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It Seems To Me . . .

MLS must improve officiating.

By Robert Wagman
Special to SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sunday, October 11, 1998) -- Everybody hates the ref, it’s not only the American way, but in soccer the world’s way. About the best an official -- and I’m talking about any sport -- can hope for is to do such a good job he or she is not noticed.

I am not a referee basher. I like referees. I realize what a difficult job they have. But saying that, I believe the level of officiating in Major League Soccer is well below a world standard, and that it must be a top priority for the league to significantly improve the overall quality of its officiating.

This is going to be a no-name column. Although I have personal opinions as to which referees in MLS are better than others, and which should return to refereeing age-group matches because they seem not to be able to differentiate between a match at the top professional level and between 12-year-olds, I will avoid naming any names. I want to give my views of the officiating system as a whole.

(An aside: having said I would not name names, let me name two. I think that two of MLS’s female officials, Nancy Lay and Sandra Hunt, both have done terrific jobs this year, both on the sidelines as assistants and in the center of the field. I am dismayed that neither have been named as assistants for the divisional final series.)

I think that MLS officials have major problems in three areas: consistency, offside calls, and controlling this expanding epidemic of diving.

To me the most important thing a referee, or a group of referees in a given league, can be is consistent. Call them close, call them loose, I don’t care which. But, what is a foul in one match, should be a foul in another. What is a yellow-card offense in one match, should be so in another. Even more critical, similar plays in the same match should have the same result. Time after time this season, they have not.

One example (and not an isolated example). In a recent Columbus-(Washington) D.C. United match, Jamie Moreno settled a ball and turned on Thomas Dooley beating him cleanly, and opening space at he headed for the Columbus goal. Dooley’s reaction was as it had been for a decade in the Bundesliga (and the reaction of any Bundesliga defender): he caught Moreno from behind, threw his left leg around over his ankles, chopped down with the right leg, and brought Moreno down. It was a text book example of a "professional foul" of the kind FIFA, the world governing body, wants to ban with its red-card edict. But in this case, even though Moreno had to leave the match with a badly bruised shoulder, no card was issued.

In the second half of the same match, United defender Carlos Llamosa came out hard on Brian McBride. He cleanly tackled the ball, but his motion brought McBride down. A quick yellow card was shown. I am not saying Llamosa should not have been shown yellow. But there was absolutely no consistency between the two calls. Likewise, in United’s previous match, Ben Olsen was shown red for a tackle from behind that was not nearly as severe as either Dooley’s or Llamosa’s.

As for offside, I almost don’t know where to start. I see the offside rule being misapplied so often by linesmen in MLS, I am beginning to think MLS official in charge of referees Joe Machnik has simply forgotten to explain the rule to them. I have lost count of the times I have seen offside called when there was none, or not called when there was.

The biggest problem MLS linesmen seem to have as a group (and yes, it is a big problem world-wide and was so at the World Cup), is to remember that offside is based on player position when the ball is played, not when it is received. I constantly see offside called on long passes because the receiving player is in an offside position when he gets the ball. Looking at the linesman, he is staring straight across the field directly in-line with the last defender.

How in the world can he possibly know when the ball is played, if it is being played from 30 yards upfield? (I won’t even begin to go into how many times I see offside called when the offending player is on the other side of the field from the ball and is neither interfering with play nor gaining any kind of advantage. But that argument gets too technical.)

Finally, MLS needs to do something before next season about the diving. If things continue deteriorating at the rate they are now, by next season MLS will be issuing placards numbered 1-10 to linesmen so they can rate each dive (7.5, 8, etc.) and the league can give a "Greg Louganis" award at its annual banquet.

Diving can be controlled. Visiting Spanish World Cup referee Jose Maria Garcia-Aranda showed how. When in a MetroStars-United match Marcelo Vega launched himself it’s the air, did a double gainer, and then lay writhing on the Astroturf, Garcia-Aranda showed him yellow, then when Vega arose to express his displeasure with the call, Garcia-Aranda showed him yellow again, cumulatively a red card.

In a recent interview in Soccer America, former MLS chief referee and now the United States Soccer Federation’s director of officials, Esse Baharmast said "refereeing must be a priority . . . referees have never received the attention or the support that developing players have in the U.S., and that’s where we have to improve."

I couldn’t agree more, and MLS is the place where such development should begin.


Finally, I know that the job of the publicists for each MLS team is to hype their lads for all their worth. This is kind of a low blow, but I have to share the following from the MetroStar’ pre-playoff press release:

"Stabilized by the backbone of goalkeeper Tony Meola, bolstered by the emergence of unknowns such as defender Mike Petke and midfielder Jim Rooney, and augmented by the shrewd acquisitions of forward Eduardo Hurtado, defenders Alexi Lalas and Diego Sonora and midfielder/forward Marcelo Vega, the 1998 MetroStars have served notice to Major League Soccer that they are a team capable of winning it all." Well, almost capable.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.

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