Playoff refereeing: A tricky business

By Paul Gardner

Playoff time always brings with it much discussion of playoff soccer. Which is held to be, in some not fully explicable way, different from regular soccer. The theory behind this notion makes a good deal of sense.

Thus, playoff games have more intensity than regular-season games, they are all-or-nothing, do-or-die games. A place in the final beckons, an entire season’s work is on the line. Drama and heroics are likely.

I have, in the past, subscribed to such a view of playoff soccer -- if not to all the details, then certainly to the idea that it is different to the regular game.

Well, is it? We’ve had 12 playoff games so far -- four single-game eliminators, and eight of the home-and-home version. Maybe a trawl through the stats from these games will reveal some way in which they are exceptional.

One thing is immediately clear: the big advantage of playing at home. Three of the four single-game matches were won by the home team. While the eight home-and-home series produced six wins for the home teams. Of the four series, three were won by the teams that played at home in the first game. All four of these were decided without having to resort to the away-goals tiebreaker.

Intensity of play -- the commitment of the players -- is not something that can be easily measured. It is usually agreed that a team playing with high-intensity will produce a gung-ho version of soccer that will be reflected in its foul count: The greater the players’ commitment, the higher the number of fouls.

Possibly. But much more questionable is the parallel notion that a high foul count means a winning team. The 12 games under discussion show little or no evidence of such a relationship. The statistical evidence begins with the regular season foul-count for each team. Which makes Toronto and Seattle look pretty good, as they finished in 18th and 19th positions -- only Columbus had fewer fouls.

In the playoffs, Dallas out-fouled Seattle 30-14 but lost by a 4-2 aggregate. Similarly, NYC racked up 30 fouls against Toronto’s 24, but it was Toronto that won the series, 7-0.

Significant figures, but far from conclusive, because it is a different story with the other two playoff survivors. Montreal played three games (one against D.C.United, two against the Red Bulls) and out-fouled 54-39 to reach the final four. Colorado is evidently the most-likely-to-foul team. It finished near the top of the regular-season team foul count (in third position) and out-fouled Los Angeles 32-23 on its way to a shootout victory.

The stats (well, the Seattle and the Toronto stats) really show only that you don’t have to rack up fouls to win. Or -- an interpretation that I prefer -- that you can play with intensity without doing a lot of fouling.

The tactical approach to these games seems not to have been overly defensive. That was surely, and logically, the case in the four-single games, in which a total of 15 goals were scored.

A more cautious pattern was detectable in the opening games of the two-game series. Scores of 1-0, 1-0, 2-0 (with the second goal coming in the 92nd minute); while Seattle crammed all three of its goals against Dallas into an extraordinary 8-minute flurry.

Whatever, the four games produced only 7 goals, all scored by the home teams.

Things opened up somewhat in the return games, which produced 12 goals. A rampant Toronto scored five at NYC, while Montreal, basically defensive, based its win at the Red Bulls on classic counter-attacking soccer. The two Colorado-Los Angeles games gave an idea of what dour defensive “playoff” soccer looks like. Both ended with a minimal 1-0 win for the home team, and the wretched shootout was needed to declare Colorado the winner.

I cannot find anything resembling a definable “playoff soccer” style in these stats. But maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Maybe I should look at the refereeing. Is there such an animal as “playoff refereeing”?

I think so. It could more accurately be called “climactic game refereeing,” or “grand final refereeing.” Its main aim is to make sure that the game ends with 22 players on the field.

That’s pretty much what has happened in the MLS playoffs so far. Just one red card in 12 games, and that (to the Red Bulls’ Omer Damari) shown in the 93rd minute.

That stat is obviously too lonely to draw any hard conclusions. But it is suggestive. Pressure is on referees not to unbalance a crucial game by ejecting a player. The pressure is real, even though it may never have been mentioned to the referee. He himself knows and feels it. It could hardly be otherwise.

