with RLS was just one more in a long line of problems with Salzar (click this link if you want to sign a petition to recall Salazar

    With respect to MLS refereees in general and the need to improve their performance? Let's just mention two other refs.....Mark Geiger (his pathetic performance at the Olympics) as well as Micheal Kennedy failed how many physicals?).....two refs that needlesly insert themselves into matches because they want to be the center of attention. About the only standout ref in the MLS is Baledemore Toledo. Upgrade the refs in MLS? Absoloutly. We need the quality of a Howard Webb in the MLS and we certainly are not getting it with the likes of Salazar and company. Pull your head out Mr. Gardner.....our refs are simply not world class quality and that needs to change immediatly!!!!!

  14. E. P., October 19, 2012 at 3:39 p.m.

    As others have pointed out it's not that Salazar gave the yellow cards to Scott - both were deserved. It's that he didn't call RSL players for similar fouls. watch a replay of the match, the RSL defenders draped all over Ochoa until he was pulled from the game.

    How was Schuler's take down of Montero not a straight red? Montero was denied a clear goal scoring chance.

    The "Salazar sucks" chant started when late in the match an RSL defender came in two footed from behind and dropped Alonso. No ball, all player. The result? A red? A yellow? Heck even a free kick? No, a simple play on. Salazar simply does not call fouls evenly. Look back at the USOC final - 5 yellows for Seattle, 0 for SKC. Same amount of fouls by each team but only Seattle got yellows.

    The hand ball that wasn't called I agree with - but again Salazar called the same thing against the Sounders in the USOC final. So why call it only one way?

    It's fine to call a tight game. In fact I prefer it. As a Sounder fan I hate that the rest of the MLS' answer for Rosales is to foul him instead of match his skill. But call it tight for BOTH teams. Salazar doesn't.

  15. Matt Parrish, October 19, 2012 at 4:28 p.m.

    Personally, I honestly don't believe Salazar had a good match or, at the least, had a poor first half. He was inconsistent in his calls, especially those concerning physical play. The foul he called on Ochoa in the first half when he shouldered Nat Borchers off a 50/50 challenge, in no way rewarded clean physical play. It was a 50/50 challenge within play distance of the ball with Borchers getting the worse of it. Ochoa's arms stayed down and he didn't lower his shoulder, perfectly within the the Laws of the Game. I realize this sounds trivial, but this was early in the match and set the tone for the remainder of his calls. Had Salazar maintained this stance there would be no issue as it would have meant consistency, but on two or three occasions Espindola was shoved in the back, with outstretched arms no less, by Sounders defenders while attempting to play 50/50 balls in the air and nothing was called in addition to long stretches were he would allow hard, physical play and then suddenly whistle a minor challenge.

    I should mention I am a supporter of neither club (Sporting KC actually) but, I knew it would be a good match on paper and it was. That being said, as a fellow referee I watch them as much as the match and his inconsistency in the first half was difficult to watch so it must have been even more so to play with. It was a physical match no doubt, but I was torn on the early ejection. Now I'm not disputing the fouls that resulted in the Scott's ejection. They were legitimate fouls, and I could be wrong, but I do not remember Scott committing another foul in between his first and second cautions. And if he had, I certainly do not remember Salazar addressing the play verbally first. Not only should a referee enforce the laws of the game, but he has to do so within the context of the match. Was Scott's second caution a foul? Definitely, but only 30 minutes in it seems Salazar should have strongly addressed the matter verbally first. Just my opinion.

    I will say that, in most cases, yes I do believe Salazar is one of the better referees in MLS, but I also believe the first half of Wednesday's match was not his best. That being said, if MLS does not fine Schmid for his comments at halftime, it would undermine the whole point of protecting the referee's. FIFA, as a whole, does not tolerate these matters at all, even in cases were the refereeing was abysmal. What's worse is Schmid made these comments, not in a post game press conference, but on live television during the match. The comments weren't vague and hinting at his disappointment, they were outright jabs at Salazar, going so far as to call him by name. Coaches in MLS have been fined for far less and if MLS does not address this issue, what does that say for support of their referees?

  16. Poqui Moqui, October 19, 2012 at 5:01 p.m.

    Just watched the Montero/Schuler replay a dozen times and for the life of me I can't see where Sounder fans want a red card on Schuler. Yes, Schuler puts his hands on Montero's shoulders but then Freddy crumples to the ground like a paper doll. Watch the video again, Freddy doesn't even fight it, he just crumples when he feels the weight on his shoulder.

