Where Is The Referee Improvement In MLS?

From Bay Area Bias

3 Red Cards. A fight. A penalty retaken.

These things, when combined, might be seen in one full weekend of action in any other soccer league in the world. Yet it all happened in a single night of Major League Soccer action.

Truth-be-told, it all happened in a single game.

Last night’s 1-1 draw between hosts D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union gave a national audience a high-definition view of the crazy things that can happen when a referee loses control of a match. The casual observer might think that the calls late in the match were the crux of the problem. Yet if you take the entire match into consideration, those events were only the culmination.

To be fair, it has been a whirlwind month for referee Mark Geiger. He was awarded the honor of representing CONCACAF as an arbiter in the 2012 London Olympic Games. He was put in charge of two matches. The first saw him put Spain, one of the tournament’s favorites, down a man with a highly questionable call. They lost to Japan in that match 1-0, setting them on the course to an early exit. His second match saw Japan again benefit from an early red to defeat Egypt 3-0 in the quarterfinals, although this ejection was a much less contentious professional foul.

So fast forward to last night. The Union get an early garbage goal off a set piece, with Brian Carroll knocking in the loose ball. Things are moving along well, a little chippy but nothing out of the ordinary.

Then it happened.

There is a point in many MLS games where the referee loses control. You might ask, “How does that happen?” It’s when the referee starts to lose the respect of the ones who are working hard, busting their tails out on the pitch: the players. The way it happened in the match last night was a simple yellow card shown to Sheanon Williams for “time wasting”…in the 37th minute.

Here’s the thing: time wasting happens. Do you really think a keeper needs to wave his hands to push his players forward on a goal kick while a defender comes back to take a short ground pass? Of course not. There are minutes of time wasted every match, time which is redeemed at the end of each half. As a matter of fact, Freddy Adu wasted more time getting off the pitch in the 69th minute than Williams did trying to get a ball back into play in the 37th.

Last night, Ben Olsen laid it out plain and simple: “It’s the Geiger show. He wants to make the big call to change a game.” Of course Olsen was directing this comment in reference to an infraction on Dwayne DeRosario’s penalty kick in the 87th minute where Hamdi Salihi entered the 10 yard circle before DeRosario struck the ball. And by the Laws of the Game, Geiger was right to nullify the goal – just as he was justified in flashing a yellow card at Williams on that earlier throw-in.

What do those two situations have in common? They are both what I would call “disproportionate use of power.” It would be like Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor pulling out his high-powered Binford nail gun to hang a picture. And thus, MLS referees garner a similar level of respect as “The Tool Man” would have in relevant home improvement circles were he real. It’s not that referees like Geiger consistently stink it up, but every few matches their egos get the better of them, and fans are left praying that no one gets hurt.

That’s how it went at RFK Stadium. The early yellow on Williams likely contributed to Geiger failing to punish Williams for an incident later in the match. Andy Najar and Williams tangled near the touch line, and Williams looked to kick out at Najar in anger. This is an offense that should clearly be punished with a yellow – but a second yellow would have sent off Williams, a result which may have weighed on Geiger’s mind. Instead, an incident endangering the safety of a player went unpunished, further ratcheting the tempers between the two rivals.

The nullification of DeRosario’s penalty later resulted in a scrum, landing Branko Boskovic an early exit. Then in stoppage time, both teams had players sent off for reckless challenges. Matches like this devolve to ugly scenes of petulance, perhaps vigilante justice, as the players see the uneven dispensation of punishment. They lose confidence that the referee is handling the game properly, and then it becomes a free-for-all when they see players’ harmful actions treated with kid gloves.

You may wonder why I didn’t bring up Nick DeLeon’s disallowed goal. Of all of those calls, I think that’s the one that bears most resemblance to a “tough break.” You could see that foul called in any league, as officials tend to protect goalkeepers as a default. Still, it’s easy to see why Olsen, D.C. United President Kevin Payne, and their fans were incensed after this match.

So what needs to change? Maybe it’s training, as US Soccer and MLS have tried to address in recent months. They’ve hired a well-respected English referee named Peter Walton to help with this aspect. If it helps, then great. I’m not sure that is the entire problem. I also don’t think it’s what Olsen suggested, referees looking for glory – though in certain cases it could be true.

My perspective sees this as the use (or lack of use) of common sense in the heat of the moment to make sound judgments as officials. Every person is granted with a certain measure of common sense, although sometimes people can acquire it over time. Fans have to hope that the current group of MLS officials have that trait, and that the governing body can develop and bring that out in them.

One place where common sense could be used is through effective communication. Referees should honest dialog with players as the first line of defense. In the case of Williams, Geiger could have blown the whistle, told him to hurry it up, and added 3o seconds onto stoppage time. There is no good reason to punish a player in the early stages of a match for something so minor as time wasting – especially when it’s not a clear infraction (such as kicking a ball away). In my eyes, the same goes for diving and dissent – they are punished way too often with cards in MLS.

Common sense is the key in my book. No referee is going to be perfect, but I believe if a referee uses common sense to guide their choices for punishment, the players will follow suit and show respect for the official as well as each other.

We keep waiting for the improvement in MLS officiating to come, but at times it leaves us feeling like it’s getting worse rather than better. Here’s hoping steps forward are taken, and the DCU-Philadelphia match will one day be looked upon as the nadir.

This entry was posted in DC United, MLS Talk, Officiating, Philadelphia Union, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Where Is The Referee Improvement In MLS?

  1. Michael says:

    The reaction to that match was completely out of line with what
    happened (it could be argued that “common sense” is what’s lacking
    in the fan reaction). Every single call was perfectly reasonable in
    and of itself — of that there can be no argument. The only crime
    Geiger might be guilty of is coming back from being selected by
    FIFA for the 2012 Olympics – think about that – and forgetting that
    refs are instructed to let MLS players get away with things they’d
    be tossed for in other world leagues.

  2. scottymac says:

    I think where he failed was in the calls he didn’t make. He warned
    Lahoud a number of times for tackles that merited a yellow. Same
    with both Farfans.The PK retake was valid as there was
    encroachment. MLS has instructed the refs to protect the keeper, so
    booting a ball out of the hands of a prone keeper will get waved
    off (though he was slow with the whistle). The Williams yellows
    were odd, he got all ball on the second. There’s no room in the
    game for all the shoving and fighting, and it seems to happen in
    every Union match. The U play chippy and show their youth when
    frustrated.I don’t think DCU has as much to be upset about for the
    ref as they’ve made out. If Olsen wants to yell at someone, maybe
    Pontius for his unnecessary run into the arc, or DeRo for skying
    the second. Or Brankovic for fighting. They were starting to show
    the talent gap between the two teams and just couldn’t get it done.

  3. Charles says:

    I watched it and didn’t really think he did a bad job. You are
    basically saying he called the call correct, but he should have
    given the guy leeway. There is a HUGE moral hazard there. Guys
    stalling in the 37 minute doesn’t get called, take a guess whether
    he stalls more or less the next time………………….. A guy
    slide tackles someone from behind, AFTER a fight. He is going to
    get a red carded, if only for stupidity. IF not guess what happens
    ? Same with the second yellow-red card. You know you have a yellow
    and you foul on a breakaway, AFTER red cards issued. Not really
    sure if he was expecting different. No moral hazard there, don’t
    give second yellows because of the consequence. ( I didn’t see the
    first non-yellow, but if it was a yellow it should have been given
    )…………………………….Not giving the first yellow is
    the WRONG answer.

    • Earl Reed says:

      I have to disagree Charles. It’s a sacrifice you have to make at this point, in my opinion, because the inherent styles that are played in this country are negative. Some of that is financial. When you are bringing in guys at $46K a year, you aren’t always getting the most technically sophisticated players available. If the level of petulance in MLS was much lower, I’d be all for carding a guy for time wasting before the 40 minute mark. But right now, MLS has a problem with their best players being the targets of hack jobs. Two players in this match could have had serious leg injuries, I don’t care how much of the ball Sheanon Williams took.

