Well, not that brilliant a weekend for MLS refs. Specifically, a couple of dead-cert penalty kicks not called. If you assume -- which we always do, I think -- that a PK means a goal, then these were arguably game-defining calls, given that both games were won on one-goal margins by the team that profited from the miscalls.
For a start, we should not make the assumption about an inevitable goal. Penalty kicks are saved or missed -- if not often, then certainly regularly. I’m attempting to play down the drama -- I want to look only at the sequence of events leading up to the non-calls -- not what happened after. That’s all.
There is a context here, one neatly provided by MLS itself some weeks back, at the beginning of the season. Among the “points of emphasis” that MLS referees are supposed to be paying attention to this season is this: MLS has calculated that, in 2015, its referees had missed 28% of deserved red cards -- mainly serious foul play challenges.
Of those missed calls, 87.4% were held to be due to poor positioning by the referee. So preseason instructions to referees were big on positioning, on “reading the game better,” as it was explained to me.
As it happens the two botched penalty calls on Sunday featured similar plays. In the 63rd minute of the Red Bulls-Orlando game, a long, very long, 50-yard punt down the middle of the field by Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik, sent Orlando’s Cyle Larin in chase -- pursued by Karl Ouimette, who was never going to catch him. Larin got to the ball at the edge of the penalty area, Ouimette, still trailing, dived in from behind, did not get to the ball, but did trip Larin. Ouimette’s foul actually started outside the area, but the decisive tangle of legs happened inside. An almost laughably obvious PK, not called.
(And having said all that, we have another problem: was Larin offside on the goalkeeper punt? Actually it doesn’t matter anyway -- it wasn’t called so the play was genuine, the penalty should have been called).
So: positioning. Where was referee Hilario Grajeda? I’d say he was just about where he should have been. When the long punt was made, Grajeda was about 10 yards inside the Orlando half. He started to sprint forward as soon as he recognized the long pass. But Grajeda cannot move as quickly as the ball -- by the time Larin and Ouimette tangled, Grajeda had reduced the distance, but was still about 15 yards behind the play. Not the ideal position, but not disastrously bad -- he had a clear view of the action. He made no call. Evidently his AR, well-positioned on the sideline, level with the players, saw nothing wrong either. He did not raise his flag.
So play continued. It should not have done. The ref and his AR got it badly wrong. But I cannot see that positioning was to blame here.
I’ll come back to that after looking at the other bad call on Sunday. That came in the 55th minute of the San Jose-Kansas City game. A close cousin of the call in the Red Bulls game. Another long ball, this time a 30-yard forward pass from the halfway line. The ball reached the edge of the penalty area as KC’s Dom Dwyer arrived, accompanied by S.J defenders Andres Imperiale and Victor Bernardez. Dwyer got to the ball and was then taken down by Imperiale, who did not play the ball.
Where was the referee? Inevitably behind the play -- maybe some 8 yards inside the Kansas half when the pass was made, some 15 yards away from play when the foul occurred. Exactly as in the Red Bull game, no foul was called, and there was no signal from the AR.
I do not find the argument faulting the referees for their positioning at all convincing. Maybe, with some sharper attention, by “reading the game better,” both Grajeda and Jair Marrufo could have better anticipated the long balls. Which might have got them a yard or so nearer to the action. Long balls forward are never going to be easy for referees.
I seriously doubt whether that marginal improvement would have changed their decisions. Because I don’t think the failing here had anything to do with positioning. Certainly the ARs cannot be faulted for their positioning. So why did they not signal for a foul? I think we’re dealing with yet more evidence that referees and ARs are always inclined to give any benefit of doubt to defenders, and particularly so when it means a penalty kick can be avoided.
Rather than blaming the positioning of the officials, MLS could do themselves -- and the entire sport -- a big favor by concentrating on trying to banish this automatic leniency to defenders. It is probably fair to assume that in one third of these tangles the attacking player is at fault; in another third the defenders are at fault. It is in the remaining third -- the questionable third, the too-close-to-call third -- that the benefit of doubt applies, and it should always be given to the attacking player. At the moment it far more usually goes to the defender. In the two incidents I’ve been looking at, defenders got the benefit of doubt, despite ample evidence that they were guilty of serious fouls.
Possibly, the threatened use of instant video replays will give attacking players fairer treatment. Until that happens, a change of mentality by the referees -- who are, after all, relying on a mindset for which there is no justification at all -- would be a big help.