    How in the world does a hand on a shoulder drop you? It doesn't, all it does is it slows you down. And for that he deserved a yellow card.

  17. Larry Gilmore, October 19, 2012 at 5:15 p.m.

    Here's the thing and I will not be specific about this game or others so you won't think I am whinning.

    Having been a ref for a decade I came to realize there were teams I should just not ref. It was not worth it. Right or wrong a team may feel I cannot do a impartial job calling a match. Even if I would totally disagree, I would respect their wish and not do that game.

    At this point in time, Salazar good ref or bad (and that's a matter of opinion) should simply NOT do anymore Sounders games. He actually has that option, heck we do it for U11's, we certainly could do it for the pro's.

    In the spirit of the game, he should not let himself become such a factor in an outcome. Look this is one of many articles on the ref of a match (both positive and negative) and this is something that NEVER should be happening. To have to write a national article defending a referee or criticising one means the ref became the focal point of the match, not the players.

    I do not care for Salazar's style as a ref and could go on about many things that have built up this situation, but that would be useless. The thing is for the good of the game, turn down future Seattle matches. Stop being the focal point and just be a CR.

  18. Larry Gilmore, October 19, 2012 at 5:20 p.m.


    The reason for the call for a red is last defender. New changes to the laws of the game in regard to fouling a player with only the GK in front of them. It's supposed to be clear goal scoring opportunity and yes, because Montero has scored several times from that distance it could have been a red card.

    It is not how hard the foul is to be a foul, it is that it is a foul. If you claim that schuler's foul shouldn't have been called, then the same would have applied to Scott's first yellow as it was similar, cept for the goal scoring opportunity. So if you believe Schuler shouldn't have gotten a card at all, same should have applied to Scott and now we're back to 11v11...

  19. Jon Deeny, October 19, 2012 at 5:23 p.m.

    Paul- Yuor story missed the entire point:

    It is not about whether Salazar made the correct calls. It was not a handball and an argument can be made for both yellows against Scott. It is all about the inconsistency. He doesnt make the same calls against the Sounders opponents. Plus, as a long time ref, I learned a long time ago that a good ref stays in the background and just does his job. Salazar consistently goes out of his way to insert himself into the game. Sigi's comments about 40k fans knowing his name proves this out. It would be nice if you take the time to respond to some of these comments.

  20. Scott Nelson, October 19, 2012 at 5:24 p.m.

    Paul Gardner has an ongoing ignorance of all things Seattle-related, but I'll give Paul the benefit of the doubt because 1) I agree with the majority of his views about the game and 2)because most of our games probably kick off well past his bed time. My complaint isn't that Zach Scott picked up two first half yellow cards, the second for a foul on a marquee player who deserves protection. My issue is with the way MLS games in general are refereed and specifically with the way games are refereed at Century Link Field. Gardner is totally off base about Seattle's home atmosphere. Loud? Boisterous? Passionate? Without a doubt. Intimidating? Not in the least. Not for Players, and especially NOT for referees. Since coming into the league, Seattle's road record has been stellar. The Sounders have won almost 40% of their road games all time and have lost fewer road games than any team, including the Galaxy, during their 4 year lifespan. This simply blows away every team in the league save the Galaxy. But the Sounders home form over the same time period is unremarkable. They win half their home games, which is a pretty poor record for a team with 4 winning seasons. Refs play a part in this. Perhaps it is a case of "overcompensating" in an attempt to be "unbiased", but visiting teams are welcome to come to the Clink each week and tee off early and often on the Sounders marquee players in a way that Zach Scott was not allowed to do on Morales. Want to "send a message" to Sounders catalyst Mauro Rosales by hammering him into the side boards less than 23 seconds after he comes on as a sub, as San Jose did last year? No problem at all. Need to haul down Montero after he beats the last man, a la Schuler on Wednesday? no problem. Siggi whines a lot about refs, while the Sounders disciplinary record is not great. But when have you ever, and I mean EVER... heard a visiting coach blame the referees for the result or accuse the refs of being influenced by the crowd? Never. Because it never happens. As a fan it's difficult not to be aflicted by some bias but I have never been one to complain about a call simply because it does not go my team's way. But as a season ticket holder from day one I can honestly say that the team has, week in - week out, been the target of more Phantom calls, Dodgy calls and non-calls, and arbitrary decisions at Century Link than any other team I have ever followed in 35+ years of being a fan. The reason I was among the 38,500 fans who were screaming "Salazar Sucks" in unison on Wednesday night was not simply because of the red card and other calls/non calls, or even due to his farcial calls in the US Open Cup Final. For me personally it was the pent up frustration of the 4 seasons of dodgy, substandard, and erratic refereeing that we've been subjected to over and over again. Until the standard of refereeing increases in MLS, I don't think the standard of play will, either.

