MLS referees don’t cut it for World Cup

FIFA released the list of 30 referees from 20 countries who will officiate at the World Cup and the United States is not represented on that list, even as an AR. Putting aside politics and questionable selections such as Martin Hansson, the Swedish referee who missed Thierry Henri’s handball, the decision is a sharp indictment of MLS itself.

MLS brands itself on speed and physicality, which sometimes interprets as limited technical ability and reckless tackling. In the 14 year-old League, referees struggle to enforce rules without reducing matches to 9v10 and enraging fans. Players and coaches complain of inconsistency in officiating, but complain louder when on the receiving end of sending-offs.

Technical areas became so fractious in 2008 that MLS established a zero tolerance policy and directed fourth officials to quickly remove any coaches not in full compliance. Yet in 2009, the infractions persisted and coaches still were ejected and suspended.

In short, MLS referees are fully challenged.

“While disappointed we don’t have a referee that will be part of the 2010 World Cup,” said US Soccer Federation spokesperson Neil Buethe, “we are fully committed to our bigger challenge of continuing to improve and develop the large number of referees in the United States.” The Federation is working with MLS referees (around 23 in 2009) to improve the level of the League, partly by allowing skilled players to perform without being battered.

Angelo Bratsis, a former FIFA referee and now a US referee inspector, defined the situation for US Soccer Players. “We need the Beckhams, the Donovans, the Shalrie Josephs in the game,” said Bratsis.  “We cannot see those players being injured. It goes back to the mentality. We need to promote the game, lay off. We need these players to play 90 minutes every single game, we don’t need them in the hospital. We don’t need them with a broken leg or a broken arm. Lay off. And that goes to the owners and to the general managers and to the coaches. If the coach has a player acting like a jerk, take him out.”

This year the Federation added new initiatives to their existing program for improving and evaluating referees.

Typically, the week before the match, the designated officiating squad of referee, two ARS, and the fourth official research the players and game background under the supervision of an inspector. The officiating team meets at the stadium the day before to discuss the skilled players, the problem players, the match-ups, the coaching philosophies, the consequences of the game, and then they map out a strategy. The inspector evaluates the officials during the game, and after the officiating team reviews the match on DVD they critique their decisions with the inspector. The inspector writes up a report for each official and sends it on to the inspector of their next match, as well as to MLS and the Federation.

For 2010, the Federation has increased the fitness requirements of MLS referees to FIFA standards and is requiring inspectors to retest annually.

To improve communication, the Federation offers to send a representative to each team for a preseason meeting to explain old and new directives face-to-face with the players and coaches. In 2009, five teams engaged in that meeting.

Directives are established to remedy the most common and egregious fouls of the previous season. The number of red cards increased in 2009 because of directives regarding contact above the shoulder and illegal use of arm and elbow in the head or neck. Another directive addressed mass confrontations by issuing a yellow card to the third man in. In 2010, players will be increasingly cautioned for time-wasting and unsporting behavior when teams kill the clock by delaying restarts and putting the ball into play.

Although directives are emailed to general managers and coaches, they don’t seem to reach the players.

“I felt it wasn’t passed on to the rank and file, to the players,” said Bratsis, “because if they did, they wouldn’t be doing the things that they’re doing. When they get fined, when they get sent off, there’s all kind of problems and we say, ‘Take a look at this clip, isn’t this you?’”

“We have a player that was sent off because he got a second yellow after scoring a winning goal because he was so happy he took his shirt off,” said Bratsis. “This has been a directive for the last two years! You take your shirt off, it’s a yellow card. What are you taking it off for? And he’s bitching and moaning and saying, you’ve got to be kidding! ‘No, I’m not kidding, you’re going off. I don’t want to send you off, but I have to send you off. I know you’re happy and want to impress your girlfriend, but you can’t take your shirt off and I have to send you off.’”

“’Well, you’re an @#$%, referee,’ says the player.”

“’Well, thank you very much and for retaliating you’ll get another suspension.’ That’s discipline. If there are flames you don’t put more gas on the fire. ‘You’re going to be sent off and now you’re going to call me names and curse my mother, my sister, and my kids and everybody else and make all kinds of gestures? Well, I’m going to have to write you up. And you persist in this conduct after you’re sent off, so now that means that not only do you get a red card for taking your shirt off, but now you’ve got an additional game or two and possibly a $500 fine for being a @#$%.’ And they still do it! And this brings me back full circle to coaching and discipline.”

A couple years ago, that lack of discipline was the main topic of a successful panel discussion between referees, four MLS and US Men’s National Team players, and coach Bob Bradley. The referees asked questions like, “What do you want from us?” and “What fouls do you tolerate?” and the players responded candidly. The referees pointed how English players accept cautions and go on with their game, while MLS players often dissent or throw tantrums. The players admitted they lacked discipline.

One young referee said [paraphrased]: “Why do you do some of the dumb things you do in the home field? Like dissent and mass confrontation, gestures, foul mouth, fouls designed to endanger the safety of a player? Why do you do it if we’re trying to promote the game?”

A prominent National Team member responded [paraphrased], “We do it because you allow it. If I do something stupid and you don’t do anything to me, I’m going to keep on doing it. You put me in my place when you give me a yellow card and I’ll shape up. You guys don’t take care of business, so I keep on doing it. I do it because you allow it.’”

“My respect for [that player] went up ten-fold,” said Bratsis. “The kid’s got character, he tells it like it is. And that was the message for the whole year. They do it because we allow it.”

But when referees eject players, crowds blame the referees for deciding the game. Fairly, some of the responsibility falls not only on the players, but the coaches and ownership that encourage this style of play.

The rough tackles and lack of discipline in MLS sometimes carries over to the National Team. Recently Jimmy Conrad was sent off in the 18th minute vs Honduras for fouls that would easily pass in MLS. Ricardo Clark, Michael Bradley, and Sacha Kljestan also have been ejected for fouls that are run of play in MLS. So it’s not surprising that MLS referees, who officiate a different standard of play, were not selected as World Cup referees.

The lack of discipline within the League can hold back player development. It’s expected that Bradley’s World Cup first team will be almost entirely comprised of foreign-based players. Although they’re playing abroad because they’re the best American talent, it also can be argued that the best American talent in MLS cannot fully develop their technical and strategic abilities with the frantic pace and defensive style the League is trending.

“It goes back to management, it goes back to coaching, it goes back to objectives – are you trying to promote this game?” said Bratsis. “Are you trying to make it a predominant sport in the country? Are you trying to compete with major soccer powers? If that’s what you’re trying to do, you better clean up your house.”

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