As expected: permissive, English-style refereeing comes to MLS

By Paul Gardner

Diego Costa, the man Chelsea hopes will solve its goalscoring problems, got off to a great start in his debut game on Monday, scoring after just 17 minutes.

Thirteen minutes later he managed another first in his Chelsea career: His first yellow card for diving. The call, like so many of these calls, was utterly wrong. Costa was clearly tripped by Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton. Referee Michael Oliver made a mess of it -- or maybe he simply wanted to dodge giving a penalty kick to Chelsea and a red card to Heaton. Instead he gave a free kick to Burnley and a yellow card to Costa.

This was Oliver, considered a rising star among English officials. Yet, like all the English referees, he has allowed himself to be caught up in that country’s anti-diving witch hunt. He is out there actively looking for diving -- so, of course, he finds it, even when -- especially when -- it isn’t there. That is English refereeing, and it is frankly pathetic.

None of that would be of importance to this country -- were it not for Peter Walton, the Englishman who was ill-advisedly appointed to oversee refereeing in MLS. Walton, as I pointed out vociferously at the time of his appointment in 2012, brings English thinking to American refereeing. Logically -- Walton’s experience is narrowly limited to England.

During a long interview with Walton last year, I asked him for his views on diving. No hesitation -- he replied at once: “The scourge of the modern game.”

That is already a ridiculously exaggerated view of things, but it is made much, much worse because the English have somehow contrived to turn diving into a cardinal sin, a heinous offense with moral implications. For the English, diving has become an obsession, and a fit target for a witch-hunt.

A situation that puts Walton and his like firmly on the side of righteousness, while non-believers like me are made to feel downright wicked.

So Walton has brought his anti-diving zealotry to the USA. I have already commented on the dreadful call made recently by referee Allen Chapman -- a splendid example of just how far astray zealotry can lead a referee. New England’s Charlie Davies was clearly fouled by the Red Bulls’ Ibrahim Sekagya. New England should have had a penalty kick. From Chapman they got nothing -- apart from the yellow to Davies for diving.

No amount of sophistry can turn that into anything other than a thoroughly rotten call. Yet, to my despair, PRO’s Paul Rejer has used his online “Play of the Week” column to offer what purports to be a reasonable explanation of why the call wasn’t really bad after all, and why, if there was anything wrong with it, that was all Davies’ fault, not the referee’s.

I despair because I am an admirer of Rejer’s columns and give him plenty of credit for being willing to criticize MLS referees when they make errors. Yet here, he has made a lamentable error of judgment in attempting to justify referee Chapman’s disastrous call. (It is, significantly, precisely the same lack of judgment that Walton recently displayed when trying to excuse another terrible call to ESPN.FC’s television panel. He was, very properly, roundly ridiculed by the panel).

Inevitably, Rejer’s reasoning makes no sense. He starts off by undermining his own argument: He admits that, yes, there was a foul and that, yes, New England should have had a penalty kick. Which doesn’t leave him much to discuss, does it? But Rejer has plenty more to say -- about how sneaky and cheating Davies is and how difficult Chapman’s job is.

Taking the second point first -- of course the referee’s job is a difficult one, I have no argument with that. But that cannot be used as an excuse when a referee makes a clamorously bad call, ignores a blatant foul and then invents another foul that simply isn’t there.

But it is in his assessment of Davies’ action that Rejer really lets himself down. The crux of the matter, according to Rejer, is that although Rejer was fouled he didn’t fall down correctly.

This is Rejer: “Davies then propelled himself in the air in a very unnatural manner and proceeded to roll around on the ground.”

There are two things wrong here. Firstly: Davies was fouled -- Rejer admits that. So why should it matter how Davies falls? The foul has already been committed. It should have been called. Secondly: Rejer’s description of Davies’s fall is nonsensical. What, exactly (and I mean exactly ) is “an unnatural manner”? Who defines that? Is it written down anywhere? (It’s certainly not in the rulebook).

Perhaps PRO has published “The Peter Walton Guide to Falling Down Properly”? I haven’t seen it.

Davies’ tumble may not be to Rejer’s liking, but there is nothing inherently wrong with it. When a player is moving rapidly, when, as here, he is in the middle of rapid leg movement designed to fool an opponent -- yes, maybe that’s “unnatural” by normal walking or running procedures, but it’s intended to be different, he’s trying to deceive the defender, for heaven’s sake -- when that movement is interrupted by a defender sticking his leg (his whole leg, be it noted, not just his foot) in front of the moving player ... well, what is the “natural” way of dealing with that? It won’t, for sure, be quite as straightforward, as “natural,” as Rejer imagines.

Davies, already cutting sharply to his left, sees a leg stuck out -- there’s no way he’s going to avoid that, there’s going to be contact. So -- is Davies allowed to jump up in order to minimize the contact? If he does jump up, surely that is going to affect how he goes to ground?

