Inconsistent MLS Referees are damaging the game

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On June 6th, in just the 7th minute of the game, New England’s Teal Bunbury and Portland’s Jorge Villafana were issued yellow cards for a foul and unsporting behavior respectively.  Head referee Jose Carlos Rivero had every chance in the world to talk to them, tell them to settle down and set expectations for the rest of the game. Instead he handicapped two exciting players (and teams) for the next 83 minutes. These were 2 of the 7 yellow cards handed out in the game. This is not a random occurrence.

In fact, you might think there is a card quota for the referees of the MLS this season. Take just this weekend alone:

Toronto vs DC had 6 Yellow Cards, 2 for dissent

Chicago Fire vs Orlando City had 6 yellow cards

And finally the coup d’grace, San Jose vs FC Dallas. A game being played on National TV on Fox Sports 1. Referee Baldomero Toledo handed out 7 cards including an amazing 3 Red cards in the 2nd half.

There is a disturbing trend of referees determining games. Whether it is inconsistent calling of the game, issuing penalty kicks on circumspect situations, or failing to control a game, the state of refereeing in the MLS is cause for concern. The card issue is the biggest canary in the coalmine.

One look at proreferees.com shows an astonishing and frightening insight. Most referees have reffed between 6-9 games this year. Here is where they have netted out as far as card distribution.

Silviu Petrescu –

31 yellow cards / 5.17 per game

3 red cards / .5 game

Ted Unkel –

46 Yellow Cards / 5.11 per game

4 red cards / .44 a game

Edvin Jurisevic –

27 yellow cards / 4.5 per game

3 red cards / .5 per game

Fotis Bazakos –

26 Yellow cards / 4.33 per game

Jose Carlos Rivero – 

38 yellow cards / 4.22 per game

2 red cards / .22 per game

In 2013, Baldemoro Toledo refereed 22 MLS matches and led all MLS referees with 72 yellow cards and 12 red cards shown. He whistled 592 fouls (an average of 26.9 per game or one every 3.34 minutes) and gave 9 penalty kicks.

So far in 2015 Toledo has handled 9 games, issuing 35 yellow cards, and 6 red cards; that’s an average of 3.88 yellow cards per game and a staggering 1.5 red cards per game. This cannot continue.

There are some solid referees in the MLS, don’t get me wrong, but the worst offenders take the spotlight and hurt the game. The ‘Good’ refs are the ones who establish a good rapport with the players, who can be clear about why fouls got called, can settle a game, or know when to play on, or call a dive for a dive.

Maybe most surprising is everyone’s favorite referee to criticize, Mark Geiger only has given 27 yellow cards and 3 red cards in 8 games, or 3.38 yellow cards a game. The Mark Geiger who single-handedly kicked the Vancouver Whitecaps out of last year’s playoffs on an 80th minute phantom handball call. The Mark Geiger who has a catchphrase (the Geiger Counter when Geiger’s actions alone flip the results of a game) and his own hashtag (#thegeigershow) as he has the uncanny ability to think he is bigger than the game and wields unduly power over the flow and results. But even he is on the low side of the card epidemic that has been let loose on the MLS.

So far there has been a slow and steady rise in card accumulation since 2013. But why? Are players playing rougher? Are tackles more dangerous? The MLS has always been slightly rougher and tumble then other leagues, but 5 cards a game? Referees that are averaging a red card every other game? These actions have drastic effects on games. Playmakers who suffer a yellow play more cautiously. Players that are sent off change the entire ebb and flow of a game. And yellow card accumulation means a key player may be out for an important game or the fans miss out on a player that paid money to go see.

The official rule on yellow card accumulation is the following:

A player will be suspended for one game upon receiving his fifth yellow card – regardless of the nature of the infraction that resulted in his being awarded a yellow card. A second suspension of one game would result after the awarding of three additional cards, as would a third suspension for the awarding of card numbers eleven.

So far, only a third way through the season, 12 players have already been forced to miss a game due to yellow card accumulation. And these aren’t the bruisers of the league either. They are also players that get people to the stadium, players like Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman and Ricardo Clark. Brek Shea, Sacha Kljestan, Perry Kitchen, Vincent Nogueira and 12 others are 1 card away from being suspended. None of these players are nasty players. And none of these players should get special treatment for who they are, its just how they play isn’t indicative of being suspended for cards. The point is the way referees determine when to pull a card is befuddling-ly inconsistent.

The biggest issue is the refs don’t know how to control the game. They don’t have relationships with the players where when things get heated or chippy they can call in the captains or the players involved and temper the situation. They refuse to look at trying to address with a player how a foul will lead to a card the next time. Too often you see a ref bark at a player rather then discuss the situation. This leads to stand-offs between players and referees and increases the chance of a card from dissent. Dissent most often comes when a player lacks the respect of a referee to accept a decision.

Unfortunately many referees in MLS aren’t world class, by definition. Most referees in the MLS wear pro badges, which classifies them as R3. The top tier wear a FIFA badge, are classified as R1 and in leagues like the Barclays Premier League are a mandatory level to reach before being allowed to referee in the league. One wonders if some of the inconsistencies could be sured up if such a classification was mandatory.

You have instances where Mark Geiger red cards two players in 6 minutes for questionable calls. You continually see referees failing to play advantage, which causes the flow of the game to continually be stifled.

To quote Luke James of SB Nation, “Referee Toledo and other of his disciplinarian ilk, may think that they are maintaining a tight grip on the game by handing out all these cards, but the best referees are the “invisible” ones who facilitate the game, not those who attempt to control it.”

MLS is often called into question about whether it will become a top tier league. Critics cite that it is not as beautiful to watch as some leagues across the pond. One has to wonder though, if our referees were held to a higher standard, whether the flow of the game would become more pronounced, and the beautiful game could be more realized here in North America.

Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images