Commentary

MLS crackdown on cheaters, a start to making a better league

By Mike Woitalla
(@MikeWoitalla)

Before the start of the 2014 MLS season, refs got a rather odd instruction from their bosses at the Professional Referee Organization (PRO).

The refs were told to “make the games flow better.”

That seems a confusing order for the guys whose duty is to enforce the rules. Were they not to call fouls if it disrupts the flow?

The good news is that PRO has for the 2015 season made a more sensible statement about what it wants refs to focus on: dissent and persistent infringement.

Both are indeed areas that MLS refs -- all refs, at all levels, in fact -- should crack down on. By cracking down on, I mean simply executing what the rulebook already says they should do. Although it’s a simpler task on the former than the latter.

The FIFA rulebook is unequivocal about dissent: a yellow card for "dissent by word or action." It’s always been puzzling to me that MLS refs let players scream into their face without showing a yellow. Surely, if each of these petulant actions were punished with a yellow, within a week or two we’d end it for good.

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I asked Peter Walton, the head of PRO, whether MLS refs have been instructed to caution each dissent. His response, via e-mail, was:

“Dissent is not an easy subject to define. The law allows a referee to take action on a player who uses dissent by word or action, however this is very subjective.

“The instructions issued by PRO to its officials are, that players who adopt an aggressive pose towards match officials and are clearly dissenting, either verbally or physically should be dealt with by the letter of the law.”

On persistent infringement -- to me that’s one of the biggest problems in soccer, a sport that like no other favors destructive players. The common example is when players commit fouls repeatedly that aren’t by definition yellow-card fouls -- but they’re enough to stifle the other team’s attack.

It’s a sophisticated form of cheating, to take turns at fouling the other team’s best players, or to commit fouls in the midfield that don’t result in dangerous free kicks.

So kudos to PRO for instructing its refs to show yellows for persistent infringement. Its statement on the issue is:

“Minimal fouls that are isolated are often suitably dealt with by the awarding of the free kick, but in cases where these fouls are committed frequently, a yellow card is deemed a suitable punishment to the player.”

The FIFA rulebook says: "There is no specific number of infringements which constitutes ‘persistence’ or the presence of a pattern -- this is entirely a matter of judgment and must be determined in the context of effective game management."

Here’s the problem. Referees are given vague instructions about how to do their job. The FIFA rulebook is somewhat clear about a yellow card for “persistent infringement” when it’s the same player committing the fouls. But a pretty common strategy is for different players taking turns at hacking the other team’s star.

A few years back, the U.S. Soccer Handbook for Referees had this in it: “The referee must also recognize when a single opponent has become the target of fouls by multiple players. As above, upon recognizing the pattern, the referee should clearly indicate that the pattern has been observed and that further fouls against this opponent must cease. If another player commits a foul against the targeted opponent, that player must be cautioned but, in this case, the misconduct should be reported as unsporting behavior, as must any subsequent caution of any further foul against that same targeted opponent.”

The FIFA rulebook does not address cautioning a player who hadn’t committed a previous yellow-card foul for persistent infringement because his teammates had been serial fouling, nor can I find that addressed in the “2014 U.S. Soccer Advice to Referees.”

So I asked Walton:

"Would you agree with this scenario: From the same team, Player A, B and C commit non-caution fouls in midfield within 10 minutes. The ref cautions Player C. “

His response was:

“Persistent infringement is also catered for in the laws. The modern game is now evolving into a pass and move game and officials need to be aware of tactics employed by players to break up patterns of play or skillful ball players becoming the target of numerous foul challenges. All officials are being instructed to increase their awareness of such instances and apply law where appropriate.”

Can there be any reffing job in sports tougher than in soccer, where refs are giving foggy guidelines on how to handle the cheaters’ tactics?

In basketball, for example, the foul count takes the burden off referees on how to punish negative tactics.

MLS may be tied to the FIFA rulebook, but PRO can make MLS a better league if it does indeed encourage and support the referees who crackdown on the cheaters.

4 comments about "MLS crackdown on cheaters, a start to making a better league".
  1. Lou vulovich, March 6, 2015 at 11:16 a.m.

    Great article. Hopefully the MLS takes this advice and has the guts to implement whatever means necessary to punish these type of players used throughout soccer to tactically destroy the game. Great opportunity for MLS to take the lead internationally on a problem that FIFA refuses to acknowledge. Best article and best advice anyone has given to MLS to date.

  2. Raymond Weigand, March 6, 2015 at 11:54 a.m.

    Focus on modelling / simulating fouls ... there is nothing more frustrating to the fan experience than to see these flops and flails ... sheesh ... there should be lessons given so they don't so obvious and disruptive to the game. First give away ... the immediate head twitch to the head referee to see if a foul was called ... and then the following play acting when it is not. Some folks would argue that this is a clever part of the game ... however, the really poor actors should be called on it ... not ignored.

  3. Thomas Hosier, March 6, 2015 at 1:12 p.m.

    Will be good if MLS Refs support the decision and then it trickles down to Youth Soccer Refs ... tired of seeing talented players having their game taken away from them by holding/grabbing, shoving/pushing, tripping no skill klutzes.

  4. Brent Crossland, March 6, 2015 at 6:02 p.m.

    An encouraging message but actions! I totally agree, Thomas. Every referee's goal should be to let the skilled players demonstrate their skills. MLS play will improve if they start to control the late fouls, holding, etc. Cautions for persistent infringement. The real test will be convincing referees to issue that 2nd caution when it is deserved -- REGARDLESS of who gets sent off. The players will adjust if this is done consistently.

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