  21. Donald Beckwith, October 19, 2012 at 5:49 p.m.

    I have seen most Sounder home games this year live and then usually I watch the replay where I can take a look at parts of the game where the stadium will never provide a replay. As a Sounder fan, a rec player, and former referee, I have watched Salazar as much as any other ref and usually try to see it through the eyes of both sides. Looking at the BIG picture over the course of four years, I do not have a problem with Salazar at all. His calls on Scott were, especially on review, the correct call, and Zach Scott has by his action at the game and his tweets since, has admitted it was his bad. He put himself in a poor situation being late on the tackle. If the roles were reversed, especially after the Steve Zakuani injury, Sounder fans would be calling for the head of the opposing player on the basis of what I described above.

    In four years, the only call of Salazars I cannot justify was in this year's Open Cup when he called Michael Gspurning for moving off his line early on the SKC Penalt Kick. Considering that one could make that call on most, if not all PK's, for him to call it at that partcular moment in a final game, was a mistake.

    Finally, the one thing that does bother me as fan is Sigi's complaining. I understand the intent of it just as I understand Sir Alex's intent. Because of their inique status and circumstances, they can get away with it.

    Zach Scott handled himself with dignity and class by walking directly off the field. He didn't spend useless time whining about it as so many others would.

    Every single game at this level has it's share of no-calls that should have and calls that shouldn't have. The Sounders played some of their best soccer of the season that night. I've never seen them fight as hard all year. The cohesian, communication and sheer will and effort earned them the most valuable point of this season. If they play that way the rest of the season, the first round playoff failures will be history.

  22. Guntis Sietins, October 19, 2012 at 9:51 p.m.

    Salazar is the worst piece of crap ref there is in this league. He is either really stupid, prejudice or on the take. How else to you account for his calls and non calls. time to get some real refs in.

  23. Jim Geissman, October 19, 2012 at 9:55 p.m.

    So Salazar had a good game? Great! But it's stupid to generalize one game into American vs British refs, etc.

  24. beautiful game, October 20, 2012 at 11:17 p.m.

    I've seen better high school refs.

  25. Tom Glanz, October 21, 2012 at 4:47 a.m.

    I would ask, where is the author's replies to the second half of comments? To jump on and agree- the issue here (as the coach said in his comments) is not with the Zach Scott red card, but with the consistent bias of Salazar in games with the Sounders. A lot is made of the argument that referees are human and make mistakes; and therefore they are influenced by environment as well. I agree entirely with the previous comments mentioning that coming into the Clink with that kind of bias AGAINST you, as Salazar often does, can possibly lead to an overcompensation. As Seattle fans, I think it is actually right to expect him to not be scheduled for this year's playoffs. This seems easy to comply with, and logical if the goal is a fair game for everyone's sake. If a coach is suspended for speaking out against a referee, why not let the waters settle until he comes to Seattle, or is in center for a big game again. Somewhat of note, he has already been in center for TWO Portland away games and the hotly contested (6 yellows to Sounders, a handball PK similar to the non-call against RSL, and Gspurning called off his line in PK shootout all by Salazar) this year. There's no need to stir the pot further. MLS would be wise to intervene and deny his scheduling this year. This author would be wise to think twice beyond his own bias in the future, and his eagerness to overgeneralize to the refereeing community.

  26. Scottie Sindora, October 21, 2012 at 12:23 p.m.

    Wow, what did Salazar buy you that would warrant such praise? I am a Sounders fan and he has said publicly that he does not like the Sounders, yet the MLS turns a blind eye without any investigation for every call he makes as unbiased. I understand that refs will miss things and I only start to become frustrated when the refs are inconsistent and/or unfair. If Salazar had called the hand ball that occurred about 45 seconds earlier then it wouldn't make a difference. He would've shown that he has no bias. Unfortunately, he blatantly picks and chooses what he wishes to call. This not only makes him a poor ref, but it raises questions of the integrity of the league as well.

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