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Break the mold for MLS referees

Photo: Barb Colligon

It is tough to appreciate a game where the referee asserts himself on a throw-in, penalty encroachment, and miscalled goals and cards. At the very least, Mark Geiger and Jason Anno have fed teachable moments to referee instructors, as well as tension to a United-Union rivalry in need of excitement. Hopefully, their weekend performances will lead US soccer to conclude that they and their officiating corps need more than superficial tweaking.

Opportune systemic investments

Unlike players and coaches, referees will not improve without replacing most of the existing system. USSF and MLS have commendably picked their moments for investing in a framework of coaches, expansion, and talent. They should direct the next major investment in the permanent US soccer infrastructure to developing a “world standard” of officiating to improve domestic players’ maturity, attract and protect premier players, and best allocate limited funds.

Defensive maturity

Referees guide players’ development, not by training them how to tackle, foul, or behave on the field, but when and to what degree to get stuck in, give the referee an earful, or tone it down in important matches. Referees must apply this standard consistently, or risk setting an arbitrary standard that leads to dangerous situations for everyone involved.

PSP’s Geiger Counter is a memorial to the 2011 MLS Referee of the Year but rarely to competence. No objective observer can debate the underlying sentiment after Sunday’s game at RFK. On the international level, Jurgen Klinsmann has criticized US national team players for their interactions with referees, foreign players frequently complain about MLS officiating, and the US national team often finds itself at odds with referees in international games. It wouldn’t hurt if US referees got it “right” more frequently. But, for players to become attuned to the standard of officiating at the highest level, it’s more important that referees get it the same as referees at those levels (avoiding Under-12 calls like untimely throw-ins, and a few inches of penalty kick encroachment that doesn’t involve the keeper).

No market for performance

There are certain objective criteria that can create a market for promotion and rejection of players and coaches based on their performances, and generally encourage systematic improvement, regardless of the underlying systems for development (i.e. teams seek strikers who score, goalies who save, coaches who win). Because referees have no fans or rivals, market forces can’t encourage improvement to the same degree as players and coaches who pursue specific results. Creating a market would be ideal, but we must at least acknowledge that the crutch provided by markets for players and coaches doesn’t exist to nearly the same extent for development of referees. That acknowledgement also indicates that the league must evaluate and potentially act on evidence such as the embarrassments this weekend.

Best marginal investment

Building an infrastructure for standardized officiating presents the best marginal investment of limited League and Federation funds. A few referees can make a more significant impact than a similar number of players, and at lower salaries. On top of that, developing talent domestically requires time and by importation requires more money than is currently available. Rather than pursuing an unaffordable plan to jump to the top tier of world soccer leagues, US Soccer and MLS should continue to improve its world-class framework for developing talent over its currently projected, 10-20 year timeline. The novelty of making referees an investment priority could even generate publicity.

Trickle-down training

Making officiating a priority should increase the sense of fairness and physical protection felt by young domestic and premier foreign players, who would be encouraged to come and stay to play in the US. At the same time, referees at lower levels would likely emulate referees with more international experience. Because the determination of which referees should be promoted depends on both objective standard and comparison to other referees, the most highly ranked referees unavoidably set an example for referees seeking promotion. Experienced referees — like old dogs — are not going to change substantially, so the mold for the next generation of senior officials is unlikely to change much. MLS needs to find a critical mass of referees, who have developed in more mature soccer environments, to create a new mold for younger referees.

Suggestion: Burn it down, walk away, let a pro rebuild It

Because MLS has indicated with its highest honor that Mark Geiger is the best of the current system and, therefore, the implied mold for referee training:

  1. throw out the bathwater, tub, and baby of the US officiating institution,
  2. make blowout offers to enough of the best referees in the world to set a new, clear, and consistent example for referees and players, and
  3. lock those referees into long-term deals that involve both on-field officiating and executive-level management roles at USSF and MLS.

Let these all-star referees coordinate with the player development system to clone themselves and overhaul the system for training, evaluating, and promoting on the basis of this “world standard.” Remove referees and officials with experience in USSF from leadership positions. Keep current American referees who buy into the system, but limit their roles to on-field officiating and selling the program to the troops—not teaching.