You would think so. Rejer does not think so. But, just in case the unnatural tag won’t stick, Rejer says that Davies then “proceeded to roll around on the ground.” Something else that needs defining. How many rolls is too many? Davies hits the ground, his impetus means that one roll cannot be avoided. But Davies makes a second roll. And why should he not do that?

Just two rolls, then, but that is one too many for Rejer, and apparently for Chapman too, who “somewhat understandably” says Rejer, “cautions him for simulation.” Somewhat understandably? How odd. Because Rejer assures us that, when it comes to awarding a penalty kick, a referee has to be “100% convinced” -- but evidently much less stringent criteria apply to simulation, in that case a “somewhat” will do. Double standards would you say?

According to Rejer, Davies was definitely trying to convince Chapman to award a penalty kick, but “his theatrics convinced the referee that this was an act of simulation and not a genuine PK.”

We then have Rejer’s considered opinion of the whole incident: “You can argue that this was an error by the referee but in this case the player only has himself to blame.”

There you have it. Honest referee Allen Chapman, trying hard to do a difficult job, is exonerated. It’s all the fault of the devious Charlie Davies.

Oh, come on. Enough of this nonsense. It is getting silly, and it is silly.

It is silly because a referee has gone into the game with the thought of diving preying on his mind. Chapman, whom I’ve seen refereeing quite a few times, is not a favorite of mine - too indulgent to fouling. That, no doubt, will have endeared him to Walton.

And I think that is where we can put the blame for this horrible call. This was not Chapman’s call. This was Peter Walton’s. Paul Rejer tells us that this was a case of “the referee earnestly carrying out one of the season’s initiatives by punishing an act of simulation …"

Ahah! A “season’s initiative ...” Now that does interest me. So, before this season began, MLS referees were evidently given guidance -- or initiatives -- as to how to referee games. That guidance can only come from Walton. Knowing that Walton is a self-righteous warrior who fights the good fight against simulation, I (speaking from the depths of my contrarian wickedness) would expect nothing less than an order to clamp down on simulation and -- as in this case -- anything that might just look like simulation.

Rejer’s reference to the “season’s initiative” is virtually an aside in his column. Another aside -- this time in an interview with World Cup referee Mark Geiger -- contained a further revelation about the workings of MLS referees.

“I may call a few more fouls in an international game than worry about promoting the game-flow model they want in MLS,” said Geiger. This game-flow model, Geiger explained, involves not calling what are regarded as “trifling” fouls. Let ‘em play, as the saying goes. A saying that comes perilously close to Let ‘em foul.

I’ll have more to say about the season initiatives and the game-flow model in another column. But one conclusion is already inescapable. The obsession with diving (as evidenced by the Costa incident cited at the head of this column), and the determination to allow “trifling” fouls (yet again, we are in need of a definition) are both notions that flourish in the EPL -- where Walton used to referee.

English referees have a formidable record of congratulating themselves on being the world’s best. It is an opinion that is not widely shared, because English refereeing is so obviously permissive. Mike Riley, the head of referees in England, thinks it is a good thing that the average number of fouls per game in England is around 23, considerably lower than anywhere else in the world. Of course, what he means is that only 23 fouls are actually called.

But the bigger problem with these MLS “initiatives” is not their English origin, but that they are refereeing modes that favor defenders and -- a crucial point, I would have thought -- work against any idea of “protecting players,” a worthy aim that MLS has promoted in the past. That ought to worry the MLS top brass. Does it, I wonder?

23 comments about "As expected: permissive, English-style refereeing comes to MLS".
  1. Kevin Kelly, August 19, 2014 at 7:13 p.m.

    While all of that may be true, please write an column on Costa's fouling after a few more matches in the Premier League. I have never seen a forward that fouls as much as that guy (well maybe Shearer). When did straight-arming a defender like an NFL running back become legal.

  2. John Soares, August 19, 2014 at 7:45 p.m.

    While all that may be true..... wait somebody else said that...... Paul, while correct, it sure took a lot of words to say it. The SCOURGE of the modern game is NOT diving but the fake and or exaggerated injuries. If there was ever a time for review boards, this is it. Not only an embarrassment for the sport and annoyance for the fans BUT a joke for all non soccer fans. As to the issue/action at hand, just because a player falls does not mean a foul or diving was involved or needs to be called... just let it go. Even if you the ref "suspects" intention on the part of the attacking player. Doing nothing will send the message that you (the ref) won't fall for it.

  3. Allan Lindh, August 19, 2014 at 8:10 p.m.

    Right on, Mr. Gardner. Diving should not be called by the ref, in my opinion, unless it is patently obvious. He should be concerned with the play of the game, not simulation. Diving should be called, and punished severely, by a review board with the benefit of slow motion reviews. And then 1 game suspensions should be given. Of course the same review board should also be policing the gratuitous violence that plaques the English and US game, and that should not be influenced by whether the ref saw it or not. Penalize the thugs right out of the game -- 1 game suspension for the first, 2 for the 2nd, 4 games for the 3rd, etc.

    Referees should be conservative, (don't give half penalties, or half red cards) but for cheats and criminals, a video review board should lower the boom. This also avoids the farce of matches being spoiled when they are played 10 against 11.

  4. James Buckner, August 19, 2014 at 8:13 p.m.

    Is it really worth these persistent long tirades?

  5. Woody Woodpecker, August 19, 2014 at 9:59 p.m.

    All I can say is the arrogance of upper management who run the referee program in this country is just that. Stand offish, and holier than thou. And it shows at all levels of the game in this country. I know the referee is not there to be your drinking mate, but a few pleasantries goes along way.

  6. John Soares, August 19, 2014 at 11:08 p.m.

    James, WITH ALL DUE RESPECT. YES it is. Soccer is a beautiful game/sport.
    One of the "uglier" aspects (forget corruption..... for now) is the "FAKE" injuries. Players rolling on the ground as if with broken legs and "miraculously" up and running within seconds. It has to stop. Or the game becomes a joke. The Ref does not have the ability/power to decide on the spot if the injury is fake . A panel could/SHOULD. Great deterrent!?!?!?

  7. R2 Dad, August 19, 2014 at 11:56 p.m.

    non-penalty clip here:
    Ref was correct to play advantage, but then he's supposed to go back and card at the next dead ball. Perhaps Chapman had a stroke on one side and was unable to pull a card? I am in the unfamiliar position of agreeing 100% with PG here. The insistence on carding a dive vs ignoring and letting play go on: 1) is disruptive to play, and more importantly 2) puts the onus on the referee to distinguish not just between foul and no foul, but between the "quality" of the dives.

  8. Kent James, August 20, 2014 at 12:19 a.m.

    While PG is right the Rejer defense of this specific call is wrong, PG's description actually explains what Rejer should have said. PG's snarky (albeit funny) call for "The Peter Walton Guide to Falling Down Properly" belies his purposeful obtuseness. When you are tripped, there is a natural way to fall (gravity pulls you down, regardless of what you do to stop it). The deceptive part of this foul was that Davies goes up when he was "tripped", which is not natural; in this case, as PG pointed out, Davies is anticipating the contact and jumping over the defender's leg to (understandably) minimize the contact, and as a result, the contact was minimal. But, as both Rejer and PG agree, it was a clear penalty. Rejer's defense of the referee should have pointed out that in this case, it was not so much a trip, as an attempt to trip (since Davis successfully avoided most of the contact), but that is still a foul (but much harder to call for the ref, because it is more subtle). Rejer's defense would have been valid had Davis thrown his arms out, cried out, and rolled over and over (as many players do), but in this case, Davis did none of that, so Davis is blameless.

  9. Kent James, August 20, 2014 at 12:29 a.m.

    While PG is right in this case, he should recognize that in the bigger picture, diving does make it harder to make the calls he wants made (refs, like most people, don't like to look foolish). And diving, unlike other fouls, should be (theoretically) easy to eliminate, because diving is a conscious effort to cheat, whereas most fouls were not intended as fouls (a mistimed tackle, e.g.). So a yellow card for diving is appropriate, because it should make that conscious decision less likely to be made by raising the cost. On the other hand, PG is exactly right, that just as a ref should be 100% sure before calling a PK, he should be 100% sure before issuing a yellow card for diving. But this problem is exacerbated by people who argue that "if it's not a PK, it must be a yellow card for diving". In reality, there is (and should be) a large grey area, where the ref is not sure enough to call it a PK, but nor is he sure that it was a dive. In that case, it should be a no call; we don't live in a black and white world.
    And John, you are right that this is an important topic (especially since simulation leads to more/harsher fouls), and Allan, your suggestion is great; the authorities should use video evidence to punish both simulators and thugs whose work referees miss. We need to clean up the game by eliminating (okay, reducing) dangerous fouls and simulation....

  10. Amos Annan, August 20, 2014 at 7:51 a.m.

    Sorry, DIVING is the biggest problem in soccer and they SHOULD have a witch hunt on this. Even with the occasional mistake.

  11. Amos Annan, August 20, 2014 at 7:53 a.m.

    The biggest problem with Soccer America is Paul Gardner.

  12. Dan Brown, August 20, 2014 at 8:40 a.m.

    Yet another mindless anti English rant from sad sap Gardner based on one refereeing decision in one game.

    And actually, though it was not a dive as such and a penalty, Costa clearly embellished his fall and exaggerated the contact which no doubt is what prompted the Ref to make the decision he did.

