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Does MLS have an officiating problem?

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, May 5, 1999) -- What do Clint Mathis, Carlos Valderrama, Brian Kamler, Carey Talley, Lubis Kubik, John Doyle and Matt Jordan have in common? All were shown red cards in Major League Soccer matches last weekend. To many players, coaches and club officials, these sendoffs illustrate what they see as an officiating problem in MLS. League officials, meanwhile, emphatically deny any such problem exists.

As you most likely know by now, visiting Scottish referee Stuard Dougal gave out a MLS record of 11 cards in last weekendís Chicago Fire-DC United match, sending off Kamler, Talley and Kubik. After the match, DC United President Kevin Payne had a number of uncharitable things to say about Mr. Dougalís performance.

(Payne said that he knew his words would draw a fine from MLS commissioner Doug Logan. He said he hoped the league would use the fine to buy Mr. Dougal a ride home. Payne apparently did not suspect the League was intending to charter a Gulfstream for the trip back to Glasgow, because Logan fined him $15,000 for his outburst. That amount, though, is likely to be reduced after Payneís abject apology.)

But while the Scottish referee was the subject of the criticism in Chicago, a number of players, coaches, team officials and observers, said -- both on and off the record -- that the Fire-United match illustrates a wider officiating problem within MLS.

Payne said, "All we seem to talk about is the shootout, when the real problem in this League is the officiating and the fact that the officials are being judged on how good a job they do by the number of cards they hand out."

A slightly more neutral observer, national team Coach Bruce Arena, seems to agree there is a problem. Arena, in Chicago for some U.S. Soccer meetings, was on hand at Soldiers Field for the Fire-United match. Afterwards, he basically agreed with the sentiments so vehemently voiced by Payne.

"We really need to look at how we are selecting, training and instructing referees," Arena said. "We have people in the league office who know little about soccer telling referees how to call matches."

That assertion, which is heard with some frequency from players and coaches around the League, is sharply denied by Logan.

"No, I completely reject this idea," Logan said during his weekly telephone press conference when asked if there is a leash on referees working MLS matches. "They (the referees) are not over-instructed. There is no such thing as a leash on American referees. I reject those criticisms. Is there room for improvement? Yes. But we have instituted excellent training and instruction and we are on the right track."

MLS head of officiating Joe Machnik said that this season the league has instructed its officials to take a hard line on any "tackles that endanger the safety of the opponent," and on instances of diving. The anti-diving campaign has resulted in a number of yellow caution cards, "some correct and some needing a better look by the referee," Machnik admitted.

He also said that a major emphasis this season in MLS is a better application of the offside rule. "The assistant referee must be absolutely sure that a player is 100 percent in an offside position and that the flag should not be raised if there is any doubt. The benefit should go to the attacker." But, he admitted that MLS assistant referees had no preseason training or practice and that they were likely "rusty" in the first weeks of the new season "There were three 100 percent good goals denied by errant flags," he admitted, "but the performance has improved over the past couple of weeks."

As for the Fire-D.C. United match (which three days after the fact he had still not seen a tape of), Machnik said that after watching Dougal give out 15 cautions in his first two MLS matches a week ago, he called and warned both coaches that the Scotsman was a highly "technical" referee and not a good "player manager," and that they should prepare their teams accordingly.

"Technical" is referee-speak for an official who tries to control matches by enforcing his will through quick and frequent cautions, as opposed to an official who tries to control play by talking with and guiding players.

An aside: Dougal is apparently well known -- almost renowned -- in Scotland as a referee who is very, very quick with a card. If you go to the Glasgow Daily Record and Sunday Mailís web site, the paper has a searchable photo data base. Put in Mr. Dougalís name and you come up with 19 photos of the referee in action, 18 of which have him showing a red card to various players. His nickname is "Dr. Discipline."

There can be little doubt that, for whatever reason, Dougal turned the Fire-United match into a shambles. Whether this was an aberration, or whether this is typical of wider officiating problem within MLS, is an open question. The league says the fact that up to this point last year, referees gave out almost the same number of cards as they have this year -- 131 yellow cards and 19 red cards compared to this yearís 136 yellow cards and 17 red cards -- proves there is no problem.

Robert Wagman is a regular SoccerTimes correspondent and can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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