Walton's fantasy referee world: No guesswork, please.

By Paul Gardner

Michael Bradley has had his say about MLS refereeing. He doesn’t think much of it, and says that making it better should be the league’s No. 1 priority. We, and Bradley, await the inevitable fine.

Meanwhile, we’ve heard some comments from Peter Walton, the English ex-referee who was brought in two years ago to do exactly what Bradley evidently believes has not been done: improve the refereeing.

Bradley’s harsh words, though directed at MLS refereeing in general, were specifically linked to the officiating in the recent Toronto-Kansas City game.

During that game, there was one particularly horrible call by referee Ted Unkel -- a non-call, when he failed to penalize KC’s Aurelien Collin for a blatant tactical foul on Gilberto. But one call is hardly enough to justify Bradley’s overall panning of MLS referees, with which I strongly disagree.

At the same time I find it impossible to support Walton. Given the opportunity to discuss matters on the ESPN FC show, Walton proceeded to make an ass of himself by choosing to defend the indefensible, and to insist that Unkel’s rotten non-call was the correct call.

As soon as Walton announced that he was not sure there was any contact on the play, the three panel members burst into riotous derision. Absolutely the correct response to such an absurd statement.

That Walton should support those whom he likes to call “my referees” is understandable, but that he is unable to tell when he’s backing a loser suggests extraordinary naivete.

And not just naivete, but also an unacceptable confusion about just how referees are expected to make their calls. The key word that Walton used in attempting to defend Unkel’s non-call was “guess.” “Part of the learning curve for referees is ‘don’t guess,’” says Walton. “You don’t want referees to guess, you don’t want officials to guess. You want to make sure they’re certain.”

All of which, while superficially unarguable, is in fact totally specious. Walton is insisting on cast-iron 100% certainty, and that is simply not a practical aim in soccer.

No, referees should not be guessing -- but they are obliged, repeatedly, to use their own judgment to make calls. The rulebook, of course, does not use the word “guess.” But -- by my unofficial count -- it contains seven instances where the referee is instructed to use his “opinion” or his “discretion” in making calls. There are 11 more such instances in the “Interpretation” section.

These judgment calls are always based on something less than total certainty. They inevitably involve an intelligent estimation of probabilities, and a greater or lesser degree of guesswork. But with a referee, it is informed guesswork, based on experience and a referee’s “feel” for the game. It is not, as Walton implies, random, totally blind -- and therefore almost certain to be inaccurate -- guesswork.

In the case of the Collin foul: According to Walton, Unkel made the correct non-call because it was not clear that there was any contact. To assume there was contact would have been guessing.

The reasoning is not sustainable. If the matter of contact is unclear, then how could Unkel be certain that there was no contact? He couldn’t, so his non-call is every bit as much a guess as if he had made the call.

In these cases, we expect the referees to then apply their informed judgment (which Walton would call guesswork) to sort out the call. In the Collin case everything points to a tactical foul by Collin.

But Walton’s confused ideas about guesswork and his impractical belief in absolute certainty ensure that the wrong call will be made.

They also ensure that a destructive foul by a defender will go unpunished. This is highly worrying, because it exactly typifies English-style, pro-defense, negative refereeing, something that MLS decidedly does not need.

Unkel’s non-call does not stand alone as an example of that unpleasant trend. This past weekend there were two examples in MLS games where palpable penalty kicks were not called. There is no possible excuse for referee Allen Chapman’s non-call after Red Bulls’ defender Ibrahim Sekagya had blatantly tripped New England’s Charlie Davies. If Walton insists on certainty, it was all here. Chapman ignored all of it and instead invented a diving call against Davies. Dreadful refereeing.

Things were less clear-cut in the 66th minute of the Galaxy- Timbers game. The Timbers’ Kalif Alhassan, being chased and harried by Robbie Rogers, went down in the penalty area. No call from referee Kevin Stott. For sure, any contact was not easy to see, so Stott guessed ... that there hadn’t been any, even though everything indicated that Rodgers had clipped Alhassan’s heel.

In both cases, the defense prospers, the attacker is penalized. Is that Walton’s idea of improving the performance of MLS referees?
21 comments about "Walton's fantasy referee world: No guesswork, please. ".
  1. Jogo Bonito, August 4, 2014 at 9 a.m.

    It's amazing that's 2014 and we still think that we need to "do what the British are doing" or "bring over a Brit" to educate us on a game that we arguably play better than they do. OK, they have a wonderful league that blows our's away in nearly every category, but our national team is every bit as "good" as theirs is. I think we certainly play a better style of play than what I saw from the full England squad and their youth national teams and academy teams I've watch recently. Yet we still bring over coaches, commentators, studio hosts, players and referee "experts" to educate us stupid Americans on how to play and watch soccer. It's embarrassing that we lack the collective self esteem to do these things ourself. This guy Walton comes over here and gets this huge salary and does absolutely nothing to improve our referees. His behavior on ESPN FC proved to me that he's a joke. He's a just another Brit that is convinced that his opinion is worth far more than any stupid American's opinion. We have many great soccer minds here in the US. While some (like PG) may even be from the UK or anywhere else originally, they know the state of the game here and understand exactly what needs to be done. Many are born here, played little league baseball and youth soccer growing up and followed their passion for soccer into a soccer career. Sadly, many of the people I know that have this knowledge have given up on the game or are currently in soccer jobs here in the US where they have to answer to a Brit that is completely convinced he's correct about everything. Much like this guy Walton.

  2. Mario Cesarone, August 4, 2014 at 9:02 a.m.

    The discussion of referees will go on 'ad nauseum'. While I sit at home watching the game I know within 6 seconds if the call was good or not through the instant replay provided by the broadcaster. Lets get real and use this technology. Oh, by the way, I never heard of any soccer fan going to a soccer game to watch the 'humanity' of a referee performance.

  3. Gus Keri, August 4, 2014 at 10:37 a.m.

    Obviously, using replay would not have helped to resolve this issue because Walton saw the video many times and still doesn't believe there was a foul. Walton maybe should consider few things: How is there "no contact" when both players lost balance? If it was a dive, only one player would lose balance. The second question: why would the attacker dive when he has a free run at goal from outside the PK area? If he wants to dive, at least he would've wait until he is in the PK area.

  4. Santiago 1314, August 4, 2014 at 11:24 a.m.

    Refs Stink it up in Every Liga, in Every part of the World...we are getting close to the Tech, Where we can eliminate Human Error... Thru RF chips, OffSides will be taken out of the hands of the Ref... Don't Believe me??? NFL is Trying RF Chips in Shoulder pads...They will provide LIVE Stats on, Acceleration, Distance Covered, etc.. Etc.. Most of the Pro Soccer shoes have the "MiCoach" Technology built-in..//Off-site Booth Revue for Diving, PKs, Corners...I think that is what MLB does.//. Free Un-limited...On-the-Fly Substitutions via Chip, (No more Concussion Conflicts)(No Stoppage Delay to Hold up Silly Sign Board)...//Trainers on the Field DURING PLAY for Injuries (Aussie/Rugby Style)(No Stoppage for Rollers/Divers)... And make the Darn Goal, 1 foot Wider and One Foot Taller(seems like Every Game has ONE Ball off the Post)... That will Get one Goal per Game Increase,... Wouldn't we all like to see more Goals// Less Bunker Bus???

  5. ROBERT BOND, August 4, 2014 at 11:41 a.m.

    why not just add another field ref?

  6. John Soares, August 4, 2014 at 12:55 p.m.

    Good call Santiago, but you left out one thing. Let' use robots instead of humans (players). They can be programmed to play a certain way.... no more conflicts. Probably could do without a need for refs at all.

  7. Kent James, August 4, 2014 at 1:55 p.m.

    One issue that should be emphasized is that even good refs make bad calls, so criticizing a referee decision should not be seen as criticism of the ref (though it usually is). And one bad call does not make one a bad ref. That being said, directors of referees (and referees themselves) should stop insisting they are always right, for fear that admitting one error will open a floodgate of disrespect. Refs are human, and we (and they) should stop pretending they can't make mistakes. Putting less pressure on refs to always be right should make it easier to correct bad calls (via video replay or after the game action). Gardner objects to refs "guessing", but then seems to confuse that with having an opinion. Yes, refs must make judgments where they may not have all the facts (they may not have the best angle, e.g.). That's different than a guess. A guess is when the ref did NOT see what happened (was shielded at the key moment); should the ref guess as to what happened from the reaction of the players around the event? Given the players' attempts to "game" the ref, or simulate being fouled, a ref can look like a fool for making such a guess. So in my book, a ref should only call what he sees, never guess. It is understandable to not call something that was not seen, but harder to justify calling something that did not exist.