Will premier players trade millions of Yuan or Champions League competition for the chance to be officiated by all-stars? Probably not. But MLS is not attracting top players with its talent and salaries. This investment strategy could generate substantive appeal while—consistent with US soccer’s successful practice of targeted splurges—creating permanent systemic improvements that will attract top players to the US. Perfection does not exist in soccer players or referees but maturity does; US soccer has invested sufficiently to provide guidance and incentives for its players to learn that maturity, now it needs to provide the same for its referees.




  1. Richie The Limey says:

    MLS refs are generally awful but check out this linesman (don’t like assistant referee) who manages to miss three offside calls ON ONE PLAY !

  2. Great idea – since the MLS season is played opposite of most established leagues in Europe – you may be able to get a few would would come over at least part time if the package was good enough.
    Then again, maybe not. Plus USSF will have a lot of say in this matter.

  3. Nate –

    Please give me the page number in the Laws of the Game where it states, “Encroachment is not enforceable at the professional level.”. Because I can’t find it.

    Did you know that FIFA has made goalkeeper safety (the denied goal) and tackles from behind (the red card) standing points of emphasis? No, you didn’t know that, because in all likelihood you’ve never even seen the Laws.

    • I agree with Tom completely. Encroachment occurred and Geiger called like he was supposed to. If players don’t want to get called for it, then they should stop trying to cheat. Seems pretty simple to me.

  4. Law 14 specifically bars the encroachment that occurred on that play, and it also specifically calls for exactly the result that was ordered. However, the spirit of the laws is reflected in the advantage call as well. Unless Referee Geiger felt that there was an advantage given by the encroachment, WHICH HE COULD ACTUALLY HAVE BELIEVED, there was no reason to make the call. The player encroaching was sufficiently behind the ball as to pose no real competetive advantage. My note about the referee believing that there could have been an advantage is directed at the fact that the encroachment was directly behind the shooter, and could have distracted MacMath from the ball and approach to the ball of DeRosario as the shooter. If that is what the referee believed, then the proper call was made.

  5. One more thing Nate: mistakes – big, game-changing ones – get made by referees in the English Premiere League, in La Liga, in the Bundesliga, and at the World Cup. It’s nice that you think that foreign referees get every call right as their feet never quite touch the ground, but it’s not true.

    You should hear top-class referees talk about MLS: very low skill level for a professional league, surly, entitled, ignorant players and coaches. If a quality gap exists, it’s due in no small part because of the lack of skill, and resulting lack of flow, in the American game.

    Where is your article lamenting the childish, unhinged tantrums from Ben Olsen and Kevin Payne? Or the one examining the lack of decorum in MLS? Or the one tying Ben Olsen’s inability to control himself to the inability of the players of DC United to control themselves? Or even the sober analysis of each decision, with quotes from the Laws? (You can thank me for your next four columns later). And when you write that last one, you can explain that referees, not players, coaches, or fans, are the ones that have spent hundreds and thousands of hours studying, training, analyzing situations, being critiqued or listening to others being critiqued, all so their decisions can be questioned by people without a whiff of the knowledge they possess.

  6. James "4-3-3" Forever says:

    Speaking of foerign referees being wrong, anyone see Chelseas third goal agaisnt reading yesterday? Literally a mile offsides.

  7. Geiger is a FIFA ref and thus he is recognised as an elite official not only from USSF but our international governing body. Tim’s pt is correct and I have indeed seen international matches in which penalties were retaken because of encroachment, even slight encroachment. The lines on the field are indeed there for a purpose. It is interesting that MLS officials have that silly little vanishing paint to distinguish and enforce encroachment on PK’s and then see some one whine about enforcement. I do agree ref’s that have exposure to the highest level of competition do tend to read and maintain flow of play. We would do well to have a reciprocal agreement to lower tier matches in international leagues for our officials to gain this experience. BTW… I would have awarded a penalty retake to china in the World Cup as Brianna Scurry totally came off the line.

