During this past weekend, I watched -- on television, of course -- 15 games. Well, not really. I watched parts of 15 games. That’s television for you, a magic carpet that started in Middlesbrough, England at 8 a.m. on Saturday and ended around 9 p.m. on Sunday in Seattle.
English Premier League and Major League Soccer games, some good, occasionally very good, and some pretty bad. The sort of mixture you’d expect. If you’re looking for a comparison, I’d say MLS came out of this pretty well.
The worst of the English games was Crystal Palace 1 Watford 0, a vapid, guileless win for Sam Allardyce’s team leaving me pondering how grateful England should be for the scandal that forced Allardyce out of his job as England coach after only a couple of months.
In MLS it was the Chicago Fire that looked bad. Really bad. An early red card against it (for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity) turned it into a totally defensive unit playing cravenly negative soccer, with only a few forays into Atlanta’s half of the field.
I’ve had my say over the years on the rule that forces a team to play with 10 men. I don’t like it. But this was really making the worst of a bad situation. Rarely have I seen a team so utterly determined to do nothing but defend. And this, mind you, wasn’t even a team that was playing for a tie -- Chicago was trailing 0-1 from the fifth minute.
In the end Chicago got what it asked for -- a heavy 4-0 defeat. But all was not lost -- despite Chicago’s totally defensive stance, Atlanta was able to produce passages of lively, skillful soccer -- enough to suggest that it can be one of the league’s most exciting teams.
Manchester City played an almost incoherent first half against Liverpool, but at least it was attacking incoherence. But in the second half City played some wonderful soccer as it sought first the tying, and then the winning, goal. Sergio Aguero got a brilliant tying goal -- but then, by my count, had three definite chances to hit the winner in the final seven minutes, and misfired on all of them.
That ManCity rally was the best the EPL had to offer. In the MLS games, Atlanta, Dallas, Kansas City and Portland all had their moments -- a wide enough spread of attractive soccer that augurs well for the rest of the season.
As for refereeing, I can find little difference here. Maybe that’s not surprising, given that Peter Walton has lumbered MLS with English-style refereeing. Which means a strong tendency to treat physical play indulgently (“He’s letting them play,” is the accompanying, and approving, chorus from the English TV commentators).
Whether that’s a good thing or not will, I suppose, depend on whether you prefer an overtly physical game or a skill-based game. It is unlikely to be both.
The opposing viewpoints (and they are opposites) clash most obviously when it comes to penalty kicks. It is sad to see that referees are more than likely to be of the pro-physical persuasion. I think it’s fair to say that such referees are looking for reasons not to give penalty kicks. Something that regularly leads them into making absurd calls.
And absurd calls, or non-calls, there were, this weekend. In the first half of the ManCity vs. Liverpool game, referee Michael Oliver turned down two Liverpool claims (one doubtful, one -- Yaya Toure on Georginio Wijnaldum -- pretty obvious), and then near the end of the half he excelled himself by not calling anything during a hectic play that involved two clear Liverpool fouls, first on Aguero, then on Raheem Sterling, right in front of the Liverpool goal. In neither case did the challenging Liverpool defender play the ball. Absurd and incredible.
No better was referee Jair Marrufo’s contribution in the Kansas City vs. San Jose game, when he simply ignored a blatant trip by SJ’s Florian Jungwirth on Dom Dwyer. And again -- Jungwirth did not play the ball. All his contact was with Dwyer.
Both Oliver and Maruffo were in good position to clearly see the fouls. So one cannot say that they missed the calls. Evidently, they chose, quite deliberately, not to make them.
I am in no doubt whatever that the number of genuine penalties that are not called in soccer is far greater than the number of non-existent penalties that are called. I was told some years go, by a FIFA referee, that referees were perfectly aware that whatever they did in a penalty kick situation might “change the game,” but that in such situations they would always prefer not to make the call.
As far as I could divine, the thinking was that the consequences of a no-call could not be blamed on the referee. After all, he had not done anything.
A fraudulent sort of reasoning, but it seems to me that it still operates. Some useful research might be done to establish why that should be so.