And the players quickly understand the situation. Of course they do. Particularly those who like to play physically anyway. There are two such players on the remaining four teams. Colorado’s Jermaine Jones and Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso.

Both of them have already greatly benefitted from referee leniency. Jones, a mere 6 minutes after coming on as a sub in the first game against L.A. pulled off an ugly looking foul from behind on Baggio Husidic. Inexplicably, referee Drew Fischer failed to yellow-card him. Nine minutes later Jones was at it again, crunching into Robbie Rogers. This time he did get a yellow -- but it should have been his second yellow and hence an ejection.

For Alonso, it worked the other way round. Half an hour into the game against Kansas City, he plowed into Roger Espinoza and was rightly cautioned by referee Ismail Elfath. Then, at 68 minutes, he recklessly fouled Benny Feilharber ... and got away with it. No foul was called by Elfath. But this too should have led to an ejection.

It is really quite ingenuous to talk about players like Jones and Alonso being “game-changers” and praising their inspirational leadership when so much of what they do relies on the complicity of benevolent refereeing.

Both players surely know that the playoffs are made for them because referees -- for the best of reasons -- are reluctant to eject them, for fear of “ruining the game.”

Both players -- each is considered a vital presence by his team -- need to be much more strictly refereed. I doubt whether either Fischer or Elfath will see further refereeing action in the playoffs. But in the interplay between a wily, physical player like Jones or Alonso and the referee, it should be -- it must be -- the referee who holds the whip hand. He must give the cards.

6 comments about "Playoff refereeing: A tricky business".
  1. Brian Quesinberry, November 10, 2016 at 4 p.m.

    Amen. Do the foul get the card. Letting a less skillful and organized team foul without cards is worse than ejecting a player for rules infractions.

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, November 10, 2016 at 11:23 p.m.

    Huh? what didya just say???

  3. R2 Dad replied, November 11, 2016 at 12:40 a.m.

    Rick, if you're up in the Bay Area tomorrow I'll buy you lunch. We're watching tryouts for SF Deltas at Crocker Amazon and having lunch at La Champa on Ocean! Hope to see you!

  4. Kent James, November 10, 2016 at 11:55 p.m.

    PG is right about the hesitancy for refs to issue red cards in big games (and rightly so, because playing a man down definitely changes the game). For this reason, I think teams should be allowed to replace players who have been ejected (as long as they have subs left). Then referees would have less hesitancy to eject players who deserve it, and teams are only likely to play short near the end of the game. If that seems too lenient (though I'd give it some time to see), award a PK (either mandatory or at the discretion of the referee) when a red card is issued. Such a system would also punish players who misbehave rather than the whole team, and if players were ejected often enough, either they'd have to change their behavior or no teams would want them.

  5. R2 Dad, November 11, 2016 at 12:36 a.m.

    It's entirely possible (though I don't know how probable) that these chatty referees are trying to talk players out of getting a card, but if that were the case wouldn't we see more Persistent Infringement cards for players who keep on fouling anyway? Skillful players are still getting kicked up and down the pitch and I can't believe these Grade 4 Referees don't know this or notice. The inconsistency we see might be explained by the resultant "playoff" effect PG has detailed.

  6. Adrian Gonzalez, November 16, 2016 at 10:48 a.m.

    Commit the foul show the card. Second card you are gone. These players know the rules and for referees to consider the magnitude of the game is not correct. Yes the intensity increases but the game should be about skill. Learn to play better defense and you don't need to foul as much. Too many fouls the game is no longer beautiful.
    I recently red carded a player for malicious conduct in a playoff game (club premier level). The short handed team was down 1-0. Very intense game, especially after the ejection. Both teams stepped up their game and it was a fantastic skilled game in the second half (card came at end of first half). Short handed team won 3-1 by playing with plenty of intensity and skill. The team they beat was also very skillful but they did not retaliate the injury to their player.
    Improve your skills people, this is not hockey.

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