  8. I meant Tom’s pt.

  9. I think the biggest problem in soccer officiating is there simply aren’t enough referees on the field. Pro soccer has 3 refs on the field for 22 players. Baseball has 4 for 10-13. Basketball has 2-3 refs for 10 players. Hockey has 4 for 12 players. American football has 7 for 22 players. Add 2 refs to soccer, and you’d dramatically improve the quality of officiating. In no other major team sport do you hear the volume of complaints like you do in soccer. This is why.

    • The two-man system is used in American high schools. It is abhorred. Think you have inconsistency now? How about when two referees with different philosophies are on the same field at the same time? One tight, the other more forgiving, both capable of managing a match on their own, but calling the same game different ways. Or one more assertive than the other, and overturning the calls of his colleague.

      The two-man system is terrible and FIFA has issued specific guidance stating that matches which use a two-man system are not sanctioned. This is true even if an official fails to show in an amateur match.

      The real problem is a basic lack of understanding of the game by almost anyone but referees (in America). Most Americans understand as much about soccer as your average European understands about American football. To make matters worse, travel teams and ODP teams are populated by affluent, white, privileged, suburban kids whose parents foster in them a sense of entitlement, but not decency, respect, or Heaven forbid, self-control. A few of these kids develop enough skill to play soccer in college or even in MLS – which is a third- or fourth-rate league by any standard. They grew up as brats, and as adults, they have retained their sense of entitlement, and so you have the spectacle of Freddy Adu refusing to leave the pitch, or, even more remarkable, a coach of a professional team embarrassing himself and his organization with comments that should have his senior management questioning his ability to control himself, much less a team of so-called professionals.

      Now add to that mix the tremendous pressure that this country’s professional leagues place on their referees to finish games with twenty-two men. Referees are strongly discouraged from sending players off, because fans might stop coming. The FA knows that Emirates Stadium will be full if Yaya Toure receives a three-match ban, just as the NFL knows people will fill the Superdome even if Jonathan Vilma does not play. The MLS is aware of its problem – that most fans are casual and not knowledgeable, and may not show up to a Galaxy match if Beckham or Donovan are not in the lineup. So they implore referees to send people off only in the most egregious circumstances (yes, I know this to be fact). The players, therefore, do not fear a referee’s discipline, and therefore do not respect them. And the league does not do nearly enough to discourage poor behavior (Olsen will be fined; other leagues would have banned him for at least one match, and commentators would have noted how Olsen disgraced himself).

      So there you are. A perfect recipe for the spectacle you saw. Mark Geiger’s crime was officiating that match in the manner befitting a FIFA referee who has earned respect around the world.

      • I didn’t advocate a two-man system. You’re responding to something I didn’t say, i.e. a straw man.

        I suggest something no one uses: At least five refs. Change the paradigm. Three men — with one having most of the control — simply aren’t enough to adequately call a sport with 22 players.

        Sure, a problem in the U.S. may be lack of understanding of the sport, but then how do you explain the problems with officiating in England and nearly everywhere else?

        Refs in a three-man system are asked to do something extraordinarily difficult: Adequately call a game in which there are 22 men running vast distances for 90 minutes. Step back from soccer and look at the big picture of pro sports officiating: Refs in no other major team sport have so difficult a task. The biggest problem isn’t with the individuals reffing the game. It’s with the circumstances in which they’re placed. The problem isn’t individual, so much as it’s institutional.

  10. Nate Emeritz says:

    Tom, thanks for taking the time to comment. I think I’ve just about caught up… Replies in reverse order of your comments:

    3) the card I had in mind as absurd in the context in which it was given was Williams’s first yellow for a delayed throw-in (perhaps you disagree with that opinion also),

    2) the primary goal I had in mind was the pk (see below for further explanation), although I would also dispute the call on the earlier goal because Farfan kicked it out of MacMath’s hands (http://www.mlssoccer.com/matchcenter/2012-08-19-dc-v-phi/highlights?videoID=197216), and

    1) having realized that the Laws were written down, I had a look:
    a) the relevant rule, Law 14, states that players other than the kicker must be located at least 10 yards from the penalty spot,
    b) in applying the Laws of the Game, the referee is to “ensure that games are played with as little interference as possible. Constant whistling for minor and dubious infringements may cause bad feeling and anger from players,” and
    c) FIFA even provides pictures to explain how to apply Law 14, which we can assume take into consideration its proscription on trifling (minor) offences: http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/worldfootball/clubfootball/01/37/04/30/interpretation_law14_en.pdf (two of the infringements show several players, and one of the infringements shows one player, each several yards into the area, but the non-infringement shows the attacking player closest to the camera just on the edge or barely inside the area).

    Looking at the freeze-frame of the moment after DeRosario hit the pk, Salihi was mid-stride, no more than two feet inside the restricted area: http://www.blackandredunited.com/2012/8/20/3256870/this-is-why-we-lost-two-points-you-can-blame-hamdi-salihi-for (we can probably infer that a split-second earlier, when the ball was kicked and Salihi was starting his stride, he would have been less than two feet inside the area).
    On a technical reading of only Law 14, you and Mark Geiger are correct that it says no attacking player can be within 10 yards of the spot, and that Salihi was less than 10 yards from the spot. However, I have not heard from any serious person argue that Salihi had any effect on that play, and would not agree with anyone who claims his involvement rose above the level of trifling, minor, or dubious. Comparing the pictures from FIFA to the pk shot, Salihi is closer to the non-infringement example than to the three infringement examples, both in terms of numerosity (two of the infringement examples involve multiple attacking players inside the area) and in terms of distance (each of the attacking players are several yards inside the area). Incidentally, there appeared to be significant bad feeling and anger from players immediately after the whistle. Both the degree of infringement and the reaction by the players fall within the sort of scenario FIFA had in mind for trifling offences. Taking your suggestion, I’ve decided to read (and apply) all of the Laws – not just a once over of Law 14. A complete reading of the text and FIFA guidance indicates that this was not a good application of Laws 5 and 14. Taken in combination with Williams’s first yellow card, which could have also been a technical infringement but incorrect to call under the text of, and guidance related to, Laws 5 and 7, it does not seem that Geiger did a reasonable job applying the concept of trifling (minor) offences.

    I agree that referees in every league make mistakes, which is why the point of the article was not finding referees who always get it right, but rather finding referees who can apply all of the Laws in a way that players with matured soccer cultures adapt to. For an explanation of what I meant, you could reference the words in the article, such as “for players to become attuned to the standard of officiating at the highest level, it’s more important that referees get it the same as referees at those levels (avoiding Under-12 calls like untimely throw-ins” and “Perfection does not exist in soccer players or referees but maturity does.” I think I see the problem, and hope the message is more understandable next time.

    Here is a link to my article finding fault with certain aspects of Ben Olsen’s career, including statements that “lofty presumptions about his potential never quite materialized,” he exhibited “unbridled exuberance,” and he “had fallen short of his potential.” https://phillysoccerpage.net/2012/08/01/ben-olsen-swagger-and-redemption/. Thanks for asking and, apparently, for idea for the column. If you intended your comment as a question whether I think Olsen and Payne lack control and that has a substantive effect worth exploring, I might say to an extent and perhaps it has costs and benefits. However, I also don’t disagree that their comments this weekend were technically correct, which seems to go a long way with you. Sorry for the double negative: the most highly honored MLS referee is clueless.

    The officiating at the Olympics, where Spanish players resorted to physically pushing the referee and then were not punished for it, was not necessarily a badge of honor (or shame). Geiger’s “crimes” were a few specific calls that I have indicated above. He makes good and bad calls, each of which can be reviewed, unless you can “give me the page number in the Laws of the Game” that ratifies every call made by a referee after “earn[ing] respect around the world”?

    Feel free to support, with a “sober analysis,” the idea that Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Kasey Keller, and Landon Donovan (and players at lower levels) lack an understanding of soccer that is possessed by Mark Geiger and Ricardo Salazar (and referees at lower levels).

  11. Nate,

    By now you may have surmised that I am a former referee. It doesn’t matter what I think about Williams’ first yellow – and here’s why. I was not the match referee. The man who was did what he thought was necessary at the time, and as I am not fully aware of the circumstances he factored in to his decision, I’m not comfortable questioning a referee about his decisions, especially one as well respected as Geiger. Miss an offsides – yeah, that’s black and white. The Laws further do not state that time-wasting shall not be considered at the 37th minute.

    With regard to your statement about the “most decorated referee in MLS being clueless”, I submit to you that FIFA disagrees with you strongly enough, and trusts Geiger enough, to place the final of a major world tournament in his hands, and afterward, to send him to its second-most important tournament. They had about 1,400 referees to choose from in both instances, and he made the cut. I beg your pardon, but what do you know that the people who run world soccer’s governing body do not?

    I’ll further add that people who know Mark will tell you that Mark is confident in his abilities, but is by no means the person Ben Olsen describes. Olsen is himself such a narcissist that he cannot conceive that someone else might not be.

    Law 14 does not read “Before deciding whether to call encroachment, the referee must first assess the impact of the encroachment on the ensuing play”. It simply states that all players not taking the penalty must be ten yards from the ball. The DC player broke the rules and took his chances. We’re going to have to disagree – the Law is the Law.

    The disallowed goal – the goalkeeper clearly demonstrated possession and was kicked at by a DC player. A hand on the ball is possession, and again, “kicking or attempting to kick another player shall be punished by awarding a direct free kick to the opposing team.”. Crystal clear, and Mark was spot on. “You don’t call that at this level” – I know another FIFA referee very well who would find a reason to call a foul throw early in the game, just to ensure that players knew he was paying attention. The same referee, early in his career in the professional leagues, looked for a big-name player to send off – so the rest of the league knew that there would be no special treatment. MLS referees have no such luck – the league commands special treatment for each team’s top two or three players from its referees.

    I did misspeak. I should have said that referees understand the Laws of the Game, rather than the game itself, than any player, coach, or fan.

    Sometimes, like on Saturday, players are determined to ruin a match. I have no idea why a DC player chose to choke a Union player, nor do I have any idea why a DC player would choose to tackle a Union player from behind. I do know that DC became completely unhinged. A call that do or didn’t go one way or the other – or even several – what I find most disappointing is that fans want to relieve players of the responsibility to conduct themselves in a manner befitting the game if they disagree with a referee’s decision. .if you don’t like the decision of someone in authority in your full time job, does your employer grant you license to start destroying the office?

  12. I think that many of these posts reflect some views that are widely held in the referee community, of which I have been a member for well over a decade. It is my opinion that these views, however well meaning and honestly held, reflect an unnecessary defensiveness that might have an adverse effect on the general state of refereeing in this country.

    First, to say “the Law is the Law” is either misleading, incomplete, or just inaccurate. It is common practice for referees at all levels and in all nations to refrain from applying the laws strictly where the game is better served by leaving violations uncalled. This is explicitly recognized in the soccer laws and i the guidance thereon, both in the advantage clause of Law 5 (not pertinent here) and in the provision of the Advice to Referees cited by Nate regarding the referee’s responsibility to avoid spoiling the match by insisting on calling “minor and dubious” infringements (or, as the old IFAB decision had it until removed from the Laws themselves after 1997, “trifling and doubtful breaches”). During the United-Union match Sunday, on every kick-off, an attacking player had at least one foot over the halfway line to receive the first touch from a teammate, but a retake was never ordered. In the same match, virtually every throw-in was taken, after a brief or lengthy run-up, from a point more than one yard from where the ball went over the touchline; not once was the throw given to the opposing team as a result. Numerous free kicks were taken from spots other than the spot at which the foul occurred. None of these was called, because they involved conduct that had no adverse effect on play; to call them would have needlessly delayed and interfered with the flow of the match. So it’s obvious that Mr. Geiger knew the law, and that he didn’t share the view that “an infraction is an infraction, and must be called, no matter how unimportant it is to the match.”

    Second, there’s this: “It doesn’t matter what I think about Williams’ first yellow – and here’s why. I was not the match referee.” It is a point of general agreement among referees that one referee cannot ethically question the decision of another referee. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this can result in the perpetuation of errors. When a referee is wrong–and we’re all wrong at least twice a day, to paraphrase the broken clock maxim–somebody who knows something about the subject simply must be allowed to point it out without being told that his observation is a mark of poor character. It is especially important that senior officials have their games examined, and the discussion circulated, because the rest of us are constantly “going to school” on their performances. Players, coaches, and referees who are acting as spectators should behave themselves on the pitch and everywhere else; but to say a senior referee cannot be criticized just because he’s a senior referee is to confer upon referees a status normally reserved for narcissistic dictators, Mafia chieftains, and perhaps the Pope. It’s not good for promoting a better understanding of the game, and it’s not good for the referees insulated by it.

