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.

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