  8. Santiago 1314, August 4, 2014 at 2:27 p.m.

    John, Didn't you see the Commercial, from the World Cup... The Robots ARE Coming!!! Hahaha... Unfortunately Adding a Two Person System just adds more confusion..."Too many Chef's in the Kitchen" (yeah, I've Ref'd a lot of H.S.)...Like most Sports, You can Call a Foul on Every Play... And we don't want to kill the Flow of play... But, Top Leagues/WC are going to have Less and Less excuses to evade the Inevitable... More Replay, and More Goal Line type Technology...

  9. soccer talk, August 4, 2014 at 2:43 p.m.

    Its a game! Refereeing is just part of the human element just as the players. Errors will be made and hine sight yahoos will blame the officials for most of the downfalls for their beloved team,

  10. Santiago 1314, August 4, 2014 at 3:02 p.m.

    "IT'S A GAME "... 1.5 BILLION from Adidas, Doesn't sound like a "Game" to me... But if we Don't Protect the Few "Gifted" Players that we have left, we will end up with another Series of World Cups of Mediocre Talent and Weak, Mundane Play... But Isn't PARITY Exciting???

  11. ROBERT BOND, August 4, 2014 at 3:32 p.m.

    extra refs 1 of the few things US sports got right....

  12. Mario Cesarone, August 4, 2014 at 3:54 p.m.

    Soccertalk, when was the last time you went to a soccer game to see the referee's performance? Mr Bond, why not 2 more refs, maybe three! See those backline refs in action at Champions League games.
    Mr Fonseca, how many years have you been hearing the same refs are terrible and make too many mistakes. Personally after 50 years I'm pretty much sick of it.
    Santiago, tech is the way forward as soon as the 75 year old dinosaurs get out of FIFA.

  13. Santiago 1314, August 4, 2014 at 4:36 p.m.

    @Robert... "REPLAY" " 1 of the few things US sports got right"... @Mario, We will be able to call it Tiki TECHi... Jajaja

  14. John Soares, August 4, 2014 at 5:23 p.m.

    Ric, You keep asking the same question; "Who has refereed a game before". While I have 2000+-. That does not make me the all knowing. Even I made a mistake once, it was 1998, no 99.
    Point being, most top coaches were not great players. You don't need on field experience to know the game. Having said that I do believe refs need to tighten up and make it a better game. There seems to be a hesitation, almost fear of making the call. One has to wonder if the MLS is some how behind it? Many of those "missed" calls do seem pretty obvious!?

  15. Kent James, August 4, 2014 at 10:43 p.m.

    While there are certain fouls that are judgment calls, and may be hard to call, there are two calls that are easy to spot, disrespect the game, and yet are rarely called. The first is shirt (or shorts) grabbing. I am so tired of every close contact between two players involve them grabbing each other's clothes. This has no part in the game; it is never an accident. And unfortunately, what often happens is one person grabs, the ref does nothing, and so the other grabs in self-defense. I would like to see the refs call the foul as soon as the first player grabbed the shirt (unless there was a clear advantage). Yes, initially it would result in a lot of fouls, but if enforced consistently, it would stop pretty quickly (especially if cards were issued for blatant grabs or persistent infringement). The second, is stopping free kicks by standing in front of the ball. At this point, it seems that referees allow the defense to force a ceremonial free kick pretty much whenever they want; in many cases, the defenders stand there and ask the referee to stop the play until a whistle, and the ref complies! It's as if the players think the defenders have the right to that option! The rules state that failing to retreat 10 yds is an automatic yellow card. Now I get that if someone is 9 yds away, they shouldn't be carded. But less than five should be simple. If everyone stopping less than 5 yds from a free kick got a card, it would stop, and we could get the game on more quickly. In both cases, the players breaking the rules are gaining an advantage due to their actions, and the refs do nothing. And these are cut and dried cases, not the difficult calls. I think enforcing these rules would not lead to more whistles (except maybe initially); along the 'broken windows' theory of policing, enforcing the obvious laws creates a more law-abiding environment where you need less of a police (or referee) presence.

