Monumental matchup, atrocious officiating

If you missed it Sunday, one of those quintessential moments in American soccer history occurred.

Seattle hosting Portland in a Cascadia Cup match is usually a hot ticket item, but it took on a whole new meaning with the home debut of Clint Dempsey for the Sounders. The hype was nearly the level of the MLS Cup or All-Star Game, but with less than a month to plan and market.

The match looked on paper to have been a relatively clean affair, with a second half goal proving pivotal. In reality, it was something different. The single yellow card on the disciplinary docket fell far short of the cynical (and sometimes malicious) contest that we witnessed on ESPN2. While Seattle gained the 1-0 spoils, the neutral observer was left wondering what was going on in referee Jair Marrufo’s head in the second half.

Clean Affair? Not so much…

For instance, Sounders irritant Osvaldo Alonso finished with a match-high 5 fouls committed. That included at least 2 card-worthy offenses. One was on the break, thwarting an attack down the right. Another was in the Timbers half and clearly had some malice behind the challenge. To both challenges, Marrufo merely awarded the foul and asked play to resume without recourse.

In other sports, it is common to see the referee “eat the whistle” in big matches.

Soccer’s unique disciplinary system makes it crucial that a referee control the players’ emotions, however. A card to Alonso in either of those situations would show the teams there is a boundary. Recklessness and cheap tactical fouls will not be tolerated. There is also an effect felt by the opposing team, that justice is being meted.

Instead, Marrufo looked to have either:

  1. made a conscious decision to keep the cards in his pocket, or
  2. been instructed by MLS to show more leeway.

Why? I’m not sure.

Discipline actually opens up a game. If MLS wants a display of offensive firepower between two teams with plenty of attacking fortitude, the best way to bring that to fruition is to ticket players’ negative actions.

With Alonso’s lunges going unpunished by Marrufo, the end result was inevitable. Pa-Modou Kah kicked out Eddie Johnson’s legs with vigor as the forward ran towards the flank. The action bordered on red, but Marrufo only showed yellow. The ensuing free kick netted the only goal in the match, but the fireworks weren’t over. Kah later kneed Johnson while he was laying on the ground. Marrufo missed it completely.

Perhaps Kah would have perpetrated these evils even if Alonso was shown a yellow — he does have a history. That doesn’t excuse Marrufo’s indifference to the style of play. In this day and age of concussions and shortened careers, a referee cannot ignore the tenor of the match. There are many methods of physical retaliation available to a player, but most players will remain controlled as long as the match official is leveling punishment appropriately.

Locally, Philadelphia Union have seen their share of these situations. During the Union’s tilt last August in DC, Control-Loss Master Mark Geiger famously ended the game by ejecting three players, leaving two teams wondering what the hell went wrong. It was another example of a referee not punishing rough play earlier in the game and losing control later as a result. In the first half, Geiger decided to caution Sheanon Williams — for time-wasting — when bookings could have been handed out — and weren’t — for legitimately rough play. If there’s one way to show your ineptitude with the whistle, it’s that right there.

On Sunday, Seattle was victorious, a result that makes more than just Sounders’ fans happy. MLS certainly craves a Landon vs. Clint matchup in the MLS Cup playoffs, and the win vaulted the Sounders past Cascadia rivals Vancouver into playoff position.

But MLS needs more than just marquee names to sell the product. They need the flair and attacking movement that makes soccer exciting.

The man with the whistle can help improve the play on the field immensely, simply by leveling punishment fairly when warranted. When referees give players like Alonso license to cut down attacking play without punishment, it stifles players like Dempsey on the pitch. Last time I checked, MLS was planning to sell their league with Dempsey, not Alonso.


  1. Amen. I think the rash style of play in MLS is definitely a contributing factor to the poor offensive creativity we see.

  2. Nice article. It’s not like the MLS dropped a newbie into the game; Marrufo’s been around longer than anyone (I think).
    I have to believe it was Marrufo’s decision to keep cards in his pocket. If the league advised him on how to call the match, well, we’re not watching a sport anymore; we’re watching ‘sports entertainment’. You might as well bring in Charles Robinson to referee the MLS Cup.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: