Clampdown on tactical fouls way overdue

By Paul Gardner

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.

18 comments about "Clampdown on tactical fouls way overdue".
  1. Claudia Forrest, June 6, 2015 at 5:36 a.m.

    There is one question that was asked that is troubling to me - you really want some tiny island in the Caribbean or the Asian seas to have the same vote as the U.S. and China and Russia and Germany?

  2. R2 Dad, June 6, 2015 at 9:29 a.m.

    I must say it appears that PRO/MLS is doing a better job doling out red cards this season, for fouls that would have previously been yellows or nothing. This specific issue, though, might be more difficult to get traction on. Persistent Infringement requires more judgement calls on the part of the referees, and would take several seasons to crank up IF PRO/MLS decides this is a problem worthy of focus. Human nature being what it is, don't expect improvement on this until/unless one of the DPs gets taken out after a long match of hacking that even the talking heads can identify as egregious.

  3. John Polis, June 6, 2015 at 9:37 a.m.

    Good discussion about a problem that continues in our game. It's a bit surprising that Sigi has so much to say about cynical fouls. Especially since he employs one of the most cynical of players in his midfield -- Alonso. Total up this guy's fouls and analyze them a bit and he emerges as one of MLS' worst tactical foulers. And he does it - and then gets in the referees' faces about it when they do call it. He then continues doing it even while sitting on a yellow, and seemingly never gets sent off. Seattle has others who do the same thing, but Alonso is the ringleader. Refs need to step up and make the calls, yes. But the fact that attacks in Seattle's defensive third are consistently thwarted by tactical fouls is no accident. Sigi's boys are more than equal to the tactical fouling task.

  4. Glenn Auve, June 6, 2015 at 10:06 a.m.

    I agree with John. And I guess it must work since those teams are all at or near the top of the standings. Although I watch all of DC United's matches and haven't really noticed this. Kitchen and Arnaud play hard and do commit a lot of fouls. But they also both get a lot of cautions.

  5. Joe Linzner, June 6, 2015 at 10:26 a.m.

    I agree, so called tactical fouling destroys an attack and should be equated with hindering an opportunity to score. Mandatory yellow with a warning that next tactical foul engenders a RED. It unquestionably gives the defending team an advantage that has nothing to do with soccer and detracts from the fluidity of the game and thus watchability. A very negative aspect of the game.

  6. Saverio Colantonio, June 6, 2015 at 12:24 p.m.

    “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!” or should I say tactical fouling. Of course it's happening. And it occurs everywhere including BPL, Serie A, the Bundesliga and La Liga to name a few.The problem is like to problem of the Portugal-Netherlands WC game in South Africa there is not much that a referee can do about it. Same thing with all the clutching and grabbing that goes on inside the 18 yd box. You get 6-8 guys doing it, who do you penalize?

  7. cony konstin, June 6, 2015 at 12:34 p.m.

    Football should adopt the futsal rule of accumlating fouls. After the fifth foul there is a penalty shot for every foul during that half. I would take it to the next level and would continue it to second half. It would force players to play attractive football because you would be punished if you would chose to foul a lot.

  8. Rick Estupinan, June 6, 2015 at 2:31 p.m.

    You are talking plain nonsense.What kind of game would this be.Not world Football that's for sure.PG writes too much about tactical fowls,and accuses the Seattle Sounders for practicing it as a tactic to slow and control the opponent.This is nonsense. Alonso happens to be a hard defensive and attacking player,but he doesn't fowl an opponent just to bring him down.It might appear like it,but it is not so.And notice that he also gets fowl some times and doesn't complain,just gets up and keeps playing.Lots of times players fake small physical confrontations as fowls,and those should be punished and single out as well.

  9. Allan Lindh, June 6, 2015 at 8:05 p.m.

    Gee, did anyone watch Barca vs Juve today? How many times did Suarez get a knee in the back? And once Vidal got a yellow, he just ran wild, knowing the ref wouldn't have the brass to send him off. Without blatant cheating, Juve would have lost 5-1. Right on, Mr. Gardner.

  10. steve foster, June 7, 2015 at 12:18 a.m.

    As a ref, I believe we need more straight reds. Diving, if you are sure, red. That will stop it. Crowding the ref, yellow, then red. We need to get the foul count down. Today's final was dirty. Vidal could have been sent off after 10 min. We gave got to get back to players ola

  11. steve foster, June 7, 2015 at 12:20 a.m.

    As a ref, I believe we need more straight reds. Diving, if you are sure, red. That will stop it. Crowding the ref, yellow, then red. We need to get the foul count down. Today's final was dirty. Vidal could have been sent off after 10 min. We gave got to get back to players Honoring the game. How about penalties from the 10?

  12. Kent James, June 7, 2015 at 11:02 a.m.

    PG, as usual, raises in important, difficult issue. But there are few nuances to it (as always). Individual tactical fouls are usually obvious, and usually carded (grabbing the guy that beat you before he gets in the box). Team tactical fouls, of the nature PG bemoans, are MUCH harder to punish. Let's say PG is right, persistent fouling in the midfield (niggling, meaningless stuff, not individual tactical fouls) is the Red Bulls strategy to harass and slow down their more skillful opponents. How do you stop it? 17 fouls committed by 9 different players, who gets carded? Certainly, if an individual persistently fouls (as Vidal did in the CL final), they should be carded, then sent off if they continue. But carding a player for a first (or even 2nd) foul in the midfield that in itself was not a tactical foul (even if it is a part of bigger picture) is a hard sell.

  13. Kent James, June 7, 2015 at 11:06 a.m.

    There is also a difference between an aggressive, pressing defense, and a strategy of committing fouls. Barcelona, e.g., presses very hard (and very high up the field), but does not commit many fouls in doing so. While pressing certainly involves more risks of fouling than laying off the opponent, it can be done without veering into the consciously fouling strategy. I am in favor of the former, aggressive defensive strategy, even if it results in a few more fouls being called, but would oppose a strategy in which fouling is used to disrupt the opponent as inimical to the game.

  14. Scott Johnson, June 7, 2015 at 4:18 p.m.

    @Kent--as Cony points out, accumulated fouls a lal futsal would be one way to deal with it. But there might be others--if such a foul is committed at or near midfield, how about treating the restart like a goal kick: Rather than a quick restart, instead send 9-10 forward, and have the goalie (who, it is assumed, excels at placekicking and can send the ball a long distance with some accuracy) come out and take the kick, and boot it at the other side's penalty box? And if the fouling team tries to foil that by playing a high line so any offensive players in the box are offside; there's plenty of open space for the kicker to direct the ball to, at which point it becomes a footrace, with the kicking team having a decided advantage.

  15. Kent James, June 8, 2015 at 12:18 a.m.

    Scott, Cony's mention of futsal's approach has merit, but would need to be adjusted (because a PK in soccer is significantly more important than in futsal). Advantage calls should also be included in the foul count. After 10 fouls (15?), instead of kick from the penalty spot, maybe award an unimpeded (no wall) shot from the top of the box; not a guaranteed goal, but close enough that a team engaging in fouling as a tactic would be forced to offer their opponents a good goal scoring chance.

  16. Kenneth Barr, June 8, 2015 at 5:19 p.m.

    It would be nice if for once Paul Gardner wouldn't come across as a cantankerous old fogey. Oops, I forgot. That's how he has always been. He was born old and cantankerous. Time to hang it up Paul, you've been redundant and petulant for far too long.

  17. beautiful game, June 8, 2015 at 7:01 p.m.

    Time to reinvent the laws of the game and bring soccer into the 21st century.

  18. Joe Linzner, June 9, 2015 at 12:16 p.m.

    since we seem to discount fouling, diving and illegal shielding of the ball the obvious solution is of course to wear uniforms like American Football make hitting legal, grabbing legal and award penalties as yardage and spot-kicks, that way it would truly Americanize the game...use multiple referees, with flags, instant replays as conflict resolution and do away with the offside rule that way the scoring would go up and giving six points for a goal and 3 points for a penalty and we are in understandable territory.

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