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Let's Talk About Refs

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I was originally going to entitle this ‘MLS Referees Are Good’ but I cannot make that argument valid. Instead, I am going to play devil’s advocate and make the argument that despite the clear problems with the MLS referees, they are not actually that bad at what they are doing. In addition, I had planned to post this article prior to last weekend’s match, but the recent events did nothing to quell the need for this issue to be discussed.

Not surprisingly, after the terrible calls on Friday and Saturday night, MLSsoccer.com took the opportunity to defend MLS by posting an article discussing how the number of red cards issued over the first 42 matches of 2016 are in-line with the number of cards issues in previous seasons. There are plenty flaws with this weak attempt by MLS to defend itself, but I will not get into those here. If you are curious though, read over the comments.

While MLS’ attempt to defend itself was farcical, I am going to attempt, briefly, to defend the referees. Let’s start with the obvious of: it is hard to be a referee. Let’s be honest, if a ref does a good job, we do not talk about them. If they mess up, we talk about them incessantly. As such, referees get no praise for doing a good job but get abused when they do poorly. Tough job for anyone, but the argument can be made that this is not unknown by referees. Do not go into a job if you cannot handle the pressure. Fair enough.

Another argument that can be made is that the game is fast paced and played on a very large field. It is hard to make split second decisions, in real-time, and get them right 100% of the time. It is the reason why we have seen instant replay creep into many professional sports and why we have seen goal-line technology in soccer. Think about how often we sit at replays and slow them down, and go frame-by-frame, to see if the referee made the right decision. Many times, we can draw a conclusion. However, there are other times we still cannot make a definitive conclusion, and yet, we expect referees to get it right. Many here may argue that ‘yes, we acknowledge that they are in a tough situation and need to make split-second decisions and they will not get them right every time and I am okay with that. The problem I have is that they are making the wrong decisions too many times’. Again, that is a fair assessment. It is partly why I said earlier that I would make the argument that the referees in MLS are not bad, rather than they are good.

While the previous two examples point to the challenges referees face, the crux of my argument is as follows: The quality of play in MLS is still not very good and thus the game is harder to referee. There have been some that have suggested that MLS needs to bring over referees from Europe to officiate matches. I am not sure that would solve the problem. The reason for this is that, despite making positive strides to improve the quality of play in MLS, it is still significantly below the levels of other top leagues. Why does this matter? Because those matches are much harder to officiate. For example, you are less likely (not unlikely, but LESS) to see a CB in a top Euro league so out-of-position that they will lunge in on a tackle that is worthy of a red card. Think of it another way, it is easier to referee a high-quality youth elite game than a recreational league youth game. Why? Because the players are more polished. As a referee you then are told ‘let the players play and learn’. So, you do that. Then you get people yelling at you because you lost control of the game, players could get hurt, the calls are uneven, etc., etc., etc. As a university professor, I can tell you that the ‘good’ essays are easier to mark than the ‘poor’ essays. There is so much wrong with the poor essay that you do not know where to begin. Moreover, you do not want to just hack and slash, even though that is probably what is necessary. Translating this over to MLS, if your standard of ref was at La Liga (or wherever), then I may actually expect each game to finish with 9 players aside.

So, what is the solution? I am not sure. It is hard to determine as MLS is a ‘rougher’ league to begin with. Add to that the poorer quality of play and it seems like a recipe for hate against MLS referees. Obviously the quality of refereeing is not where it needs to be in MLS –I am not trying to make the argument that it is fine- but the solution is not so easily determined. There are plenty of factors that come into play. I mentioned three above, but there are plenty more. What are your thoughts?

Let us know!