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It Seems To Me . . .

Was Grady debacle a symptom of greater ills with MLS refereeing?

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Thursday, August 26, 1999) -- A couple of weeks ago, Belgian referee Amand Ancion handed out 12 yellow and four red cards and also awarded five penalty kicks in a Belgium League match between Westerloo and Genk. After the match, he admitted that he had lost control, and UEFA, European soccer's governing body, responded by removing him from the Champions League preliminary round match between Famagusta of Cyprus and Germany's Hertha Berlin. The Belgium federation announced Ancion as going to take a bit of a vacation.

Rich Grady has become America's answer to Amand Ancion. Grady, you will remember, had his problems in last week's Miami-D.C. United Major League Soccer match in Fort Lauderdale. He ejected Fusion players Leo Cullen, Nelson Vargas and Jay Heaps and United's Roy Lassiter, and issued a bouquet of yellows.

Actually the Miami-United match was a fiasco for the entire officiating crew. A United goal was disallowed by an offside call; replays showed there was not remotely an instance of offside. Moreover, Grady combined with the fourth official to turn a confusing situation into a comedy of errors.

After Grady ejected Cullen, Miami coach Ivo Wortman immediately substituted defender Jeff Bilyk for Vargas. Vargas, annoyed he was being yanked, voiced his general displeasure to Grady whose response was to pull his red card.

Confusion reigned. The fourth official had already let Bilyk on the field, even though Vargas had not departed. Grady allowed the substitution to be made, and ruled Miami did not have to play another man down since Vargas had been substituted for before the card was issued.

As Joe Machnik, MLS vice president for game operations and de facto supervisor of officials confirmed, Grady was wrong. Even though the fourth official was wrong in letting Bilyk on the field, Vargas was technically still in the match until he left the field, and since the card was given before he had, the substitution should have been disallowed and Miami forced to play another man down.

What is most interesting about the Grady affair has been its aftermath. Rather than defending Grady, or meeting the situation with its customary silence, MLS effectively threw Grady overboard. It said the league was not happy with the way the Fusion-United match was officiated. Moreover, it released statistics showing that Grady has issued the most reds and yellows and at the second highest rate per game -- than any official in the four-year history of MLS.

Finally, it announced that Grady would be meeting with United States Soccer Federation director of referees Esse Baharmast to review a tape of the match. Implied was the fact the meeting would take place in U.S. Soccer's woodshed. "It is our hope we won't have another game like this," Machnik, said.

This reaction makes it seem as if MLS is developing something of an adversarial relationship with its own game officials. It is U.S. Soccer, not MLS, who hires, trains and assigns officials to MLS matches, under contract with MLS. Adversarial may be too harsh. Maybe it is more correct to say MLS now seems to be holding its officials at arms length, effectively saying don't blame us for inept calls, blame U.S. Soccer.

Earlier this year, I wrote a column wondering rhetorically if MLS doesn't have an officiating problem. Subsequently, I received an e-mail from an MLS coach, and in a subsequent conversation which I agreed to keep off-the-record, he made some interesting points. "I think," he said, "that between U.S. Soccer and MLS, these referees are being over-instructed. Look for this, look for that, punish this, punish that, they are being told. As a result we see something here that we don't see anywhere else in the world. In most leagues around the world officials fear being reprimanded for making calls that shouldn't have been made. Here I think they have no such fear. Their fear is the opposite. They fear not making a call. So, when in doubt they call a foul, or pull a card. When in doubt they give red and not yellow. Everywhere else I have seen, when in doubt the referee keeps the card in his pocket."

But I also heard from a league referee, who also asked that his comments not be attributed to him. He said, in part "we are caught in the middle. The MLS coaches say they want us to eliminate tackles from behind and diving. So then we start making these calls, but when its against their team, they complain even harder. That might just be human nature, but it puts us in a lose-lose position."

MLS has followed the system in place in many countries of allowing the national association to train and assign officials to professional matches at all levels, including the highest professional leagues. At the start of the season MLS sends a list of officials it would be happy to have work league matches. At the top of the list are those licensed by world governing body FIFA (of which Grady is one). Then it gives feedback throughout the season.

Maybe MLS needs to be more involved in this process, especially in the training of assistant referees. One commonly heard criticism around the league is that U.S. Soccer does not do enough to train and condition the men and woman working the lines. In the meantime, Grady has apparently emerged properly chastised. Reportedly, by "mutual agreement" with Baharmast, Grady has taken himself out of his next MLS assignment.

I wonder though if this is right. Grady had a hard earned reputation for being a quick man with a card. Not only did he lead MLS in the category, but in this Summer's Pan-American games he ejected four Guatemalan players in a game against Canada in which he also sent off a Canadian coach. Moreover, in a recent Houston exhibition between two Mexican clubs, Grady issued a red card and 10 yellows. So Grady was, well, just being Grady in the same way Stuard Dougal is Scotland's "Dr. Discipline" on the pitch.

When Dougal was here merrily dishing out reds and yellows as a visiting referee, MLS found it amusing. But now Grady is likely going to second guess himself at every potential call. If he does, players will try to take advantage, and his refereeing career, at least at the professional level, will likely be over. That would be a shame, because if MLS has proved one thing, soccer in America needs every good official who can be trained.

Robert Wagman’s "It Seems To Me . . ." column appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at

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