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Serie A heavyweights head-to-head

50-50 Challenge 2 days ago
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May 20, 2009

DiCicco delivers critical verdict on WPS officiating

Two weeks after Abby Wambach's reckless challenge ended Daniela's season and a week after watching his own star player, Kelly Smith, get fouled seven times, Boston coach Tony DiCicco decided to discuss the officiating in Women's Professional Soccer. DiCicco spent a large portion of his news conference after Sunday's 1-1 draw with Washington addressing the quality of the refereeing so far.

"It's just not good enough. It's not good enough," DiCicco said. "They're over their head, and they have to learn; just like the players have to learn to play at this level and the coaches have to get better at coaching at this level, the refereeing has to get better at this level.

"It becomes a safety concern. Here's the thing -- these games are gonna get more intense. They're not gonna be lesser games. They're gonna have more hitting and more combative play. The refereeing has to get better, and they have to find, if it isn't good enough, they have to find people that are good enough. It's not just the center referee, either, it's the assistant referees on the outside."

DiCicco was especially upset about what he felt was repeated fouling of his team's two stars, Smith and Kristine Lilly. Smith has been fouled a league-high 21 times (as has St. Louis captain Lori Chalupny). Lilly and fellow Breakers forward Kelly Schmedes have each been fouled 14 times, third most in the league. Through seven games, Boston as a team has been fouled a league-high 87 times, 19 more times than the team in second place, the Los Angeles Sol, who also have played seven games.

"I don't want to see my players hurt, and I know [Freedom coach] Jim Gabarra and the other coaches in the league don't want to see their players hurt. You've got to protect the creative player. Every time Kelly Smith gets the ball, they're at her heels. They're kicking, and she's not going to dive."

When asked whether Smith, who was less involved in Sunday's match than usual, was hurt, DiCicco continued to discuss the referees.

"[Smith] gets whacked every game. Last game, she was fouled seven times. Those are the ones that are called. ... The referee didn't give a yellow card until the 92nd minute. There is a rule called persistent infringement," he said, referring to the 0-0 draw in Los Angeles in which the Breakers and Sol combined for 34 fouls and Smith suffered seven fouls.

"She has a black eye if you notice from the last game, too, and this is what happens," DiCicco said. "Every league in the world has gone through this where they have to learn to protect the creative player because you guys don't want to come out and watch just any player kicking the ball around.

"You want to come out and see players that are really good like Sonia Bompastor for Washington, that little central midfielder who's so good on the ball, but if they're kicked out of the game, we all lose."

This works both ways, though, and as DiCicco surely knows, one of the players he's trying to protect, Smith, often fouls opponents just as hard as they foul her. This issue isn't about just Smith, obviously, but she is tied for second in the league in fouls committed with 17. In Sunday's game, Smith got a large bruise on her thigh -- and was not called for a foul -- on what looked like contact she initiated, going to the ground and taking the ball from Bompastor.

If DiCicco gets the crackdown he wants, Smith will get more calls going in her favor, but she also will have more calls made against her.

It's often easy -- too easy -- to complain about referees and to point to specific fouls that were or weren't called to try to make a point. It's a fast game, and no one is perfect, but when DiCicco, one of the most respected coaches in the sport and former Women's United Soccer Association commissioner, complains extensively in a postgame news conference about the officiating, the league should take notice.

There are too many good things going on the field -- just this week, there was Marta's nice move to get by Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Jenni Branam to score her fourth goal of the season and Washington's Erin McLeod's game-saving stop of a left-footed Smith shot -- to be talking about officiating, physical play and potential injuries.

DiCicco on WPS officiating
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But after the Freedom-Athletica match May 3 that saw Brazilian star Daniela injure her knee and referee Shane Butler seemingly unable to keep the game under control, physical play is being closely watched.

Without a lot of televised games or highlights available, the scrutiny tends to fall on the weekly nationally televised game on Fox Soccer Channel, as multiple highlights and angles are available for every play. During this week's nationally televised game, Breakers-Freedom, there were two elbows thrown at opposing players. Breakers forward Christine Latham elbowed Alex Singer in either the face or shoulder and received a yellow card. Latham's elbow was clearly visible in television replay and looked rather deliberate. The incident should have been a straight red card and probably deserves a one-game suspension. Breakers defender Alex Scott also appeared to get elbowed in the face late in the game, but it wasn't shown on replay and it was unclear who elbowed her.

When asked via e-mail about DiCicco's comments and the fouls in this particular game, the league said it reviews all physicals plays, officiating and postgame comments made by team officials, and the disciplinary committee meets once a week and will decide whether to take action. After the Freedom-Athletica game, the disciplinary committee decided no further action was warranted, but commissioner Tonya Antonucci stepped in and suspended Wambach and McNeill.

Antonucci's statement on the matter also included a line about the officiating in the match: "I have directed that the circumstances of this match be brought to the attention of the US Soccer Federation, which provides referee assignments for WPS matches, and that serious consideration be given to avoiding these circumstances when making future referee assignments."

U.S. national team

Of the 17 WPS players on the U.S. national team roster for this weekend's camp and Monday's game versus Canada, 13 will miss WPS action, as the Breakers (who have four players called in) have a bye week. FC Gold Pride and Saint Louis are perhaps the hardest hit, as they will be without their starting goalkeepers, Nicole Barnhart and Hope Solo, respectively. Chicago will be without three of its top attacking options, Lindsay Tarpley, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe. Los Angeles also will be without its starting goalkeeper, Karina LeBlanc, who plays for Canada.

Maybe it all balances out because every team is missing a player, but it's too bad that six teams have to play without their stars and one team has a bye week. It's not exactly fair. The next U.S. national team games, also against Canada, are July 19 and July 22 as WPS teams get ready for the playoffs.

Euro 2009 in August could cause trouble and unfair advantages in the playoffs with international call-ups as well. National team games and international tournaments are important, but it's unfortunate when they affect league play.

Power rankings

1. Boston Breakers (3-2-2): Another solid second-half effort from the Breakers in the 1-1 draw with the Freedom.

2. Los Angeles Sol (4-1-2): Los Angeles and Boston are pulling ahead of the pack, at least in terms of the power rankings. The Sol are back to their shutout streak again with two straight after losing 2-1 in Boston. Goal scoring has been a bit of a problem, though -- since their 2-0 win in the inaugural game, Marta has four goals and the rest of the team has one.

3. FC Gold Pride (3-3-1): FC Gold Pride has eight goals on the season -- from six goal scorers. Only the Freedom have been better at spreading the offense around.

4. Chicago Red Stars (2-2-2): Shut out for the third time this season.

5. Saint Louis Athletica (1-2-2): Coming off a bye week.

6. Washington Freedom (1-2-3): Erin McLeod bailed out the defense in the 1-1 draw with Boston. Tony DiCicco called her save on Kelly Smith in the 68th minute the best save of the season.

7. Sky Blue FC (1-3-2): Marta is quickly becoming a thorn in Sky Blue FC's side. Three of her four goals this season have come against the squad from New Jersey. Sky Blue FC has just three goals this season.

Jacqueline Purdy covers women's soccer for ESPN.com. She also is an editor for ESPNRadio.com. She can be reached by e-mail at jacquelinepurdy@gmail.com, followed on Twitter and friended on ESPN's fan profiles.

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