3 tips from rugby to help with MLS’ refereeing problem

Two weeks into the new MLS season and fans have been unfortunate to be treated to a product that has been drastically affected by refereeing. And not in a positive way.

Whether it was Silviu Petrescu on opening weekend, or Allen Chapman and David Gantar in Week 2, too much time is being spent discussing the men in the middle. Points are being dropped, tempers are being frayed, and it seems only a matter of time until the situation decays to the point where a serious injury or embarrassing on-field brawl could further taint the beginning of a brand new season that was so recently filled with promise after both sides agreed to a CBA in time for the scheduled kick off.

It is at times like these when discussion about changing the refereeing system is only natural. Is it worth it to add extra officials? How about adding or subtracting some of their powers? Could video replay be efficiently incorporated into a sport like soccer where a whistle hands possession to one team or the other without grinding the flow of the match to a halt?

One sport that has not been shy about taking chances and making adjustments in the way the game is called is Rugby Union. (This is the code of rugby to which most Americans are familiar. Its cousin, Rugby League, surgically removes the skill and tactics that make rugby a fascinating spectacle, while ramping up the level of a barbarism to a degree that even I, as a devoted rugby fan and advocate, simply do not support or appreciate.)

In soccer, referee-sympathetic debates often center around the fact that the referee and his or her two assistants must control 22 players, a ratio which is higher than any other widely supported sport in the USA. In rugby, that number swells to 30 players for the 3 officials. In order to make policing such a large number of players even remotely feasible, rugby has gone to great lengths to give referees as many advantages possible, and the oft-discussed culture of respect that has been built between players and referees in rugby is a very real thing.

I offer these ideas not with the desire that they be immediately incorporated into MLS. Rather, I hope to continue (and hopefully further) a discussion that is already happening in person, over social media, and in the comments sections of Philly Soccer Page. If you asked my personal preference, I would say that I lean towards being a purist. I love the idea of a stern referee who stamps authority on a match in the early going, laying down strict guidelines that provide structure and a concrete framework to a match as soon as it has begun. Unfortunately, I believe that most fans can agree that MLS refs (for whatever reason) do not do this, and thus I submit the ideas below for consideration and further discussion.

1. Only the captain talks to the referee

This rule change is ideal for a number of reasons.

First of all, it immediately eliminates the mass confrontation. Feeling like a group get together around a referee? How about the free kick gets moved 10 yards closer to goal? (This is of greater benefit in rugby because a kick can be taken not only from the point of the foul, but at any point directly behind the spot of the foul. This would be more complicated to introduce into soccer, although offering the team with the set piece the option of an advancement could make for an interesting discussion.) Or maybe, and more simply, a stack of yellow cards suits your fancy?

To be perfectly honest, it is hard to understand why MLS referees who are lightning quick to their pocket, and borderline belligerent to begin with in open play, somehow forget where they keep their cards when they are being badgered and abused at close range. It doesn’t take much to prove dissent, and referees would be within their rights to dish out a lot more cautions for this infraction than they do. The addition of this rule would give them further institutional support, handing them all of the backing they need to serve up the type and severity of punishment necessary to insure that teams spend their 90 minutes on the pitch chasing the ball, rather than the ref.

Of course, no rule is hard and fast, and players will have their individual gripes with referees. However, rugby has set the precedent that if a player other than the captain approaches or has words for the ref, he or she better choose them wisely, because the captain that player has bypassed to get at the match official will definitely have sterner words, as will their coach, when additional sanctions are levied against their team.

And when tensions do boil over, the captains from either team can then be summoned by the referee for a brief conference. Relaying specific instructions to each captain, who then conveys them to their respective teams, the onus of good behavior is, in that interaction, immediately transferred from the referee onto the players (where it should, theoretically, always reside, anyway). These meetings can also serve as a formal warning, not just to the captains, but to all players on the pitch, that whatever behavior necessitated that summons will no longer be tolerated in any form.

2. Access to the referee’s microphone

In an effort to bring better, more thorough coverage to fans, it is very common for rugby broadcasts to include the audio communication of the referees on the field. While this useful technology is not deployed during live play (my guess would be for profanity related issues), it is very common to see a contentious moment or decision replayed, with the referees conversation, and often justification, to players available for all to hear.

The inclusion of the audio has worked not only as an entertaining addition and valuable teaching tool, but also to build respect for referees and the difficult job they face each time they step out onto the field. In MLS (and most televised soccer), our view is limited to the twisted, anguished faces of players who feel that they have been wronged, yet we miss the conversations that take place, not only the justification given by the referee at the time of the incident, but also the discussion and acceptance of the players that usually follows.

