YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


MLS referees aren't keeping up with the game

Two recent games, both involving the Portland Timbers, show that the league still has a lot of work to do regarding officials.

June 25, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • Referee Ricardo Salazar gives a yellow card to Portland's Adam Moffat after a seemingly minor incident last week. New York's Thierry Henry, right, was ejected.
Referee Ricardo Salazar gives a yellow card to Portland's Adam Moffat… (Steve Dykes / Getty Images )

Somewhere along the line, the message is not getting through.

Let the players play the game and keep the referees and assistant referees out of the picture as much as possible.

The more invisible the referee, the better the game. That was the notion espoused decades ago by one of the sport's finest officials, the late Ken Aston, a World Cup referee from England and inventor of the system of red and yellow cards.

In Aston's view, the referee should be seen as the conductor of the orchestra, and not try to be the featured soloist. At the final whistle, no one should be talking about the man in the middle.

But whoever is in charge of officiating in Major League Soccer apparently can't communicate this simple concept.

As a result, MLS referees — already prone to making more mistakes than should be tolerated in a professional league — often appear to have no clue about how to manage players during a match. Nor, it seems, can some of them keep up with the speed and guile of today's players.

While the standard of play in MLS has unquestionably improved over the years, the standard of officiating has not kept pace. Referees react rather than understand.

Two recent games involving the expansion Portland Timbers dramatically underscored this point.

The first was the Timbers' June 11 home game against the defending MLS champion Colorado Rapids. It ended 1-0 in favor of the Rapids, the goal coming in injury time.

But the story only began there. In his postgame news conference, Portland Coach John Spencer, understandably upset that his team had yielded the late goal, unleashed a tirade against the officials, especially referee Abiodun Okulaja.

Spencer, 39, a former Rangers, Chelsea and Scotland national team player, had been red-carded in the game's dying seconds for dissent. That dissent continued in the news conference and on into the days that followed.

On a hand-ball infraction that was not called, Spencer said: "My 67-year-old mother-in-law can see it from the club deck. There's an official standing right there, and you're asking me why I'm having a go at the fourth official?"

On Okulaja's alleged lack of fitness: "The referee was getting tired. He couldn't cover the ground. And I said that to the fourth official, 'He can't cover the ground. He's blowing calls from 50 to 60 yards away.' Poor, poor performance by the referee."

On the state of MLS officiating, Spencer said: "You can't keep brushing this . . . under the carpet . . . and hoping it's going to go away."

On referees' responsibility: "When guys are making decisions that change careers and change the course of games, then [they] must explain [their] actions."

The result of this meltdown was predictable.

After reviewing the comments, Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, suspended Spencer for one game and fined him $2,500.

"John Spencer's recent public criticism of MLS officials was not constructive and will not be tolerated," Garber said in a statement.

"We recognize that referees' decisions can be debated, but public comments cannot impugn the credibility of the officials or the league. MLS requires that its players, coaches, and club leadership maintain proper respect for the officials at all times."

That is difficult to do when so many decisions are so laughably wrong.

In any event, the Timbers, minus Spencer, were involved in another refereeing brouhaha a week later when they played to a 3-3 tie with the visiting New York Red Bulls.

This time, the referee was Ricardo Salazar, and again the problem arose in injury time.

Portland's Adam Moffat and New York's Thierry Henry, the former French World Cup winner, got into a spat but seemed to have sorted it out themselves, with Henry giving Moffat a couple of harmless slaps on the back of the head and Moffat replying with a shove.

No big deal. Just players with too much testosterone.

But a fussy assistant referee flagged the incident and Salazar responded by tossing Henry out of the game and giving Moffat a yellow card.

"That's ridiculous," one of the game's television broadcasters correctly said. "The referee, no one's paying to see him. There's no need to do that. It's ridiculous."

Said New York Coach Hans Backe: "If it was written down in the match report as violent conduct, that's a joke."

Later, Erik Soler, New York's general manager and sporting director, gave a more measured response.

"We have carefully reviewed the film of our match against Portland last night and I can safely say that the level of refereeing was absolutely below the standards of what is required for a MLS match and completely unacceptable," Soler wrote.

"We are aware that U.S. Soccer and MLS are working hard to improve the officiating in this country and we support those efforts wholeheartedly. However, if we want to continue [improving] the level of play, we cannot let these types of refereeing performances occur."

Amen to that.

Los Angeles Times Articles