Home MLS More MLS Red-card happy MLS referees: It’s a case of ‘Be careful what you wish for…’

Red-card happy MLS referees: It’s a case of ‘Be careful what you wish for…’

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On Saturday night, both the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC had players sent off. As is the case with most of the times a ref brandishes the red card, there were many howls of protest. And, we’re seeing more and more fans question why MLS refs are punishing infractions more severely than they have in the past.

Many will argue that Matias Laba’s sending-off on Saturday night wasn’t warranted, that he was making a legitimate slide tackle on the ball. Toronto FC fans will argue that Benoit Cheyrou’s, ahem, “elbow” didn’t warrant his second yellow of the evening.

The growing theme amongst MLS supporters is not what the refs are missing, but what they’re calling. Phantom fouls that result in penalties, red cards for harsh but not-that-dirty tackles.

Damn straight that refs are calling the games more closely and more harshly than ever before. And guess what? It’s because fans and the league asked them to do it that way, that’s why. Before griping about the calls we’re seeing, remember this…


Let’s all head to S.T.A.R. Labs and “zoom” back to 2011. Back then, MLS had a nasty international reputation as being a dirty league, a place where fouls often went unpunished and player safety was not cared about. When I covered the league for the Sun back in the early TFC years, I’d lost count of the number of times players and league officials spoke out about “serious foul play.” That’s in quotes because it was a term I heard all the time. There were worries that the league’s rep for lawlessness kept international players away, and that it prevented MLS from attracting fans of other leagues.

Remember that, at that time, maybe the most replayed incident in an MLS game was not a goal or a great save, but Houston’s Ricardo Clark kicking FC Dallas’s Carlos Ruiz when Ruiz was on the ground.

In 2010, then-MLS discipline domo Nelson Rodriguez had to issue an edict to all the teams in the league at the time about a series of violent incidents that marred the preseason, including dirty tackles that targeted star players such as New York’s Juan Pablo Angel. ““Certainly we do not want MLS to be characterized by frequent violent conduct or serious foul play,” he said at the time.

Peter Nowak, the Philadelphia Union’s coach at the time, said “at some of these games, it’s like a freak show and a circus.”

In 2011, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City confronted each on the on the field in a preseason game.

So, in 2011, PRO referees — the organizations which oversees officiating in North American pro soccer — was launched. But with it came an edict from MLS. Crack down on fouls. Before the 2011 season, commissioner Don Garber said “the man on ball will be protected a lot more than in the past.” That meant that referees were instructed to err on the side of the attacking player. (CLICK HERE FOR MORE)

But, in 2011, the rash challenges continued. In arguably the most high-profile play of the season, Seattle’s Steve Zakuani had his leg shattered. Real Salt Lake star Javier Morales fell victim to a brutal tackle. And, while it wasn’t a dirty play, FC Dallas’s David Ferreira — regarded as the league’s best player at the time — suffered a serious injury as a result of a challenge from Vancouver’s Jonathan Leathers.

Now, remember how we all bayed for the head of Brian Mullan, the player whose tackle basically ended Zakuani’s career? Remember how we all said that MLS has to do better to protect its players?

So, in 2012 Garber was back at it; he promised that the league would do more to protect its star players. He admitted the league had a problem with dirty play. (CLICK HERE FOR MORE)

And so we began the pattern which we see continued today. MLS does not want to go back to the days where it’s seen as a cowboy-rules circuit. It does not want to go back to the days of “yet another leg-breaking tackle.” Refs have been instructed to call the game close. It’s been five years since MLS launched its crackdown, but you have to remember that the referees who call MLS, NASL and USL games are coming up through the PRO culture; referees who don’t let a lot go lead to more referees who don’t let a lot go.

And, in 2016 (thank to Michael Crampton for pointing this out), Peter Walton, the head of PRO Referees, was quoted on MLS’s own website, speaking about how there still were NOT enough red cards being shown to players. He said that PRO’s research found that 28 per cent of red-card offences in MLS games were missed. So, there’s even more pressure than before on refs to show red in 2016. (CLICK HERE TO SEE IT)

So you wonder how we got here? Really? Five years ago, we were all asking MLS to get tough on offenders.

And if you think replay will change some of these calls, ask yourself: How many of these cards is the Disciplinary Committee overturning? (Crickets). How many suspensions are we seeing for unpunished-at-the-time incidents that the DisCo felt were red-card offences? (Wide show of hands).

Before thinking that giving refs more tools to second-guess themselves will change the game, we have to ask themselves if, under the call-everything culture, that they’d actually second-guess themselves.

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