MLS games compare well with EPL but referees in both leagues reluctant to call PKs

By Paul Gardner

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.

10 comments about "MLS games compare well with EPL but referees in both leagues reluctant to call PKs".
  1. Scott Johnson, March 21, 2017 at 4:33 p.m.

    But then there were the two handballs in the box (one against each side) that WERE called in the Portland/Houston match, and arguably should not have been (particularly the first against the Dynamo's DaMarcus Beasley). The second one, against the Timbers' Oscar-winning DM Diego Chara, also came with a YELLOW card for DOGSO, instead of the customary red. (Chara formed part of a wall on a free kick, and the kick went directly at his head, which he protected with his forearm).

  2. beautiful game, March 21, 2017 at 5:28 p.m.

    I'll said it exponentially over and over again; TLOG are not enforced and the players knowingly take every opportunity to test the referees and their limits of delinquency. If the refs did their job, the players would stop their shenanigans and the thuggery would be reduced significantly.

  3. Ben Myers, March 21, 2017 at 5:30 p.m.

    I'm not sure that this is the best comparison between the EPL and MLS. Why? The MLS season just started, all teams theoretically have something to play for, the result being that the matches have a lot of buzz to them. Bt contrast, the EPL season is winding down, and many coaches and players are going through the motions playing in the middle of the pack. The only real excitement is at the relegation end of the table and the competition for the remaining 3 slots in the Champions League, Chelsea having virtually locked up one.

  4. Kent James, March 21, 2017 at 9:47 p.m.

    As a former referee, I doubt your referee friend meant to say they avoid calling PKs because they are game changing calls, but rather they hesitate to make them unless they are sure. Referees are generally aware that not making a call can also be game changing, but the non-foul that is given as a PK is generally much more memorable than the foul not given. So the default is to not call it, rather than make as many errors of commission (making a bad PK call) as omission (not calling a PK that should have been given), which theoretically would be better.

  5. Ric Fonseca, March 21, 2017 at 10:52 p.m.

    Hey I w: have you ever officated a game at any level? To BEN MYERS: My sentiments, I thought it was goona be a comparison between apples and oranges, so much for wishful thinking! And K. James, commission-omission, whatever, not to worry about calling a PK.... part of the game! PLAY ON!!!

  6. Brian Something, March 21, 2017 at 11:01 p.m.

    It's pretty standard in English and English-influenced leagues that on corner kicks, defenders can mug, grab, shirt grab, rape, choke and rugby tackle attackers - CHEATING to use the politically incorrect description - with complete and utter impunity. But if an attacking player sneezes, it's a "foul" on him and a free kick the other way.

  7. Jim Welnetz, March 22, 2017 at 8:29 a.m.

    Common ref saying: when in doubt, going out. That means if you're not sure, the foul was by the attacking team, it's a goal kick, favor the defense. Heard at ref clinics by some of the best referee instructors.

  8. Fajkus Rules, March 22, 2017 at 9:10 a.m.

    Disagree about two of the suggested PK calls and the Red Card. Referees SHOULD be looking for clear CAUSE and EFFECT that takes AWAY the fouled player's ability to play. Both the Yaya Torre & Milner plays involved attackers who had both made commitments to the plays they were making, and neither were impeded by the defender in each challenge. The Yaya Toure slide tackle, while not successful in stopping the ball (it WAS stopped by the other Man City defender involved) also was not the CAUSE of the Arsenal player's fall, he lost his balance all by himself and the actually landed on top of Yaya Toure where stopped at the end of his slide.

    Milner's challenge also failed to meet the "cause and effect" of taking out that attacker's ability to play as both players missed making contact with the ball and Milner's contact occurred after both the players and the ball went past the spot where a play could have been made.

    As for the Chicago Fire Red Card, that was also overdone as the Atlanta attacker never could have gotten within 5 yards of catching up to the ball before being possessed by the GK. Should have been a tactical foul caution. The more troubling part of that sequence was the mass confrontation by 5-6 Atlanta players screaming for the call vs. the referee. That type of intimidation prior to the referee making his call CANNOT be tolerated and there should have been at least a couple cautions for the two most vocal players who were not captains and not authorized to be addressing the referee in that situation.

  9. R2 Dad replied, March 22, 2017 at 1:56 p.m.

    I don't think I've ever seen an instance where mass confrontation has changed the mind of the official. They're usually on the comm conferring with AR1/AR2/4th official to get the call right. But don't tell that to the players, who feel they have the right to vent their spleens with no repercussions. EPL officials have not had a good season so far, but before we call parity on refereeing between these two leagues, compare the MLS final from last year to any EPL metch and they're night and day. The MLS final looked worse than Championship level officiating, worse than SPL officiating, as bad or worse than CONCACAF refs, really. Shocking and unwatchable, Don Garber. Thanks for ruining what would have been a decent match.

  10. R2 Dad, March 28, 2017 at 11:29 a.m.

    Not helping--ref takes a dive--Luis Fabiano Vasco vs Flamengo. :

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