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Criticism of MLS is justified after terrible officiating in Chicago.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Friday, May 7, 1999) -- Major League Soccer took a justified hit in the aftermath of atrocious officiating that ruined the Chicago Fire-D.C. United match last Saturday.

Referee Stuard Dougal made an incredibly poor call in ejecting Brian Kamler in the 16th minute in what may rank as the worst red card issued in the four-year history of the U.S. first division league. He then compounded the mess by producing 10 yellow caution cards the rest of the evening, five for each side.

Even some of them were questionable, though MLS brass try to explain that the official, ranked among the best in Scotland, is a "technical" referee, not a "player management" referee.

In other words, he used discipline (cards instead of talk) to try to impose control -- but the problem in Chicago was that the play on the field didn't warrant such action.

We have no qualms with the red cards issued that Saturday to John Doyle of San Jose, Clint Mathis of Los Angeles, and Carlos Valderrama of Tampa Bay. They were merited.

MLS is absolutely right in cracking down on dangerous play. But the incident involving Kamler -- who has had a star-crossed professional career that has involved several injuries, some of them severe -- was no such thing. He was vying with Jerzy Podbrozny for possession of the ball, going side by side down the right side of the field. They were jostling each other. The Fire forward grabbed his shirt -- as seasoned international players frequently do -- causing the assistant referee to raise his flag for a foul against Podbrozny.

Play continued, however, and Kamler, in a swim-like move, pushed away, his arm hitting against the hip of the Chicago veteran, who proceeded to embellish his trip to the turf. Dougal raced on the scene, and to the astonishment of everyone, whipped out a red card against the D.C. United defender.

Play resumed a few minutes later, with D.C. United getting a free kick -- apparently from the original foul against Podbrozny. MLS vice president for game operations Joe Machnik defended the right of Dougal to make the decision -- saying the teams had been warned ahead of time (15 yellow cards in two previous matches) about the tendencies of this official -- but termed the red card "very extreme."

Translation: it shouldn't have been a red card.

There shouldn't have been anything - except perhaps a yellow card for Podbrozny for diving, though Polish teammate Peter Nowak later got one for a less-artful sprawl in the second half in the D.C. United penalty area. The game between arguably the two best teams in MLS turned into a near-farce, with the accumulation of yellow cards causing ejections to two more players, one from D.C. United, one from the Fire.

Chicago coach Bob Bradley, the winner, wasn't happy, calling the officiating "an aberration."

Complaints about officiating abound in every sport but we think particular care should be taken on red-card calls, as well as penalty-box infractions that usually result in a goal for the attacking team. We think MLS was justified in fining D.C. United president-general manager Kevin Payne, though the announced amount ($15,000) was too much. It is presumed the figure has been lowered following his apology to MLS commissioner Douglas Logan.

Payne wasn't wrong to protest, but he went way overboard in his commentary about Dougal and in accusing MLS of rewarding referees for the number of cards they issue.

The furor about that game overshadowed lower-key criticism voiced by New England player-coach Walter Zenga. He claimed the winning Colorado Rapids goal against the Revolution was offside. Machnik has reviewed the film, and flatly contradicts Zenga, saying the offense was even with the last defender, thus no offside when the ball was played.

MLS officials concede there was an error that may have cost the Dallas Burn a match. Goalkeeper Brian Jordan, in the fifth shootout round, was called for handling the ball outside the penalty box, where TV replays show the shot hit his chest first - thus ending the play. Dario Brose instead was given a penalty kick, which he buried to give the San Jose Clash the victory.

Other news across the MLS:

* Ratings are up on television. It's not much, but at least it's a glimmer of good news. ESPN ratings are 0.62 (705,000 homes) compared with 0.45 (494,000) last year. ESPN2 is at 0.26 (253,000), a jump from 0.22 (191,000) in 1998.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at

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