Columnists, Sports

Indirect Kick: Major League Soccer, minor league refs


The MLS playoffs are upon us and with the conference semifinals underway, American soccer has taken the global stage. A much-improved league, the MLS is starting to gain global prominence. A multitude of new faces in the league have allowed the MLS to become more popular.

However, there is still the issue of the MLS being taken seriously. And the sad truth is, it can never be on the same level as some of the European leagues. It’s not because of the quality of the players. And it definitely provides a bigger challenge than other leagues in terms of travel length. But the real reason the MLS lacks the seriousness of bigger world leagues is because of its referees.

The Professional Referee Organization is an independent body responsible for managing the referee program for all leagues across the United States and Canada. The PRO was built to increase the quality of officiating in the U.S. and Canadian professional leagues.

The PRO, rather, has done anything but.

In every game, across all stages of world soccer, there will likely be an officiating mistake, usually very minor. However, game in and game out in the MLS, a referee makes a mistake that sometimes costs a team a chance to win.

Take the recent playoff match between the New England Revolution and D.C. United on Oct. 28. In the waning seconds, the Revolution, trailing 2-1, drove all players forward for one final chance to equalize. Jermaine Jones ran with the ball down the left side of the box. His ensuing cross was blocked by D.C. defender Sean Franklin, only Franklin clearly used his hand to block it.

Now, this isn’t me being a distraught fan of the Revolution, because this was a blatant call. Because of the league’s contractual agreement, the game was not available on cable, so I watched the feed from the United Kingdom’s Sky Sports 2. Their commentators, who were grilling referee Mark Geiger all game because of his inconsistency, responded to his wrongful calls and his infatuation with the spray chalk.

But for this call, they were appalled. Earlier in the game, the Revs were called for a similar infraction, which Geiger called. But this time, standing within feet of the play, he made the call to continue playing.

The Revolution were obviously enraged by the call, and even Franklin had a guilty look on his face. But Geiger somehow seemed to miss it. And it wasn’t his first time.

Another issue with Geiger is that his first instinct on any foul is to show a card. In any game Geiger referees, it is expected that many a card will be shown.

Now, why am I so heavily critical of Geiger? Well, considering he is regarded as the PRO’s best referee, and represented the United States and CONCACAF at the 2014 World Cup, you would think a referee of his caliber would have better control of the game.

Recently, the MLS released a video from the PRO about what life as a soccer referee is like. Extremely busy, there is constant physical training, performance evaluation and film sessions in order to provide the best instruments for success. The program itself is comprehensive and prepares the referees well.

But it still somehow doesn’t prevent costly calls. Other leagues, all over the world, find ways to minimize costly referee error. No referee can ever be perfect, but they can be in a position to make the right calls.

The MLS is far behind the rest of the world in terms of the quality of its referees. No other league is as marred by poor officiating decisions as the MLS. And it’s a real shame.

When fans from around the world look at MLS, they see a radically growing fan base, better players and questionable decisions by the referee. If the Sky Sports broadcast isn’t evidence enough, The Guardian released an article back in August detailing how coaches across the MLS and CONCACAF have condemned debatable referee decisions. It posed the question, “Are MLS referees up to the job?”

Orlando City SC head coach Adrian Heath put it best in a postgame press conference after the third consecutive game of having a player on his team ejected.

“I don’t really know what to say about the officials anymore,” Heath said. “If I say something I get fined, but if I say nothing, nothing changes. I think the referee has made so many wrong decisions, against both sides, that it’s hard to understand.”

Well said, Mr. Heath. It is very hard to understand. Development of MLS referees is falling behind the overall development of the league. And for a growing league like MLS, this spells disaster.

To close, the MLS has the potential to be right up there with the Barclays Premier League. However, if the referees remain subpar, the MLS will become a laughing stock.

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