Institutional Bias? MLS Officials And The New York Red Bulls

MLS officials and the New York Red Bulls have had quite the combustible relationship over the past few weeks. Some within the club believe there is a referee bias against them. Following a league fine for head coach Jesse Marsch after speaking out against the official’s performances versus NYCFC last month, the Red Bulls and their manager find themselves feeling unjustly treated again after Sunday night against the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Institutional Bias? MLS Officials And The New York Red Bulls

Sunday’s Match

Referee Hilario Grajeda had a night to forget controlling the match’s action. Hard fouls were not disciplined properly and the game’s physical play caused damage all around, most notably with LA midfielder Jeff Larentowicz’s studs-up slide tackle that injured Red Bulls defender Damien Perrinelle.

Another foul by Larentowicz later in the game against Kemar Lawrence saw a similar non-reaction from the referees. But the dying minutes of the game saw the greatest miscues.

After taking a 2-0 lead through Sean Davis’s first career MLS goal, the Red Bulls began to feel pressure from the home team. A goal from Mike Magee got the Galaxy within a goal of tying the match and had momentum firmly on their side.

Shortly after that goal, Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe took down Red Bulls midfielder Alex Muyl in the box, but Grajeda did not call a penalty. A similar play involving Rowe taking down Gonzalo Veron in the penalty area was not called as well, causing Marsch to lose his lid on the sideline and eventually get ejected from the contest.

Peter Walton, head of the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), said in an interview this week with ESPN that both calls should have resulted in a penalty kick. This news is certainly too little and too late for a Red Bulls squad that desperately needed three points on the road.

Throughout the broadcast, FOX commentator Alexi Lalas spent a large chunk of time dismissing the idea of “institutional bias” against Marsch and the Red Bulls. He went over these thoughts in great detail and was very dismissive of the entire concept.

But after the Galaxy tied the match at 2-2 and Grajeda missed the two PK calls, Lalas quipped “well, maybe there is some institutional bias.”

After all of this, is there anything beyond this match that can truly lead us down that road?


Looking into defensive league statistics, there is some evidence pointing towards the theory of bias from MLS officials in some ways.

The Red Bulls are 16th in MLS in fouls committed, but they are also 2nd in fouls suffered. These stats point to the Red Bulls getting a similar, if not greater, amount of those foul calls back from officials.

Where the statistics do jump out in favor of this conspiracy theory is in yellow/red cards issued and penalty kicks awarded.

The Red Bulls are 19th in the league ahead of only NYCFC in yellow cards with 48 (NYCFC have 52), tied for 19th in the league in red cards ahead of Vancouver (NY with 4 – VAN with 6) and are 16th in penalty kicks awarded with only two (Philadelphia Union lead the league in PK calls with 8).

Considering what took place Sunday night in Carson, there could certainly be an argument made about how their matches are called.

Impact Moving Forward

Whether or not there is a bias, the real issue may be the perceptional effect of Sunday’s match. Referees and the Red Bull organization have been impacted by these events and one would assume their games will be looked at with more scrutiny moving forward.

The Red Bulls and Jesse Marsch also must ensure that these issues do not change their own style of play or attitude down the stretch if they are to compete for MLS Cup 2016.

Los Angeles fought back impressively to end up with a 2-2 draw this past Sunday night against New York, but they did receive an assist from lackadaisical officiating.