While, my focus is on the inherent respect that comes from seeing players and referees talking situations through and accepting decisions, there is also the fact that giving that access to the broadcast crews in MLS stadiums adds an additional level of oversight. Of course, decisions would need to be made to determine what/when conversations make it through to the home viewer. But the practice has become so widely accepted in rugby that the governing bodies of the sport have taken it to the next level, introducing “Refcam,” a head mounted camera that essentially uses the referee’s position on the pitch to capture some of the best footage of the match, all the while reinforcing just how much chaos officials must sift through in order to correctly call a game. (More on refcam here.)

3. The TMO (Television Match Official)

Not dissimilar to hockey’s approach to instant replay, the Television Match Official can offer a verdict without the referee needing to depart the pitch.

Considering the referee is already in constant audio communication with both assistants via an earpiece, there is no need to even depart from the spot of the infraction when a critical decision needs further review. And then, going back to point No. 2, the referee’s feed is turned on for the broadcast audience and the viewing public gets to hear the verdict (whether it is from within the stadium or from the MLS war room in New York) and any requisite explanation in the same moment the referee does. With no need for extra work on the referee’s part, they can simply request a verdict from the TMO, usually with a standard hand gesture, and an answer can be handed down in a time frame that rarely exceeds 30 seconds.


  1. Pulling this comment over from a previous post since we now have a specific article speaking to the officiating.
    I recognize that some officials are better than others but I am curious about something….
    I think we need to take a step back and examine the MLS officiating issues with a different level of discernment. Is it possible the referee’s are just a symptom to a deeper problem. This has been branded as a physical league and I think MLS wants and likes that- not too far off from its real daddy the NFL.
    I for one detest the level of physicality of this league because we, IMO, begin to get what we have had in the last two games which is mixed martial arts and an inability for free flowing rhythm the game should have.
    As I wrote in my first post after the game, this level of physicality MLS is “proud of” puts the officiators into an untenable position– where their ability to judge what it fair, within the rules, over the top, or completely ludicrous is jaded. It is clear the official become lost in the cretinism and this tends to happen often.
    Chapman was conditioned to pull cards and call fouls in that game, just like the referee was in the previous game.
    Again, due to the overly physical BRAND of play MLS trumpets, the officials are conditioned to call fouls and lose their ability to accurately judge what is an infringement and what is not- leading to ghost calls at inopportune times.
    I ask you is the officiating that bad or is it a symptom of a deeper problem?

    • I think that if you ask a fan of any league throughout the world, almost all of them would say that the officiating in their league is not up to par.

      • I don’t know George. Arguing about officials is part and parcel in the game I agree – what I am trying to say is MLS wants a physical league and maybe that is making it more difficult for the officials to adjudicate is all.
        No games I watch across the river are near as rough as MLS Soccer (including BPL) bordering on the inability to have any rhythm at all- this past week it seems the referee was FORCED to blow the whistle over and over and over – then at the penultimate moment of the game – was unable to discern what was or was not a foul inside the box.
        My position is that maybe we shouldn’t be heaping all the blame on the officials. I would love better officials. Who wouldn’t but it is their burden to bear alone? Maybe MLS is culpable for the shitty officiating.

    • This is fantastic commentary on the officiating. I never thought of it like that before but it appears to be spot on.
      If you were to watch the “foreign” or new players into the league you will see a good amount of them get frustrated quickly over non-calls from the ref. Yes I understand a lot of player complain to the refs but to my observation the newer players to the league take a while to adjust physicality of the league.

      • They get very frustrated with the scythes and hatchets and shanks — and very very tired too, because they are forced to run so goddam much- run run run faster run run run.
        I’ve watched almost every game Pirlo has played and think I am yet to ever see him at top speed- not that the old man has one anymore. To the point though.
        we all thought Maidana wasn’t in good shape. No he just never had to run so much.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      Is officiating that bad, or is it MLS’s “physical brand?” IMHO, it is both. Chicken or egg. If thuggery is a deliberate feature of MLS’s brand, it is short-sighted. The product will be ugly because the ref will be forced to let too much go unpunished. Which only encourages more thuggery. Watched Real Madrid and Schalke last week and, for the limited time I watched, it appeared that both sides wanted to let each other play with skill – Real Madrid poorly, but Schalke as if inspired. Skill: What a concept! But how beautiful! Should not such behavior inspire the American spirit of fair play? In the meantime, a ref, or a ref organization that lays down the law from the get-go can nip bad behavior in the bud. Warn, then card anyone other than the captain who approaches you to question your call. Warn, then card anyone who fails to respect the required distance on a restart. Get these two ugly practices out of the game and you will begin to restore order. But it’s going to be a very long haul, considering how embedded the bad behavior is in this league.

      • I have no doubt MLS is billed as a physical league- it is their goal. I’ve heard it referred to as such numerous times whether through BeIn commentary, The Locker Room, with Phil Schoen, Fox Soccer- I’ve even read that the MLS Brand appreciates the physicality of the league. That’s why I’m using the word brand. This is planned.
        As for your position AS, I agree it is short sighted and appreciate your shared cynicism. Cynics never like to row a boat alone.