    I have no idea why Gardner is given a platform to voice his brand of bigotry.
    His articles are hysterical and uninformed for the most part while just
    full of hateful bias bile on others.

  13. Tim Gibson, August 20, 2014 at 9:31 a.m.

    I needed a coffee break after reading this manifesto!...Yea, diving sux, we all know it and the Brits version of the rule book seems to have 2 less rules in it as well.
    IMHO, the 1st yellow card issued in matches has lost it's weight over the years. I think it needs to further punish the team & not be just a warning to the individual player. This is not a suggestion, but a comparison in that perhaps the 1st yellow should take the player off the field for 3 minutes & the team plays with less men. Perhaps then, if the 1st yelow is weighted with a true penalty to the team, the team would self-govern their mates from dumb fouls to begin with. Then perhaps we can really see what "Let'em Play" Soccer is all about.

  14. Gunther Charles, August 20, 2014 at 11:48 a.m.

    Add a couple of game suspension beside the yellow or red card, that will do more good then we may think. Caught for diving start with one game suspension, twice two games, third time - out for three. Managers/Coaches will get the drift too and stop practicing the "dive act". Just my opinion.

  15. beautiful game, August 20, 2014 at 12:53 p.m.

    Diving should be a two game suspension after review; and if the referee calls it, it should be a red card, reviewed post match. These calls deserve a harsh measure of punishment. Also, it is imperative that the head of officiating in all leagues review questionable referee decisions, and have these refs undergo a corrective seminar in order to comply with the laws of the game. Too many of them don't step off the 10 YARDS on free kicks, or are clueless on free kick measures inside the penalty box. The game needs positive tinkering; i.e,, daylight between opposing players for an off-side, and sanctions for picking up the ball which is a delay of game under the laws of the game. There are too many petty violations which the refs disregard and the game suffers.

  16. Phil Hardy, August 20, 2014 at 1:47 p.m.

    If you want to make an omelette you need to break a few eggs.

    When players learn the risks to diving outweigh the benefits, the problem will be solved.

    Refs should also book any nancy boy who rolls over more than two times upon being fouled. Even the women don't do this in their game.

  17. Santiago 1314, August 20, 2014 at 2:10 p.m.

    @Phil... Yellow Card to you for your Sexist Comment...

  18. Rick Estupinan, August 20, 2014 at 2:22 p.m.

    Thank god there is finally a referee that is going to be in the look out for those diving in such a shame full manner,that makes Football/Soccer,look like a game for little girls.I saw this yesterday in"Madrid" Vs "A.Madrid",in the latter team,the dives were so obvious,that I was screaming at the ref,.Also Paul,this is a men's game,and pushing and shoving any were in the pitch,specially in the penalty area,during set pieces,should be allowed.This is normal,nothing more than fighting for the ball,and if there is no visible sign of a player trying to hurt the opponent,there is no reason for the referee to stop the action or to disallowed a goal.Some of this guys are so professional in doing this,that they can,with help from the crowd,fool the officials very easy.

  19. Rick Estupinan, August 20, 2014 at 2:44 p.m.

    Talking about the diving issue,I must add that a referee,after seen a player falling,faking a foul,the ref should run in the direction of that player and let him know,in a sternly manner that the next time he acts this way,he will be out of the game.By showing the yellow card to a player,the first time he does this,would affect the game,because now this player is afraid to play what would be for any player,normally hard.

  20. Santiago 1314, August 20, 2014 at 2:44 p.m.

    @Rick... And Yellow Card to you also, for your Sexist Comment

  21. Saverio Colantonio, August 20, 2014 at 4:32 p.m.

    I agree with John Soares. "The SCOURGE of the modern game is NOT diving but the fake and or exaggerated injuries." I used to be incensed with diving and came to the realization of how is it any different from a Center Back chopping down a forward with a double sided axe--the professional foul? Deal with these sans-skate hockey players who are disguised as footballers and then maybe we will see less diving

  22. Kent James, August 21, 2014 at 11:57 p.m.

    Rick, you can fight for the ball without pushing and shoving (or shirt-pulling). Playing hard is different than playing dirty, and players should not succumb to the temptation to do whatever the ref will let them get away with (which is the current sad state of affairs in the box during corner kicks). A player who reads the play and goes to the ball early and hard, and stays strong under pressure, can play effectively without having to foul. But I do agree with your recommendation to punish diving for making the game look's sad when the "Minions" depiction of soccer (and diving) rings so true ( And Santiago, while I did not realize comments could incur cards, I like the thought...

  23. David V, August 29, 2014 at 8:32 p.m.

    Kevin K...Costa belongs in EPL, it's a league that has allowed fouling as the's where Costa belongs... I hope Costa becomes an England Citizen... to bizarre to have a brazilian thug who lives in England acting like he is a Spaniard... Del Bosque, get rid of him... England will take him if he can get citizenship

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