Mar 14, 2011

MLS, Refereeing Standards and the 2011 Season

Last week, MLS Commissioner Don Garber made some comments about officiating for the upcoming MLS season--which thankfully is starting tomorrow.  Garber wants to see a drastic reduction in studs up challenges, better and more accurate offside calls and a cracking down on the practical muggings that some defenders in the league get away with among other things.  Garber wants more attacking soccer and I agree.  While Garber's comments are certainly welcome--he doesn't get any say in the priorities for officiating--that duty belongs to the U.S. Soccer Federation.

That is not to say that Garber's and MLS' wishes on officiating will go unheeded, but MLS doesn't hire or appoint the officials for MLS games, the USSF and the Canadian Soccer Federation do.  The USSF sets out priorities that it wants MLS referees and indeed referees at all levels to be especially watchful for, in addition to enforcing the laws of the game.  In the past, there has been an emphasis on blows to the head, handling the ball offenses, denial of obvious goal scoring opportunities and the like.  It is not that MLS and Garber are wrong--I think everyone in the game will appreciate the significant reduction or elimination of studs up tackles or making sure we get offside calls right and the like.

I don't think Garber is criticizing referees just to be critical.  He has a product to sell and attacking soccer puts people in the stands.  So his criticisms should be considered in that light.  But critiques of refereeing have been, it seems to me, growing steadily.

Referees are, more and more, criticized for making decisions that affect the outcome of the game.  But that is not a phenomenon unique to MLS.  Indeed it can happen at any level and I have been the referee who had to make that fateful decision.  Referees worldwide, even some of the best in the game, are consistently criticized by coaches, players and fans.  Most of the criticisms are not well founded, formulated, as they usually are, in the conspiracies of fandom.  As a fan, I sometimes wish more calls went my team's way.  But, as a referee I usually don't want to hear from anyone who has never passed a certification test, let alone actually picked up a whistle and called a game at any level, let alone one anywhere close to a professional level.

There are many calls to do something about refereeing, but there has to be a starting point.  As a referee there should be two goals for every game, at any level:  1.  Keep the players as safe as possible; and 2. Enforce the laws of the game consistently.

The challenge facing Garber and USSF is the second.  Much of the criticism of referees stems from a lack of consistency.  What one referee believes to be a good challenge might get called as foul by another.  What one referee considers a yellow card offense, another might believe warrants a talking and yet another might consider a straight red card offense.  There may be some inconsistencies in between referees that can never be eliminated.  Sit in any high level seminar for referees looking at game situations and you might get many divergent opinions on what to do in a given situation.

But what MLS and USSF could do is start helping referees become more consistent with themselves.  I believe that is where the problem lies, not necessarily inconsistency between referees, but inconsistency by the same referee.  The most difficult six words in may of the laws of the game are "in the opinion of the referee."  This allows for discretion by the referee to apply the laws in a common sense way consistent with the game.  The problem may that individual referees themselves are internally inconsistent with themselves.  While a referee's opinion may change over time, you would hope that the change would A) not happen in the span of one game and B) happen slowly over time in relation to other developments in the game.

My proposal would be instead of looking at each game in isolation as an evaluative tool, MLS and USSF should be looking at a referee's performance over multiple games and seeking to make the individual referee consistent in his application of the laws of the game over time--not just in one game, but in an entire season.  In short make sure the referees opinion is consistently applied.  Helping referees to be consistent with themselves will go a long way to improving refereeing--in the MLS and in other leagues.

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