Progress sometimes comes at a walking pace in Major League Soccer, but it does usually break through. A typical MLS weekend features some good crowds and some mediocre ones. We get splashes of flash, fancy and fizz. And every year, we get more matches that matter and quality of play that climbs steadily.
I know Major League Soccer wants its referees to be good arbiters and good managers of matches. I'm just not sure the execs expect enough from these important men. And I'm not convinced the systems of oversight and quality control have developed sufficiently.
We saw it all once again in the opening weekend of the important "second season," as physical play ruled the day. College kids could have played a drinking game, sloshing one back each time a TV announcer used the word "physical."
Don't we always hear that MLS is a "physical league"? My question: Why must it be that way? Does MLS want to be known as such? Why can't MLS matches be better showcases for skill? Surely a more free-flowing sport is easier to sell than an exchange of turnovers, where players spill and sprawl regularly, where hard-charging and careless athleticism is valued over technical proficiency.
MLS officials disagree with this opinion, but MLS matches generally provide too much benefit of the doubt to defenders, and to defensive actions that cross the line of fair play. MLS referees tolerate too much tough-guy defending, which tramps on skillful attacking. And who wants to see that -- outside of a couple of former defenders-turned-broadcasters who tacitly advocate foul-filled soccer?
In fairness, MLS has had bigger fish to fry in previous years. Refereeing was further down the list, behind critical development issues on stadiums, expansion, TV rights, the designated player initiative, etc. Officiating could be seen as "cosmetic," like buying new furniture after a major home renovation. Fair enough.
But now it's time. The quality of officiating must improve -- whatever that takes.
"No one claims that officiating is where we'd like it to be or that we can't make tangible improvements to help our officials -- an extraordinarily dedicated and self-critical group of individuals," MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said recently via e-mail.
"I believe the referees in Major League Soccer stack up very well against other referees in the region based on what we see in CONCACAF competition and this is independently substantiated by the consistently good ratings our FIFA referees get in international competition," Gazidis said.
Gazidis disagrees strongly with my theory that development in quality of play has simply outpaced development in the quality of officiating.
Referees are human, and some decisions will always spill out incorrectly. That happens all over the world. But my argument is with an entire system that prefers a laissez-faire attitude to actual match management. And that serves to skew the balance of risk-reward in MLS. There is simply too much incentive to foul, without sufficient risk to act as deterrent. Long story short: obstructing, infringing, delaying, grabbing and pushing helps your team, because there's a pretty good chance that permissive refereeing will allow you to get away with it scot-free.
Joe Machnik is Major League Soccer's longtime supervisor of officials. He insists that that MLS does not want "the thugs" to take over the game.
"That's not the direction we want the league to go," Machnik said, assuring that the league really is making a conscientious effort to protect the skillful. He believes that the typical MLS player is highly athletic, so contact that may be interpreted as foul play is often just the intersection of speed and athleticism.
There was speed and athleticism aplenty as Colorado's Ugo Ihemelu all but criminally violated Real Salt Lake's Yura Movsisyan inside the penalty area two weeks ago in the waning minutes of a gripping match. With a playoff spot on the line, Alex Prus, perhaps the worst in MLS in this stubborn refusal to enforce the laws of the game, waved play on!
Indeed, soccer purged of skillful intent and genuine efforts to win the ball, but driven by haphazard speed and athleticism, is unattractive soccer. It punishes the technically proficient. (And yes, the English Premiership is an exception, because the players are so skillful across the board that you actually can have both, speed and expertise. Suffice to say, MLS is not the EPL.)
MLS did indeed attempt to set the table set for more flow in 2008 -- but perhaps went about it incorrectly. In an attempt to reduce the number of fouls -- ostensibly to "keep the game flowing" -- they asked referees to call fewer infractions.
That hardly make sense. That's like "reducing" crime by adjusting the crime stats, by amending the definition of criminal activity. And yet, that's exactly what MLS did. Presumably, Sean Franklin's elbow that broke Jesse Marsch's jaw back on Aug. 14 was adjudged too "ticky-tacky" for a whistle. No foul was called.
We see such examples every week. Chivas USA, for all its commendable efforts to overcome tremendous injury attrition, is among the best at tactical fouling. Midfielders Marsch and Paulo Nagamura know just when to infringe and push to slow down developing attacks. In this league it works because, repeatedly, MLS referees fail to police this cynical approach.
We see lame-o game management every single week. For example, we saw the very picture of feeble refereeing earlier this year when D.C. United's Gonzalo Martinez, after a whistle, fired a ball into the Chicago Fire bench. No talk. No action. Nothing.
And these things matter. Players see what's happening and note the lack of authority. Why bother to behave when players regularly get away with such stunts?
So MLS matches too often devolve into a self-propagating cycle. Fouls, delay tactics, obvious efforts of obstruction and overly aggressive challenges aren't dealt with in early minutes. Players get frustrated. And, being human, they continue to push the limits and test the line. That breeds further frustration. Finally, something snaps. Referees must then emerge from their overly indulgent shells and deal with the problems -- which by then are spiraling out of control.
It's ineffectual refereeing, plain and simple.
Gazidis insists the number of truly sub-par MLS officiating performances is down significantly from earlier years. "As someone who has been involved in the systematic review of literally over 1,000 games over the past 13 years, I believe I am fairly uniquely qualified to make this judgment," he said.
I'll accept his notion that consequentially inept performances have waned. But, again, it's the overall tenor that needs recalibration. It is a tricky balance, which Gazidis says is constantly weighed and discussed among officials, players, coaches and U.S. Soccer.
"Let too much go, and we fail in a fundamental obligation to protect players, in particular skilful players,"Gazidis said. "Call too much, and the game loses the flow and continuity that is one of its greatest appeals.
"Furthermore, there is a cause and effect with any emphasis because players adjust to the environment. So, call too much and we see an increase in diving and tactics that seek to take advantage of set pieces. Too little, and skilful players will be targeted."
U.S. Soccer assigns and oversees referees in the States, including games in MLS. Gazidis and Machnik say they are comfortable with the level of cooperation and oversight granted to MLS by U.S. Soccer and by the Canadian Soccer Association, which assigns referees in Canada.
They say the hiring of a limited number of full-time referees 20 months ago is a constructive move. Further progress, they hope, will ensue from U.S. Soccer's recent shift in referee training focus. Until this year, ongoing instruction pointed toward getting U.S. referees to the World Cup. Now they'll focus more on prepping refs for Major League Soccer.
"We are only in our first year of this, and it's going to take two or three seasons to feel the real benefit of it," Machnik said. "We are hoping by next year there will be an elite corps of officials who focus on the MLS game almost entirely."
A better product is out there if that happens.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.