    Third, the assumption that no one who is not a referee can have any knowledge of what the Laws actually say is preposterous and remarkably condescending. How in the world can anyone on this board know whether Nate has “ever seen the Laws” or whether he knows what they say? I think it is imperative in any discussion, before we tell someone that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that we give him the opportunity to prove it. I didn’t see anything in Nate’s article that suggested that he didn’t know the game or the Laws thereof; to assume that he can’t because he isn’t a referee (again, a fact that is not established; how do we know that Nate is not now, nor has ever been, a badge-wearing USSF grade 8?) casts us as some kind of neo-Gnostics, imbued with secret wisdom unknowable to the uninitiated. I’m uncomfortable with cults.

    Finally, we need to resist the temptation to defend against one charge by bring a counter-charge. Even if, as was said, certain players are brats and don’t know how to behave, that has no real bearing on whether this ref had a good game or not. I take it that no one is saying “Geiger called this dubious offense because the players needed to be taught some manners,” and if we’re not saying that, then their behavior is immaterial to the discussion. We need to focus.

    Anyone who saw this match must have seen that the referee’s control of it was tenuous, and that the decision on the PK and the steps that followed dramatically accelerated the problem, leading to a sour, chaotic result. I have little doubt that a referee as experienced as Mr. Geiger has spent a great deal of time examining the match and looking for things he could have done differently. I don’t see any reason why we can’t do the same.

  13. Richie The Limey says:

    Well said, Kent.

    Tom, have you ever been to a referee’s society meeting? To suggest that a fellow referee can not have their calls analyzed and scrutinized and criticized is preposterous. How else are referees supposed to improve if their performance is not assessed and critiqued by peers?

    Just because someone has a license to drive does it make them a good driver? Geiger might have passed all the exams and courses and he might have progressed though the ranks because of certain people being in his corner or because he has the right haircut or who knows what. He had a bad game on Sunday – nobody can deny that, not even a fellow referee.

    I held a qualification from the FA in England many years ago and I saw referees who were widely recognized as being poor managers of games get promoted through the ranks because they played the game of schmoozing the right people, or they just got lucky when the assessor was there, or a great ref had a bad game when he was being assessed. To say that the USSF says Geiger is a good ref therefore he must be great is a naïve and blinkered position to take. I think he is below average ref who happened to have a shocker last Sunday.

    It is pointless to argue about his decisions because so much of refereeing is interpretation and is based on a referee’s feel for the game. In my opinion Geiger let that game get away from him in the first half and when he tried to reel it in it was too little too late because he had enabled a hostile atmosphere with inconsistent calls. NOTHING winds players up more than inconsistency because they feel a great injustice has befallen them and they naturally look for an outlet.

    They always say that you shouldn’t notice the referee if he is doing his job well. Based on that simple maxim how did our friend Mr. Geiger do?

  14. Kent,

    I was not implying that, by saying that the Law is the Law, that they are rigid and do not allow discretion. It is precisely the discretion granted the referee that makes the job so challenging. However, when a player violates a rule, he or she should be prepared to accept the consequences.

    I also Made the specific point that referees are constantly being critiqued and listening to critiques of others. I did not say no referee’s decision should be questioned. You’ll agree, however, that we did not have the same amount or quality of information as he did.

    If the decision on the penalty soured the match, then we turn to the video. Was he technically correct? Without question. Should referees refrain from making decisions because one side will find them unpopular? What decision then can a referee safely make?

  15. Richie,

    I have in fact been to more than one referee meeting. Your point regarding Mark being noticed is well taken, and you’re entitled to your opinion. I have myself had a bad game here and there. I too watched and learned from Paul Tamberino, Vinny Mauro, Esse Baharmast – you know the same names.

