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It Seems To Me . . .

Conflicting messages to referees are one reason for inconsistent calls.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, September 8, 1999) -- I thought today I would add a couple of footnotes to some previous items.

Two weeks ago I wrote about referees, and as usually happens whenever I write about referees, I heard from a lot of referees. In my column I quoted a Major League Soccer coach who asked to remain nameless as saying that to him one of the biggest differences between the way MLS officials and foreign officials call matches is that MLS officials seem to fear being taken to task for not making calls rather than for making a call that later proves wrong. So when in doubt, they make the call as opposed to foreign referees who don't make a call unless they are sure.

Each week during the season, MLS referees and assistant referees, along with United States Soccer Federation officials, hold a conference call to discuss match situations and review calls made the previous week. U.S. Soccer then sends all officials notes from each conference call. Well, I heard from an MLS official who took umbrage at the unnamed MLS coach, and to bolster his point, sent along the notes from the August 3 conference call.

Apparently, something approaching a motto has been adopted by U.S. Soccer in the training of its referees. "When In Doubt -- Keep The Flag Down," is repeated over and over, as shown by the notes.

But I also said in the column that what troubles me personally is that on a number of occasions I have seen cards given by referees who were nowhere near the play, who could not have seen what happened and were relying either on player or fan reactions. My correspondent put it succinctly: "To an extent you're right. But that's what we are told to do." Sure enough, the following comes from that August 3 conference call:

"Referees are reminded to be vigilant for nasty fouls committed against creative players. Each team has several special creative players whom the referee must be aware of and protect. Distance from the play cannot be considered an acceptable excuse for failure to punish these types of fouls adequately (emphasis mine). If they are caught out of position, referees should seek assistance from their assistants. A simple indication of shirt pocket for a yellow card and rear pants pocket for a red card can be an effective way to communicate the (assistant referee’s) opinion."

So the official word is not call them as you see them -- but call them as you think you should have seen them.

The August 3 conference call notes also included an interesting footnote on last season's MLS Cup match won by the Chicago Fire over D.C. United 2-0. In the last minute of the first half, with the Fire leading 1-0, Chicago scored a controversial second goal that effectively broke United's back. Fire midfield leader Peter Nowak cut in from the to the top of the box and sent a shot past defender Eddie Pope. The drive deflected off his teammate Diego Gutierrez, changed directions and eluded United goalkeeper Tom Presthus who was moving towards the wrong post.

United yelled that Gutierrez had been in an offside position and the goal should be disallowed. But the protests fell on deaf ears and the goal was allowed to stand. So the following from the August 3 notes are of significant interest. "We have been stressing ‘WHEN IN DOUBT -- KEEP THE FLAG DOWN,’ but assistant referees must keep in mind the following instructions when an apparent goal is to be disallowed. Bear in mind that during the preseason clinic in Chicago the MLS referees agreed that if a similar situation occurred as happened on the 2nd goal of MLS Cup '98 that the play would be ruled offside. If in the opinion of the assistant referee an offside positioned attacker is interfering with play or an opponent when a goal is scored the proper signal is to stand at attention with no flag signal."

Again the emphasis is mine. But Bruce Arena has said that if United had been just 1-0 down going into the second half, he doesn't think the Fire could have played as defensively as it did, and United might have better been able to come from behind.

Changing subjects, earlier in the year in writing about the way MLS keeps an absolute clock on the scoreboard, I speculated that what would rally cause fans to howl was the rare situation when a shot would be in the air when time ran out and the goal would be disallowed. I said no referee keeping time on his or her watch would blow the match over until the play had been completed.

A sharp eyed fan in Tampa wrote to say that he thought he remembered in the opening MLS season that exact thing happening, and he thought he remembered the shooter was Roy Lassiter. So I asked Roy. Sure enough, it did happen and he remembers it well.

"It was against Dallas," Lassiter said. "I knew time was running out so I took a quick shot. The horn sounded while the ball was in the air. When it went in the officials sort of looked at one another and then the referee disallowed it. There was a lot of confusion. I thought it was like the shootout and if you got the shot off before the whistle it counts. But the ref said no. The fans were really unhappy."

Some other readers also pointed out that something similar can happen even when the referee is keeping time on the field. One relayed a famous incident in England in an FA Cup semifinal when a referee blew play over while a corner kick was in the air. Another relayed that in a Bundesliga match last season a match was ended while a free kick was in the air. So I stand corrected. Thanks to all who wrote.

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

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