Midseason kudos to Atlanta, questions for PRO

By Ridge Mahoney

Thanks to the FIFA international break, this week is a good time to assess MLS and praise the good and lament the bad.

It’s about the only time as well, for the return of league play dovetails with the heavy schedule of summer international friendlies as well as the All-Star Game Aug. 2 against Real Madrid and a month-long opening of the secondary transfer window. Once the window shuts on Aug. 10, the trade window involving players shuts as well and teams are thus more or less stuck with what they are for the rest of the season.

Here we go.

RISE OF THE EAST. Not since the 2008 MLS Cup final, in which Eastern Conference rivals Columbus and the Red Bulls squared off, has this group looked this strong.

In this decade, the only Eastern team to win the title is Sporting Kansas City (2013), which is now back in the Western Conference. The Supporters’ Shield seems to be a three-horse race between Toronto FC, Chicago, and New York City FC, though of course a Western team – supposedly facing weaker opposition in its intraconference games – can certainly challenge with a strong run of victories.

In past seasons, critics of the MLS playoff system suggested a return to the use of overall points, not conference placings, to draw up the playoff bracket. In those years, the Western teams were regarded as superior, a belief borne out when the Galaxy won three titles in four seasons (2011, 2012, 2014) as the host team, Portland won the title in Columbus (2015), and Seattle downed Toronto FC at BMO Field (last year).

The points advantage currently held by the Eastern leaders would reward one of those teams with the right to host MLS Cup should it prevail in the conference playoffs. As the past two years have shown, hosting the final isn’t a guarantee of anything. But the genuine quality of TFC, Chicago, and NYCFC has raised the overall level of play significantly and made games for neutral observers much more entertaining, as have Atlanta United and Orlando City.

BEST LAUNCH SINCE 2009. Topping Seattle’s amazing entry into MLS eight years ago seemed impossible, until Atlanta United unveiled an attacking juggernaut managed by a world-class head coach that is leading the league in average attendance with more than 45,000 per game.

Whether AUFC can get into the playoffs and/or claim significant awards this season and down the road show the same staying power in the standings and at the gate as have the Sounders stamp it as a fascinating, absorbing work-in-progress. The fortunes and mood may change when it moves from Bobby Dodd Stadium to the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in early September, but much of the 2017 MLS highlight reel will consist of mesmerizing moves and spectacular goals from Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Yamil Asad, Hector Villalba, et al. The team also has a ready-made American hero in goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who can quickly captivate the home fans by being his sharp, bold, and confident self.
THE CONFERENCE CONUNDRUM. The importance of matches against conference foes has caused many head coaches to prioritize those games ahead of interconference matches, which makes sense when you do the math.
Beating a conference foe deprives that team of any points in the standings, which are how the playoff placings are determined. Beating a team from the other conference provides the same three points without affecting anything else within the conference. In many cases the interconference games fall during weeks that also include intraconference games, which most head coaches consider to be more important. They often hold out two or three of their best players to save them for intraconference games.

One way for the league to build a national TV audience is to showcase its “best” interconference games in its national TV windows. The regional rivalry battles make for great television, no question, but the playoff format of East vs. West provides good reason for the same treatment of top regular-season games.
To its credit, the league did schedule an MLS Cup rematch between Seattle and Toronto FC for a Saturday (May 6) on ESPN. And to be fair, it would have been hard to predict the remarkable rise of Chicago and slot it into as many national windows as possible.

Of course, if head coaches downgrade interconference games their television value drops. So the scheduling of those games should be in those weeks devoid of midweek games and the allure of games between the Galaxy and Red Bulls or New York City and FC Dallas or Toronto and Seattle can draw viewers outside of those cities.
THE PRO PUNCHING BAG. Orlando City head coach Jason Kreis came out with a new slant on officiating this week, claiming that the raucous crowds at Orlando City Stadium affect referees in reverse fashion, i.e., they tend to make calls in favor of the visiting team so as not to appear intimidated.

Strange that Gerard “Tata” Martino in Atlanta, Caleb Porter in Portland, Peter Vermes in Sporting Kansas City and Brian Schmetzer in Seattle have not noticed such a bias against their teams at home. But head coaches and players can agree that officiating continues to be inconsistent at best and maddening at worst. Over-the-ball tackles, such as the one committed by San Jose’s Kofi Sarkodie last week, continue to be punished with yellow cards instead of red cards or not at all.

Can the introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR), as the league has announced it will do for games played after the All-Star Game, improve the situation? In a few limited ways, yes, but for the most part, since the match referee holds the final authority and many situations are not reviewable, the officials on the field will be scrutinized as intensely as ever.

Founded nearly five years ago, Professional Referees Organization (PRO) has strived to upgrade its training and assessment programs. The process has been slow, and the rapid expansion of MLS and the USL has placed greater stress on manpower and resources. There are many more games to be covered and officials to be assessed than even five years ago.

When its fifth season of existence concludes with the MLS Cup final in early December, MLS and U.S. Soccer and PRO need a closed-doors, no-B.S. summit to thrash out the major issues. 
5 comments about "Midseason kudos to Atlanta, questions for PRO".
  1. R2 Dad, July 6, 2017 at 4:28 p.m.

    PRO should take a good look at the Confederations Cup VAR issues and maybe delay the implementation until the bugs are ironed out. Cutting edge is good, bleeding edge is bad.

  2. Ginger Peeler, July 6, 2017 at 8:57 p.m.

    I disagree. Who better to try the new software available than MLS? I spent 30-some years doing computer drafting with the software being updated one or twice a year. The new software always had some bugs that would show up in time. Some CADtechs didn't want the new software until all the bugs were found. But finding those glitches were what always made the updates more interesting. Getting the newest updates on my computer made my job far more challenging.and satisfying. So far, the main problem I see with the VAR is when the center ref chooses to totally ignore a red card offense. I'm really interested in seeing how this will be resolved since the center has the right to completely ignore the "offending" plays. But we (the MLS) will be the cutting edge of the sport! Many of the decisions made concerning this new technology will be determined by MLS/PRO actions! How exciting is that?

  3. beautiful game, July 6, 2017 at 10:17 p.m.

    Software is important, but the referees conclusion is paramount. VAR showed a deliberate elbow by the Chilean defender on the German attacker in the final in Russia, and the referee still got it wrong. FIFA better get a grip on the LOTG and provide the referee, ARs and the 4th official with less interpretation and more common sense.

  4. Daniel Clifton replied, July 7, 2017 at 8:33 a.m.

    I agree. This was a blatant elbow thrown by the Chilean player. It was clearly a red card. I couldn't believe the yellow card came out after the replay was shown.

  5. Eddie Rockwell, July 10, 2017 at 10:47 p.m.

    The referee situation across all levels will continue to suffer, and likely get worse. Idiotic parents scream at 14 year old refs making $12 a game when little Johnny/Jenny falls down. That 14 year old figures he/she can make as much money babysitting or washing cars. Thus drains the potential talent pool... Idiotic, obsessed parents are ruining the game at the younger levels for their kids, other kids, budding refs, and sane parents that just want their kids to have fun...
    Okay, rant over

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