MLS Referees Are Now in the Spotlight

With the 2018 Major League Soccer playoffs approaching, MLS referees find themselves in the spotlight.

For those enveloped in the 2018 MLS season, you should be noticing that players are spending more time on the ground than ever before. The dispute of late is how — if at all — the referees are calling the fouls and how it affects the game.

MLS referees have a difficult job, as players are taking the physical nature of the sport to a completely different level. Lately, the words ‘dive’ and ’embellishment’ are being used all too often from MLS announcers.

Nobody wants to have a match spoiled by a referee’s decision, but we know it happens all too often. It is, however, something the beautiful game has always had to contend with since its early days.

How many times have you laughed at a player falling to the ground when it’s clear that nobody even touched him? Most of the senseless acting jobs would make producers in Hollywood proud. There’s a phrase out there you might recognize, in fact, let me use two of them:

“If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’!”
“He’s such a good salesman, he could probably sell ice to Eskimos!”

In today’s game, players are being taught how to get calls and how to sell it for all it’s worth. Make no mistake, it is not confined to MLS and it will always be a concern for any referee. It gets even more ridiculous as you navigate the global football scene. Here is an example from just a couple of weeks ago, and my friend CJ posted it on Twitter:

It is examples like this that make soccer fans cry out for answers as to why these are such bad calls. In my opinion, it is now getting to the point where it looks like the players take acting classes. I even reached out to Ian Joy who calls the NYCFC matches on the YES Network. Our conversation was short, sweet, and to the point!

Ian’s response:

Remember how I mentioned the announcers using the words ‘diving’ and ’embellishment’ before? Well, there is one of your MLS announcers agreeing that MLS referees have got to take command.

How hard is it for a referee to decide who caused contact and what call he has to make immediately? Sure, he has help from his linesmen and officiating staff, but they cannot see everything. Luckily, we now have the advantage of video review for MLS referees to use.

Opinions vary, but referees do not want to stop a match to use VAR time and again. Yes, there might have been something missed, but he cannot take the time to look into every foul and flop. The outrage from the fans for stopping the flow of the game would be the next argument.

The MLS Disciplinary Committee hasn’t helped matters much either. They took the Dallas appeal of Ziegler’s Red Card and made it stand, upholding the dismissal and suspension. This is becoming an epidemic, and it is a black-eye to the beautiful game.

So what can be done about it and how far will it go before someone brings it to an end? MLS referees and all officials around the globe know that it is commonplace to witness the theatrics. There are players that are actually recognized for knowing how to ‘get those calls’, as they say.

MLS  has so much more growing to do, not just by adding expansion teams but by recognizing that this flopping and diving among the players — and the incorrect calls that go with them — need to be fixed immediately.

The Players Union needs to meet with the owners, and they both have to meet with MLS brass. MLS referees are, in essence, sub-par, and there are only a handful of officials that should actually be on the pitch. We will not call them out individually, but it is no mystery that their experience is lacking at top-flight level. Having a marginal history of refereeing USL and NASL games under your belt certainly doesn’t make you an MLS referee. Let’s just leave it at that, but for your own reference, you can look into the qualifications of MLS Referees.

If you did look at that list, you’ll see that MLS referees have U.S Open Cup, NASL, USL and PDL experience only. I know this because I was with the New York Cosmos media from 2014 to 2016. In fact, I hosted the New York Cosmos team podcast for two of those seasons on our Sports Palooza network. I’ve met half of the MLS referees on that list from their time in the lower tiers of U.S soccer. Even back then, the media wondered about the refs’ lack of experience in the game.

Unless the league does something to bring quality refereeing to the United States, the players will take advantage and the refs will continue to negatively affect the outcomes of the games. It’s getting tiresome watching players flop around to get calls and — the bottom line is — it makes the sport look bad.

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