      Here’s hoping at your next traffic stop for speeding that the referee gives you a warning for that, and then gives you a $1,000 ticket for your tag light being out. 🙂

  4. The original Tom says:

    I disagree as well. Yellow cards should be given for time wasting,
    diving, and dissent; no matter what minute the infraction occurs.
    Watching time wasting is boring, adding 30 seconds does not change
    that. Plus, red cards are fun; so why not give the early yellow if
    an infraction occurs?

  5. Jeromy says:

    Not sure we all watched the same game. Geiger and company stunk it
    up. He has in the past this season really done horrendous. The goal
    waved off was bogus, It was not a DC United player that booted the
    ball from the keeper, it was a Union defender and the kepper did
    not have control of the ball in the first place. The yellow cards
    and eventual red were crap. Much of the author of this article i
    agree with the ref’s have in no way been consistant this year or
    punished the players fairly. You cannot yellow card so early in the
    game over a trival play and let another more horrendous play go
    cause of not wanting to red. Not that that happened last night but
    it has been. The officiating has not improved and in “other”
    leagues around the world the ref’s would not lose control, like
    they have here. im a Sounders fan and have seen plenty of trash
    officiating this year as well as years past and I really feel for
    DC United and the other teams who have had to deal with this below
    average crap ref’s. For this league to be completely respected by
    the common fan the officiating needs to improve. As the NFL has
    chosen to sit on the Leagues ref’s CBA and are paying 4tier
    Offcials to call the preseason so far, it has diminshed the play of
    the game from blown crap calls.

  6. SSReporters says:

    Improve it with addition by subtraction. Dump Salazar, Toledo, and
    Geiger and it’s already improved.

    • Daniel Feuerstein says:

      But the next question is this, who are the next ones to come in and
      either be solid, or stink up the joint.

    • Earl Reed says:

      This is a combo answer for SSR and Daniel – absolutely turnover the bad apples, if you can prove consistently poor choices on the pitch. Like I said in the article, I think a lot of this is common sense, and some guys don’t have that. I’m sorry, when you are carding someone for time wasting at the 37th minute (when it didn’t appear he had been warned at all), your level of common sense needs to be called into question. It’s not exactly like a dive where the referee has no remediation outside the use of carded discipline…time can be added at the end of the half. It’s just a bad call by a historically suspect referee, and those who justify it only kick the can further down the road.

  7. Alan says:

    I would say that the officiating definitely needs to improve. There
    is no argument about that. Unfortunately I wasn’t around to watch
    the game in question. I am just going on my past experience going
    to Earthquakes games, and when I went to see Columbus and Chicago a
    couple of times when I lived in Michigan.

  8. Oscar says:

    It saddens me that this game made you upset, but MLSTalk’s
    contributors had less to say about an almost identically bad match
    of far higher profile: the US Open Cup. Sounders had a red card and
    two yellows despite having a fraction of the fouls of the other
    team. KC’s only goal was on a handball penalty that A. didn’t
    appear to exist and B. was clearly not visible to the ref; he was
    trusting in KC’s word. And the game ended on a note of
    uncompromising garbage: giving KC a do-over shot for a keeper being
    off his line, when there was an identical transgression by them.
    https://p.twimg.com/Az1HTivCIAAEJiN.jpg I get that we all root for
    our particular teams, and those grievances are the ones we care
    about the most, and this blog is LA/NY/DC focused. But imagine this
    game having silverware on the line, and you’ll know why it saddens
    Seattle that such officiating didn’t get a mention on here with a
    similarly rant-heavy tone.

    • Charles says:

      Doesn’t it seem that people seem to think that bad refs are the
      ones that messed up their teams chances…… like Earl is
      complaining about a Philly game and Oscar is complaining about the
      Sounders game….and if anyone agrees that the MLS ref’s stink (
      away from the moron trolls ), they bring up an example of their
      team getting screwed by him. Salazar for the Sounders ( more than
      once ), etc……………………..” Bad ” reffing and biased
      fans complaining about it, are part of the game, but it happens
      everywhere, not just here. Finally thought, the US should have been
      in the final four in 2002. 😉

  9. Biohazard says:

    One of the biggest problems for MLS officiating is the inclusion of Mark Geiger. Looking back over his career shows many matches that HE decided with questionable calls. He should be removed from the MLS.

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