My notes on the recent Seattle-Red Bulls game inform me that referee Jose Carlos Rivero called the Bulls for 17 fouls. Which is a lot for one team in one game. Actually, I had under-recorded the Bulls’ fouling activities. The official MLS website records that they committed 19 fouls.
Which is a seriously high figure, and somehow looks even higher when you realize that Seattle was called for only 9 fouls, fewer than half the Bulls total. Something to be pondered: Why would the Bulls, who sit comfortably in third place in the Eastern Division standings, find it necessary to do so much fouling?
In mid-ponder, I read what Seattle coach Sigi Schmid had to say about things: “It's a product of their pressing style, but it is also that school of soccer where [Bulls’ coach] Jesse Marsch comes from: you commit tackles and fouls in the midfield to slow the opponent down. You look at a lot of tactical fouls in the midfield that were called . . . Part of it is their aggressive style as far as pressing, but part of it is their awareness of doing those kind of fouls to make sure the game slows down at the right time. [It’s] their style -- D.C. United and Sporting KC are very similar in that regard."
When Schmid talks of fouls to “slow the opponent down,” he’s talking of tactical fouls. Of the 17 Bulls’ fouls that I had recorded, I had marked five as Tactical, two more as possibly so. The number is not criminally high, but is it high enough to justify Schmid’s assertion that tactical fouls are “a product of their (Red Bulls’) pressing style”?
I’m not sure. Possibly yes, possibly no. At the moment, I’d say the case against the Bulls of systematically committing disruptive fouls (which defines the tactical foul approach) is not proven.
But there is another accusation to be made. Against the refereeing. Not individually against Rivero, but against all referees. That they do not apply the rules in these cases. The tactical foul is specifically banned by the rules, and must be punished with a free kick and a yellow card.
For a very good reason. It is hard to think of a more cynical, anti-soccer approach to the game than that of serially fouling your opponents each time they start an attack. The foul is not concealed. It is rarely physically dangerous. Just a “little” foul. A “good” foul as the TV guys like to tell us. Usually it is committed in the opponent’s half of the field. The referee whistles, the game stops, the attack is immediately stymied, the guilty team retreats and regroups, and a meaningless free kick is then taken. Unless the yellow card is given, the guilty team has certainly got the better of that exchange.
In the Seattle game, three Red Bull players were yellow-carded, but none of them for tactical fouling. Indicating that Rivero believes there were no tactical fouls in the game. Never mind that my count disagrees with that opinion, or that Sigi Schmid doesn’t agree either ... a game of soccer in this day and age without at least one tactical foul is a pretty unlikely happening.
It is extraordinary that referees -- all of them, not just the MLS guys -- do not act more decisively against the tactical foul. It is, I would judge, one of the most frequently committed fouls. The problem, of course, is in defining the call. The referee, asked to use his judgment, can dodge the yellow card implication by deeming the offense a straightforward foul -- i.e. not committed “for the tactical purpose of interfering with or breaking up a promising attack” (that’s how the rules define the tactical foul, though they never use that term) -- and so awarding only a free kick which, if it favors either team, is much more likely to help the team that committed the foul.
If Sigi Schmid is to be believed, we have three MLS teams that play a high-pressure game -- that’s “their style” he says, though I would balk at the use of the word “style” to describe a version of the sport that inevitably involves the frequent use of what is nothing more than a cheap, rule-breaking, tactical ploy.
In MLS, this is a matter on which PRO should act. It cannot be that PRO is unaware of just how important it is for MLS to present soccer at its most attractive. As a flowing, offense-minded sport. Not as a sport where attacking play is constantly squelched by petty fouling.
By clearly defining tactical fouls and ordering a clamp-down on them -- making that one of their “initiatives” -- PRO would be taking a big step toward encouraging the sort of soccer that MLS needs.