  2. Great post, Eli.

    Even if only #1 was enacted, things would get so much better. It’s not as bad in MLS as other leagues around the world, but to me, that would solve many problems (except in the case where Kaka is your captain and he’s mad when he gets subbed so he never gives someone else the armband, but that’s another scenario all together).

    The game moves so fast and it’s really difficult to officiate it so why not at least give the referee a chance to work in relative peace.

    • I agree with George that suggestion #1 is a no-brainer. It’s easy to implement and will have an immediate, positive impact on the game.
      I’m less enthusiastic about Eli’s other two ideas. I really don’t want officials worrying about how their comments will sound on TV when communicating with one another, and I’m very concerned that anything approaching NFL-style video review will kill the natural flow of the game.
      What is the standard of proof to overturn a call on the field? Irrefutable video evidence? Good luck finding that in 30 seconds. What about missed no-calls? Does the booth stop play to call for a foul that the on-field refs missed earlier? No thanks.

  3. Regarding “only the captain talks to the ref” idea. Does that, then, essentially preclude a goalie from being captain? If something happens in the offensive end of the field, for example, your goalie being 100 yards away sort of precludes him/her from talking to the official to get an explanation and such.

    • That’s why the NHL doesn’t allow goalies to be captains or alternates. If MLS introduced a “only the captain talks” rule, they’d probably have to forbid GK captains as well.

  4. I do agree that a TV official or instant replay should be used for scoring plays and penalty calls, at a minimum. Goals and potential goal scoring plays are just too critical in soccer to not take the time to get it right. In some cases, it would be a 5 second chat with the official upstairs. Worst case, it’s a minute or two to resolve a key play correctly. Just as the NFL reviews scoring plays and turnovers.

    • +1. Having a “TV match official” review just the most impactful decisions — scoring plays, penalty calls, and red cards (though the latter would be very infrequently overturned) could do wonders to improve the integrity of the game. And the impact on game flow would be very modest — the aforementioned calls already break up the flow of the game, especially with all the players jawing (and/or celebrating). We would just have to get used to 2-3 minutes more of stoppage time per match, probably. That’s a very small price to pay for accuracy.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I agree that the TMO is probably the most viable option to really be able to effect in important call in a game without destroying the pace of the game itself. And with Garber saying he wants MLS to be “guinea pigs” for technology, this should be a serious discussion.
        I also really enjoy the “only the captain talks to the referee” rule… and if broken, the free kick gets an extra 10 yards. That could prove effective and really change the culture over a few seasons, if ever implemented.

      • This is about more than just adding a minute or two on stoppage time, did anyone watch the Swansea Liverpool game yesterday?
        Swansea had complete dominion over the game in the first 45 minutes, so much so, that one could imagine Brendan Rodgers just holding on for dear life until the half time whistle. There were no stoppages for The Reds to regroup there was no referee going to the booth to see if Gomis was fouled– or if a penalty was warranted– just play and the ref making calls and more play and Liverpool making the proper adjustments at half time. The game is meant to be played with a running clock and as little outside stoppage as possible.
        Next thing you know players will begin to know certain activities tend to warrant the refs stopping game and these activities may occur to destroy the other teams rhythm- because it is human nature to stall- we already see it happening in futbol games.
        The NFL is nearly unwatchable with the ‘extra’ stoppages- 60 minute games turning in to 4 hour fiascos.
        As in life so in futbol — poverty is not a bad thing. Less is more. Goal line technology. No Mas.

      • I understand feeling hesitant about adding a TMO but I don’t think it would slow the game down at all. The big plays where it would be needed to be sure usually result in play stopping for a short period anyway. I can’t see how players would game this to waste time or ruin the other team’s rhythm considering the mechanism would only be used on penalties, scoring plays, or red cards.


        I also don’t think the comparisons to NFL really make sense. In the NFL the constant play stoppage is expected as a part of the game and there isn’t any kind of motivation or mandate from the players, the administrators, or the viewers to keep the stoppages to a minimum.

  5. Referee body cams. Enough said.

  6. Here’s a potential problem with a TV official idea, and it applies to the Union since they’ve dropped points this season due to calls that were made and calls that weren’t made. Does the TV official only review penalties that are called on the field, or is he allowed to call penalties that the on-field officials miss?
    If he’s allowed to make calls that are missed, that would be a big headache for the league. Fans are already pissed when on-field officials make a judgment call on what constitutes a foul and what is only incidental contact. If the TV official starts making calls for one team and happens to miss something for their opponents, they’re going to be accused of favoritism. There’s the potential for a penalty call for just about every set piece near the box, and he can’t decide to call some and not others.
    Also, how much time would he get to examine a situation? If a potential penalty call is missed and play moves back to the other end of the field before he decides to stop play, then he’s taking away a team’s scoring opportunity as well.

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