  16. Albert Harris, August 5, 2014 at 9:44 a.m.

    Kent's suggestions seem sound and reasonable. I'm pretty sure that means their chance of being implemented is probably about the same as my freezer achieving absolute zero. As soon as any ref tries this in MLS or in the EPL, the coaches will go berserk and accuse the ref of trying to make himself 'bigger than the game'. In England, I'm pretty sure that it would be Jose leading the charge although with Van Gaal entering the league, he could be facing some competition for "whiner in chief". Time will tell.

  17. Nick Cowell, August 5, 2014 at 2:14 p.m.

    European games now have 6 referees available:
    1 referee
    2 sideline ARs
    1 technical area "4th official"
    2 goal-line assistants

    Surely we can put these 6 people to better use? We have goal-line technology now so we can take away the goal-line mutes & use them elsewhere.

    In basketball, on a court that is 94' x 50' (4,700 sq ft), we have 3 referees. This seems to work quite well. Sure, mistakes are still made, but very little is "missed".

    We are asking 1 center ref to cover 360' x 225' (81,000 sq. ft.). This is an area 17 times bigger than a basketball court!

    A few years ago, the Brazilian league experimented with 2 center referees + 2 sideline ARs. It seemed like neither center ref had to run very much at all. The refs were always on top of the play. This could also mean that we could raise the retirement age for officials.

    Having 3 refs circulating like in basketball would mean that you wouldn't get one ref "assigned" to a half (as in 2-person system).

    The game would speed up at restarts. For example, ref 1 gets on the ball, ref 2 sets the wall with magic foam, ref 3 gets on the end line. AR1 watches for offside. AR2 is on half way line in position for counter attack & offside up the other end.

    Throw-ins would be taken from the correct place (this used to be a point of emphasis but recently it seems that players can gain at least 10 yards, especially in their own ½). Ref 1 could stand on the sideline & player would have to take throw-in from behind that point (stops encroachment).

    What seems totally logical from my point if view will probably take FIFA 50 years to come to terms with!!

  18. R2 Dad, August 6, 2014 at 1:11 a.m.

    Walton is actually correct in stressing that referees should not be guessing, estimating or supposing. However, in order to do that the referee positioning has to be much better than we currently get, so that they can see every play (or their AR has a line on those he doesn't). Maybe Walton wouldn't have been ripped so much if he had explained it that way, and stressed that positioning needs to be worked on in order to get refereeing to the level we require.

  19. Rick Estupinan, August 6, 2014 at 4:02 p.m.

    The 2002 World Cup was the best for the USA . We could have been in the quarter finals if it hadn't been for that stupid , hard headed , blind , idiot referee , who did not give the US a penalty kick , after a German player stop the ball with his arm from going into the net .

  20. Rick Estupinan, August 6, 2014 at 4:16 p.m.

    Currently logged in as Ricardo Estupinan (logout)
    Ricardo Estupinan posted moments ago Ricardo Estupinan
    I do remember Tony trying to become a kicker for some NLS team ,( weather he was successful ,I don't know ) , but I did not know that after leaving Football / Soccer , he had a negative view of the sport .
    Ricardo Estupinan posted 14 minutes ago deleteRicardo Estupinan
    like Tony says , it will be an open game with a lot of scoring possibilities , ( for the German team that is ) , but who cares , the locals will learn from the experience , besides the embarrassment .
    Ricardo Estupinan posted 241 days ago Ricardo Estupinan
    In Football , the only teams I follow are the Seattle SOUNDERS , the Portland TIMBERS and the NY , RED BULLS . Thank you.

  21. beautiful game, August 8, 2014 at 11:15 p.m.

    Walton is a joke and the MLS has no gonads to can him and replace him with a qualified American head of referees; there are plenty of them. Unbelievable how many blatant fouls go unpunished incidental to an advantage. There are too many refs that can't interpret the laws of the game and Dalton is center of gravity.

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