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Officiating in MLS: Cards shouldn’t be used to control the game

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Refereeing in MLS

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s talk about officiating for a second.

Especially in MLS everyone loves to hate the refs. In a lot of cases that is entirely fair. Several names come to mind when I think about MLS refs that send shivers down my spine when I see their name next to a match for RSL. I’m sure that this is a similar feeling around the world or at least in some of the less “developed” leagues.

Full disclosure, it’s halftime right now and I am furious. Kyle has just been sent off for a second yellow and it’s the kind of second yellow that I particularly hate. The reason I hate is because he never should have gotten the first one.

Let me explain.

First, dissent is a ridiculous thing to give or get a yellow for. In 95% of the instances that a ref gives that yellow in MLS it is because he/she feels like they need to demonstrate that they are in charge. They are the person with the whistle and you just can’t say whatever it is you said to them. Look at their yellow shirt with important badges on it! HOW DARE YOU.

Second, getting a second yellow and thus a red when either is a dissent yellow is even more ridiculous. ESPECIALLY if the second yellow is soft.

Let’s use Kyle tonight as an example.

Kyle gets fouled by Jermaine Jones; it’s a hard foul but nothing particularly noteworthy. Luke, probably because he really likes fishing with Kyle and knows that if Kyle gets hurt they won’t be able to fly fish tomorrow, takes offense and issues a stern warning in the form of a gentle shove. From there things get into this area where I really feel like most young center refs just don’t know what to do or how to de-escalate without the use of the card. This is the “I’m the man” move that I hate. We all know, sir. We all know. SOMEHOW Kyle and Luke are they guys that get a yellow in this situation, Jones going un-scathed. Again, a mystery.

Sidebar: 5-6 years ago after an away match in Colorado, the boys and I crawled out of the hotel room the next morning and, with the Rocky Mountain Cup in tow, went to the Reserve match at Dicks. We were lucky enough to be on the sideline with one of the head trainers for MLS officials running the line that day. He had a earpiece and walkie-talkie connected to the center ref, who was an up-and-coming MLS official at the time, and would “coach” him throughout the match. The most fascinating thing that morning was listening to the interactions between the trainer and the trainee center ref. They train for these situations, seemingly, and the trainer did an amazing job teaching how to pace a game, how to handle loud players, and even when/when not to give a card.

Back to it. When both your CDMs get yellows 30 min in it’s probably not a good thing. Could we have seen a sub there? I just made an “ew” face writing that but maybe? The point being that when a ref is that anxious to give out a card you should be aware of it and then adjust accordingly — whether that’s from the coach or the players or both.

The biggest issue, for me, is that once a ref has gone to his pocket (especially early) usually they tend to go there more often there-after.

And that’s what we saw tonight.

Here’s what it comes down to, for me. If you have to use cards to control a game you shouldn’t be a center ref. There’s a fine line that officials walk and I honestly don’t wish that job on anyone. Completely thankless and you’re a walking target for harassment from 20k+ fans and players no matter what you do. But walking that fine line is your job, and the praise will come in time when you walk it adeptly. It’s a tight rope, really. They have to be just visible enough to keep the game in check and make sure no one gets hurt, while invisible enough to let the game be played as it should be. There should be one mantra that echoes in a center ref’s head all game long: Don’t change the game. And here is where it comes full circle: dissent doesn’t impact the game a single bit. It hurts a center ref’s feelings and infringes on their authority, that’s it. But, as we’ve seen tonight, it can change the game entirely.

And it’s dumb.

This has been my rant.