There ought to be an acceptable explanation of this ... though I cannot, at the moment, think of one. Why on earth should there be a failure to see that, when soccer comes down to the really big games -- I mean the knockout games, the stage which MLS has reached -- the referee takes on a new and considerably magnified importance?
Decisions in these key games carry much more weight than in regular season games, when hard-done-by teams can console themselves with the old saw that things equal out over the course of the season.
In knockout games there is no long season, not even a tomorrow. No long-term balance. Decisions strike with chilling suddenness and brutal effect. Whether you like it or not, whether he likes it or not, the referee plays a greatly enhanced role. Inevitably.
So you would expect considerable interest in these referee appointments. Firstly, that they would be made with care. You might also expect that the referees chosen would be particularly diligent in their refereeing (though that is a canard, which I, for one, cannot accept, as it implies their regular refereeing is something less than it might be).
You would also expect these appointments to be of considerable interest to the coaches and the players involved, who know, from experience, the strengths and weaknesses and foibles of the various referees.
And I think you can assume that, to a large extent, those expectations would be met. But there is one more factor that, to my surprise -- shock even -- was highly noticeable by its absence from last weekend’s MLS playoffs.
I mean TV coverage of this vital issue. The ESPN telecast from Seattle made no mention of referee Kevin Stott in its pre-game show -- in fact it wasn’t until minute 27 of the game that play-by-play man Adrian Healey actually used Stott’s name -- almost as an aside.
In the second half of the game, referee Stott became a massive influence of the game because of his failure to eject Seattle’s Zach Scott. Stott had yellow-carded Scott in the 37th minute, yet, despite four second-half physical fouls by Scott, he never got the second yellow. What he did get, after the last of those fouls in the 91st minute, was a short talking-to from Stott. That was all.
Two of Scott’s second-half fouls were arguably worth a yellow card. Anyway, Scott ended up with five physical fouls against his name, which surely ought to have been enough to earn him a caution for persistent fouling.
This was all pretty remarkable -- but even more remarkable was the fact that Seattle coach Sigi Schmid admitted after the game that Scott was lucky to stay on the field. So what was going on here? Stott is known as a referee who does not use the red card very often (he has given three reds this season; last season he gave only one) ... but something beyond his normal stinginess seemed to be at work here. Was he trying keep 22 players on the field? Or to ensure there were no suspensions in the return game? None of this, no talk of Stott’s characteristics as a referee or of his stats, was even mentioned on the ESPN telecast.
Things were no better on the NBC telecast of the Red Bulls-New England game. Referee Allen Chapman did get named pre-game, but only to mention that he was in charge of the game. No information about him was forthcoming.
This bordered on the incredible. For this reason: Chapman should never have been refereeing this game. In early August, Chapman had refereed this very same matchup, Red Bulls vs. Revs, in this same stadium. And he had made a spectacular mess of it. After only two minutes he made one of the worst calls I have ever seen at the pro level -- denying the Revs a penalty kick for an obvious trip by the Red Bulls’ Ibrahim Sekagya. Instead, he gave Charlie Davies a yellow for simulation. Just about as wrong a call as it’s possible to get. The Revs ended up losing the game 2-1. It seems fair to assume that Chapman’s incompetence was a factor in that game.
Yet here was Chapman returning to the very scenario he had so wantonly screwed up only a few months earlier. Unless Peter Walton, the referee boss, simply can’t remember things, we have to assume this was a deliberate choice of his -- though what it was meant to prove I have no idea.
If Walton had forgotten Chapman’s previous fiasco, Chapman himself clearly had not. He attacked this game with a frenzy that seemed designed to let everyone know who was the boss. No more cop-out calls for Chapman, no sir. Where, in that first game, Chapman had given three yellows and one red, this past weekend he brewed up a blizzard of 10 yellow cards. An extraordinarily high number. After the game, Red Bulls’ coach Mike Petke said that Chapman had “lost control of the game, for both teams.”
I saw no evidence of Chapman losing control. Rather the opposite, we saw far too much of Chapman determined to exert control through the yellow card. Not the red, please notice -- though one of those yellows, the one given to Jermaine Jones in the 26th minute, should surely have been red. That’s what usually befalls a player who jumps in, both feet off the ground, studs showing, on an opponent.
But however hard Stott and Chapman may have tried to ensure that no player would be suspended for the return games, there was no accounting for the sheer stupidity that will see the Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips having to sit out the game in Boston. BWP claimed he didn’t know the rules about getting two yellow cards in the playoffs. Maybe not, but he must know that impeding the goalkeeper is an offense that is invariably greeted by a yellow card. So why do it?
Next weekend will see Jair Marrufo as the referee for Seattle-Los Angeles, with Baldomero Toledo in charge of the New England-Red Bulls game. Marrufo doesn’t use the red card much -- just two in 18 games this season (none last season in 13 games). But Toledo showed a formidable 12 red cards last season (twice as many as anyone else); this season he has been less prolific, though he is still among the red-card leaders with six.
Even so, one should not expect any red cards in these games. The evidence from last weekend’s games is that players will be kept on the field, almost regardless of their crimes.
As the players will be well aware of that, the outlook is for more of the same -- chippy games with plenty of fouls, and occasional moments of good soccer. The best of those moments, so far, is Teal Bunbury’s sweetly hit shot from 18 yards that curved so beautifully and precisely into the top corner of the Red Bulls goal.
More of the Bunbury skill, and less of Jermaine Jones’ kamikaze tackling, would be nice. The referees -- who, it needs to be said, do not have the easiest of tasks in these winner-takes-all games -- can make the beautiful game a more likely occurrence by cracking down hard on the ugly. But the reality is less encouraging. It is hard to imagine, for instance, potential finalists like Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan or Thierry Henry being red-carded this coming weekend.