High scoring adds sparkle to playoffs -- but MLS should look closely at faulty refereeing

The single-game playoff format has much to recommend it. The game has to be won, there is no playing for a tie. The do-or-die atmosphere definitely injects excitement and suspense into the games.

By and large the six MLS games so far played have been full of entertainment, there has been plenty of good soccer, and a quite extraordinary number of goals -- 27 in 6 games, averaging 4.5 a game, an unheard-of tally in the modern game.

The results, perhaps, have been rather too predictable. The higher-seeded teams -- that is, those team playing at home -- won five of the games. The L.A. Galaxy was the only lower-seeded team to win, 2-1 at Minnesota.

The single-game elimination setup has worked well for MLS. Even so, there was a serious flaw making itself felt through out all six games. There was a major refereeing problem.

The referees, in every game, seemed to be bending over backward to avoid giving penalty kicks or red cards. There were no PKs or ejections in any of the games.

Should there have been? Oh yes, definitely. To take the most glaring example: in the 115th overtime minute of the Seattle-Dallas game, a mild melee broke out in midfield, some pushing and shoving . . . until the Dallas goalkeeper, Jesse Gonzalez, entered the picture. He had run some 30 yards to get there. He marked his arrival by violently pushing his hands into Nouhou Tolo’s neck. Tolo reacted by pushing his hands into Gonzalez’s face, at which Gonzalez fell to ground.

Briefly: Gonzalez had been yellow-carded earlier in the game. His assault on Tolo warranted at least a yellow, and therefore an ejection. Tolo too should have been ejected. Neither was. Referee Nima Saghafi merely called the two players and lectured them for 30 seconds or so.

And where was the VAR (Edvin Jurisevic) during all this? Apparently not heard from, he evidently saw no “clear and obvious error” in Saghafi’s decision-making.

(Significantly, the MLS Disciplinary Committee has since fined Gonzalez for violating the league’s hands-to face policy, and for simulation.)

There was another incident even later in that same game, when Seattle’s Luis Silva appeared to handle the ball; also ignored by Saghafi and the VAR.

Dallas might well have had a penalty kick in the 87th minute when Michael Barrios tangled with Joevin Jones. The replays are not decisive, but Saghafi decided there was no contact, and gave Barrios a yellow for simulation.

Another denied penalty kick came in the Philadelphia-Red Bulls game. Philly’s Brenden Aaronson slammed the ball into defender Tim Parker. The ball undoubtedly hit his arm, but referee Chris Penso had no problem in immediately deciding against the penalty kick.

Penso also ignored another penalty appeal by Philadelphia, near the very end of overtime, when Red Bull goalkeeper Luis Robles clearly grabbed Patrice-Jean Picault’s arm. No call. No VAR.

Maybe referee Kevin Stott should have awarded Atlanta a PK in the 49th minute when New England’s Andrew Farell brought down Ezequiel Barco. This was one of those incidents where one replay seems to show -- clearly -- that Farrell had poked the ball, while another showed -- clearly -- that Farrell had not touched the ball. Toronto’s Jonathan Osorio clashed with D.C. United’s Frederic Brillant -- and went down. There was plenty of contact, but referee Allen Chapman (the best in MLS we are told, gulp) is not one to miss a chance to dish out a yellow card for simulation. So, no PK, but a yellow for Osorio. And the collision involving Osvaldo Alonso in the Minnesota-Galaxy game looked highly suspicious -- TV commentator Taylor Twellman detected a shove by Alonso -- but went unpunished by referee Ted Unkel.

So you have the pattern. No PKs, no red cards. Whenever the possibility of either arose, it was brushed aside. The incidents I have cited were surely not the only examples, and this exaggerated bias in favor of defensive play could clearly be seen from five of the six referees.

Was this a conspiracy to ensure that no players would be suspended from the next game? As I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories, I shall back away from the idea that the referees had been instructed to keep 22 players on the field. But would they need to be so directed? They are more aware than anyone of the criticism they would face for “deciding the game” with a crucial penalty or red card. What the referees might need is a talk telling them that they have to enforce the rules regardless -- something that they systematically did not do.

There are those who evidently do think referee calls should be adjusted to circumstances. They exist within MLS. Listening to Andrew Wiebe and Bobby Warshaw assessing the referee calls on the MLS website, I was appalled to hear them excuse referee Penso’s refusal to give Philadelphia a PK against the Red Bulls with this: “This wasn’t enough to call in the last minute of a single-elimination playoff game.”

I have commented before on this matter of playoff refereeing -- but this year’s switch to single-game elimination greatly aggravated the problem. I’m aware that this can be construed as an appeal for penalty kicks and red cards. It is not. And I’m certainly aware that this group of playoff games went off well, with the two 4-3 games providing tremendous excitement. Only Dallas might legitimately claim injustice.

But the overriding consideration here must be that the sport be played according to the same rules that are used throughout the global soccer community. That is not an option. It is a commitment. And in the MLS playoffs under discussion, it looked as though MLS had decided not to honor that commitment.

5 comments about "High scoring adds sparkle to playoffs -- but MLS should look closely at faulty refereeing".
  1. Kent James, October 23, 2019 at 1:41 p.m.

    While I agree with Paul on much of this, I'm a little surprised he's complaining about VAR letting the refs on the field decide the game.  While I support VAR, I think the benefit of the doubt should go to the refs on the field. On the refs fear of calling PKs or red cards, that's an inherent ref bias that needs to be actively resisted.  Not calling a PK that should have been called influences the game just as much as calling a PK that shouldn't have been called, the difference is that people remember (and blame you for) the stuff you call much more than the stuff you don't.  While again, the benefit of the doubt should go to the non-call, if the ref is sure, they should call it.  The bigger problem there is if the ref thinks it should be called, but is not absolutely sure, but could probably decide it if it were seen on replay, call it and let VAR review it?  Difficult issue.

    Finally, PG is right that refs should be as consistent as possible, so if it's a penalty it should be a penalty in the first minute of the game or the last, and playoff games should not be reffed differently than other games.

  2. beautiful game, October 23, 2019 at 10:14 p.m.

    The referees are instructed to avoid controversy at all costs, yet to eschew it becomes more controversial for their derection of duty by not consistently enforcing LOTG. They'll react to a flopper, but turn away their heads from wanton challenges. It's the culture that needs to be corrected sooner then later. No one should hold their breath for that moment to arrive.

  3. Larry Beck, October 24, 2019 at 1:48 p.m.

    And there would be even more goals if FIFA would eliminate or modify the abominable off-side rule.  I am sick of the constant crowding on the field, which limits creativity and good passing.  If there were no off-side rule, players could spread out all around the field, which would necessitate man-to man marking and would certainly add more goals, as better players would evade their man and possible score.  The rule could be modified to only apply to the goal area or the penalty area, so as to not have players crowding the goalie.  I am tired of seeing nice goals called back because the player was 1 ft. off side.  One of the FIFA officials recently suggested doing this rule change.

  4. R2 Dad, October 24, 2019 at 5:11 p.m.

    Ah, I see the Teflon Don has intervened earlier than usual this season. Normally it's just the Final that is unwatchable.

  5. Paul Berry, October 29, 2019 at 4:42 p.m.

    Maybe a panel of 3 VARs should be considered for such important once-off games.

    Or we could have a national dial-in and online vote. Call it "The Ref Factor"

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