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Another year, another MLS promise to crack down on fouls

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When MLS talks about its state of officiating, sports fans are easily reminded of the National Hockey League.

Remember how, for years, the NHL would announce a new initiative against holding/clutching/grabbing/hooking/interference on an almost annual basis, and how the more the league tried to change the ways officials called the game, the more they stayed the same?

Well, MLS is now caught in a similar rut.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post’s Steve Goff reported that MLS was looking at making some changes to better protect star players. (SEE IT HERE)

Now, here are a couple of quotes from league commissioner Don Garber.

“The man on ball will be protected a lot more than in the past,” said Garber.

“Verbal warnings without punishment aren’t working for us,” said Garber.

Guess what? These quotes weren’t from last week. They were from March of 2011, when MLS announced, cough, that it had instructed referees to get tough with players who were persistent with their fouling and violent conduct.

Still, MLS lost stars Javier Morales and Steve Zakuani to serious injuries after suffering red-card challenges. It also lost MVP David Ferreira to severe injury, but that’s not really part of the conversation. There was nothing wrong with Whitecap Jonathan Leathers’ challenge. There was no foul called on the play.

So, in 2012, it’s a case of everything old is new again. Another year, another crackdown.

Yes, under the new system, the disciplinary committee has greater powers to suspend or fine players who committed violent acts that went undetected by referees. But, as in past years, for additional punishment to be handed down, the committee must vote unanimously to do so. So, for the moment, it does look a bit like window dressing, a la the NHL.

MLS has taken some proactive and rather groundbreaking measures in the past when it comes to discipline; last year, it penalized Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio and D.C. United’s Charlie Davies for diving, even though the players, in each case, won game-altering penalties for their clubs. Rather than act like pretty well every other league in the world that says diving is a heinous crime — but don’t actually do anything about the problem — MLS fined and suspended name players for pratfalls.

But, when it comes to serious fouls, it will take more than a beefed-up disciplinary committee and more dialogue with the soccer bodies in Canada and the United States to improve the quality of refereeing in MLS. Soccer federations can only do so much to improve the quality of officiating, because the officials themselves are only part-timers.

It’s really a truism of not only soccer but of most major pro sports in North America. The athletes make the big bucks and are full-time employees; the referees, the guys whose decisions are scrutinized by instant replays, who are unmercifully and, many times, unfairly heckled by crowds, are part-timers making basically what amounts to beer money — at least when it’s compared to their full-time jobs.

If you were to explain the concept of pro sports to a novice, and that person were to ask what people made — they’d likely scratch their heads at the idea that the person on the field whose job it is to make all the important decisions doesn’t get close to the pay scale of even the lower-tier players on the pitch.

Until referees are full-time employees of associations or pro leagues, until the teams and managers who gripe about referees actually contribute to some kind of fund that makes it possible for the refs to get full-time wages and professional development, there really isn’t much that can be done to vastly improve the quality of officiating.

Refereeing isn’t ever really advertised as a real soccer career — because it isn’t. It’s a hobby for part-timers. And that mentality needs to change. And to do that, the people in charge need to allocate money not for better courses or more committee meetings, but for wages. If referees are full-timers, they are more accountable for their actions — and their mistakes. But right now, censuring referees is sorta like complaining about the service you get at a fast-food place. Someone messed up doing something that isn’t a full-time job.

We want to develop players. We want to develop coaches. But we don’t do nearly enough to develop referees. And, until we change that mentality — and leagues are willing to commit dollars to officiating, take this to the bank : We will hear about another MLS get-tough mandadte in 2013. And in 2014. And in…


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