MLS Beat: Referees wrestle with consistency

Rule interpretations skewed toward league directives

The night was warm, the drinks were cold, and the hot topic was officiating in MLS. It was All-Star week, a few hours after the game, and those at this table were concerned with referees: Their consistency, their expertise, and their demeanor. Since among those gathered were two head coaches, one general manager, and zero referees, the general tone seldom skewed far from scathing. No coach or GM alive has a call he can't forgive or a disallowed goal he can forget. Yet I had to agree with many of their contentions, based on the games I'd seen, and the incidents I'd researched. To sum up the observations, which will be kept anonymous in light of their social context: Not only has the refereeing been particularly poor this season, they contend, but it's getting worse. Some referees have assumed the arrogant, argumentative persona of their counterparts in major-league baseball. And so draconian have become the league's periodic issuances of directives that inconsistency is epidemic throughout the league, to such an extent the same referees are varying wildly in their interpretations from week to week. All these viewpoints concur with those of U.S. national team head coach Bruce Arena. Watching MLS games a bit more dispassionately since leaving D.C. United has not improved his rating of referees. "In general, I think it's been poor," said Arena. "There's only one I consider to be good and that's Paul Tamberino. The rest of them are hit or miss. "The officiating plays a major role in a professional soccer league, and I think the caliber of play has improved a lot faster than the referees."

Quartet of reds at Lockhart

A league directive instructing referees to crack down on tackles from behind and on players' dissent preceded the ejection of four players by referee Rich Grady Aug. 21 in the D.C.-Miami game at Lockhart Stadium. The red brigade started with a foul by Leo Cullen in the eighth minute that very few believe should have been punished so harshly. "It was a circus, like a pro wrestling match," said Arena. "He sends off Cullen, there were yellows [6] all over the place. It was comical, and just embarrassing." Yet more disquieting is the inconsistency such directives foment. "We'd received a memo [from MLS] saying the referees were going to crack down on tackles from behind and players talking back to the referee, and Rich decided Leo's tackle from behind was a red," said D.C. defender Jeff Agoos. "Fair enough. "But it seems like this year, you never know what kind of game you're going to get from the same referee from game to game. "Earlier in the season, the refs were looking for dives, and players who were fouled in the box and should have had a penalty were getting yellows for diving. It seems the referees take the directives so seriously they miss other things." MLS vice president of game operations Joe Machnik admitted too many referees cautioned players for diving unnecessarily during the first half of the season, and the issue was addressed at a meeting of referees and coaches during the All-Star break. "We modified our approach," said Machnik. "The referees were looking for diving too much. We told them, 'Don't go looking for incidents you think might be dives and then you have to caution the player. "'Just make sure you caution those dives that are 100 percent obvious attempts to deceive you.' We thought some of the cautions for diving were unnecessary." Not too many fans, coaches or players would object to tighter controls on tackles from behind, but wild swings in interpretation can frustrate the latter two groups. "It's like that in any league," said Agoos. "It happens in the NFL, and it happens in the NBA. But when you only find out what a ref's going to call when he throws somebody out in the first few minutes, it ruins the game."

MLS ponders two referees

Glenn Myernick of Colorado and Thomas Rongen of D.C. United are the two coaches that sit on the MLS referees' committee, and they cited the all-star discussions as a mark of progress. "I thought that meeting was the healthiest we've had up to this point," said Rongen. "People were very honest." Rongen cited these areas as the most important: red cards for tackles from behind, passive offside, management of the defensive wall during free kicks, and diving. "We felt last year [diving] was embellished by some players," said Rongen, "and referees have done a better job there." MLS is considering using two referees next season on an experimental basis, although such an experiment is subject to the approval, as are all competition decisions, of the MLS board of governors. "A lot of off-the-ball stuff is very hard for one referee to see," said Rongen. "We would diminish fouls off the ball with two referees. "My problem would be [that] dealing with one personality is sometimes tough enough. If you get two extremes reffing a game, they could not necessarily always be on the same wavelength." Said Myernick: "The game is played at a significantly higher rate of speed than it was even 15 or 20 years ago. The job of the referee has become tougher, and I think we need to keep pace with it." A second official could complicate officiating instead of enhancing it. "Early reds change the complexion of the game," said Agoos. "And consistency is the key for the future of the refereeing." by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney
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