    My central point is this: I can live with a referee critiquing another. What I find harder to swallow are casual observers who lack the training and have never been in the same difficult positions making apoplectic statements not based on fact.

    • Welcome to the PSP!!!

    • Referees are participants in the game, as are players, coaches, and spectators. Each offers a distinct and important viewpoint. If only referees are allowed to critique the decisions of referees, vital perspectives are lost, and referee development will be slowed or skewed unnecessarily.

      The input of players is especially important; during the match, the reactions of the players to actions of other players are the referee’s primary gauge of how things are going. If the players are feeling unprotected, they will protect themselves, and the referee that sees this coming needs to tighten up. If they are expressing frustration with over-regulation, the referee must generally lighten up and give them more freedom to play. Right?

      If this is true, then it must be true that we need to hear the input of players on refereeing matters in general, and it is the referees, and the game itself, that suffer from their exclusion from the discussion. True, referees have experiences that players do not, but the reverse is true also. And in the end, the game is primarily about the players, not the referees, so the players’ perspective is essential. Such input should be civil and reasoned, sure; but to exclude it because “they don’t know what we know” is a bad idea.

      As to apoplectic statements not based on fact, I can’t say I saw any of those in Nate’s article. Or are you talking about statements by Olsen and Payne?

      In the days of the NASL, American refereeing was much worse than it is now, so the league imported more experienced refs from abroad (or born and raised abroad, but moved to the States). Two of these, Robert Evans and Edward Bellion, subsequently wrote “For the Good of the Game,” probably the best book on practical refereeing ever. This is what they say about applying the “trifling or doubtful breaches” standard to encroachment on a PK:

      “With encroachment by attackers or defenders or both, ask yourself if their early movement into the penalty area has an effect. Did they gain anything from it? If they did, then penalize. If they did not, then don’t.”

  16. I must be coming across wrong. My overriding guide during my career was common sense. If the game required a call, i would do my best to make it. If a call was not required, I did my best to not make it. Of course, the players’ input is vital. It might have been a rough match, but I just can’t make the connection between a penalty ordered retaken and the need to choke an opponent.

    I agree with you – Nate was not making apoplectic statements, but Messrs. Olsen and Payne were. I note that your posts have focused less on the controversial calls and more on game management. I maintain that MLS referees have fewer tools at their disposal due to the league’s position on sending off players, and this can make the difference in a hotly contested rivalry match.

    • Only my opinion, of course, but I think that early failures in game management–failing to caution some bad and cynical fouls, issuing a petty, inflammatory caution for time wasting on a throw-in when he finally, belatedly went to his pocket (why not just quietly tell the guy, “You’re wasting time. If you take 30 seconds, I’ll add a minute”?), and then the two big ones–led to the late meltdown. Geiger ended up sending off a bunch of players and cautioning a bunch more; he wasn’t lacking the tools, just the sense, that day, of when to use them. Again, just my opinion.

      As to the controversial calls, the waved-off goal was a tough call. I don’t agree with his decision, but it was a hard one to make because of the rapidity of the various touches and contact. But the encroachment call is not, in my opinion, controversial; it’s just flat wrong, a shocking error of judgment for such an experienced ref. And that one was the shovel that Geiger used to bury himself and the match. [Repeat chorus re my opinion.]

      But what I have mostly left uncommented upon (and most of the other commenters have as well) is the substance of Nate’s article, which is that these problems–the puzzling lack of consistency and superiority in the upper echelon of U.S. referees, and the apparent inability of the top U.S.-based players to conform to international norms of acceptable play and behavior–are interrelated, and that the league, for its own good and that of the national team’s performance abroad, needs to address it. And the best and cheapest way to address it is to start from the referees’ side, and import some model/mentors to get the process rolling. As I mentioned in passing, that’s not unlike the way that the NASL did it, and I think it’s a fine idea for MLS.

      It’s not that British or European or South American or Asian referees are inherently more gifted; it’s that there is more consistency of approach, more agreement in style, among those referees than there is between those referees and our domestic folk. And as the biggest prizes are to be won on the world stage, it would be well for our home-based international players to get better training in the standards applied in that environment. I don’t think that’s at all unreasonable, and it’s a proposal I hadn’t heard before.

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