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Friday, May 8, 2009
MLS officiating improving, contrary to perception

Ives Galarcep, ESPNsoccernet

Red cards and penalty calls are two of the most significant game-changing calls that can be made in a soccer game, so when the early part of the 2009 Major League Soccer season saw what seemed like a flood of such calls, the initial public reaction was one of disappointment with what many perceived to be bad officiating.

According to the officials who oversee MLS referees, and many MLS coaches, the league's officiating is actually improving, and the seeming rash of big calls has more to do with referees making calls that should have always been made, and making calls in adherence with FIFA guidelines.

"In my opinion I think the refereeing has been very, very good this year," said Paul Tamberino, U.S. Soccer's director of referee development, "with the 2009 program directives that we've given our referees, more clear, precise direction on what we want to look for. It's all criteria based and we're getting positive feedback from the referees that this is a great direction we have taken."

While some fans may disagree with that assessment, MLS coaches tend to agree. In an informal poll of a half dozen MLS assistant and head coaches, all six stated that the officiating league-wide has been as good or better than in previous years.

"I think they're doing a good job and you are seeing some improvement," said Kansas City head coach Curt Onalfo. "Ever since Paul [Tamberino] took over and implemented some of the programs you see now, I think referees are being better trained and prepared and that's leading to improvement on the field.

"Is it where it needs to be? I wouldn't say that," Onalfo said. "But I would say that it is growing and improving just as the league is improving."

Tamberino knows a thing or two about being a good referee. He was named MLS referee of the year every season from 1998 to 2001 and was enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2004, just three years after hanging up his whistle.

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Tamberino's current job is to oversee refereeing in the United States, with MLS referees among his more important responsibilities. This means he has been among the people most involved in helping MLS referees enforce FIFA rules. That includes an increased emphasis on specific types of plays, such as handballs in the penalty area and red cards for denying goal-scoring opportunities.

That added emphasis has clearly had an impact on referees' decisions. Through this week's matches, MLS had 50 percent more red cards per game than last season, a number that reached 100 percent during a card-filled April that yielded 16 red cards in 31 matches.

That increase in major calls has led to complaints from fans as well as concerns from players, but MLS officials do not see a problem as long as the right calls are being made.

"It's the nature of the sport because those calls are so important, and can decide the outcome of the game, so those calls are put under the microscope," said Alfonso Mondelo, MLS director of player programs. "I don't think the officiating in MLS is that bad, and as a matter of fact, it has improved this year."

There is concern in some MLS circles that referees are too focused on trying to find examples of the calls being emphasized by U.S. Soccer and are therefore making calls that might have otherwise not been made.

Among those concerned about the trend is New York Red Bulls assistant coach Richie Williams. An eight-year veteran of MLS as an all-star midfielder before becoming a coach, Williams believes officiating is improving in MLS but worries that the emphasis by U.S. Soccer on the officiating of certain plays could be leading to forced calls and bad calls.

"I always hate when they come down with these directives because they should just be teaching these guys all the rules," Williams said. "It shouldn't be about emphasizing certain calls because then it ends up in the back of their minds that there's an emphasis on these calls.

"It's the same thing when you go into a World Cup and FIFA says they're going to crack down on certain plays," Williams said. "There ends up being a million red cards because of that. Even if FIFA doesn't come out with a mandate you'll still see red cards for things like elbows, but I think you then have referees overdoing it because they've been told to look out for certain plays."

The new emphasis among MLS referees on specific plays certainly has played a role in the increase in red cards, but Tamberino still believes that the additional calls, and added red cards, are good calls that are being made in greater numbers.

"The red cards we have gotten have been pretty much right-on," Tamberino said. "The players are playing hard, and when they go over the line with excessive force, or are endangering players, the referees have responded accordingly.

"What we're focusing on is based on 100 percent misconduct situations," Tamberino said. "Whether it's a second yellow card for a tactical foul, or a straight-leg tackle, or a two-footed tackle, denying a goal-scoring opportunity, the referees have been spot-on getting these calls right."

With more calls being made, and more violations being caught, the law of averages dictates that referees are also getting more calls wrong. Tamberino doesn't try to pretend that MLS referees are perfect, but firmly believes that MLS referees are improving as a group year after year.

"I think in any sport there's going to be [officiating] mistakes," Tamberino said. "In all sports it's a game of angles. In active sports it's going to be a game of angles. What we see in our game now, as opposed to game one, is the technology and the multiple camera angles. That's going to pick on something we miss or not see right, but at the same time, the technology is there to reconfirm when we do get the call right.

"If the referee has a poor performance, that's reviewed by us at U.S. Soccer," Tamberino said. "A referee can be relegated to a lower division until his confidence is built up and he's put back in the major league."

Referees are not only held accountable through a stringent review process that involves U.S. Soccer as well as MLS coaches, U.S. Soccer has also increased the information it provides to the public on issues related to officiating. U.S. Soccer also has a weekly podcast on its Web site where the previous week's officiating decisions are discussed.

So are the red cards of the early season a trend that MLS fans are going to have to get used to? The more logical explanation for the rash of red cards is that players struggled early on to adjust to the new guidelines MLS referees are now following. The numbers indicate that players are adapting. There have been just two red cards in nine matches in May (and 27 yellow cards for a modest average of 3.0 per game) and the average of fouls per game is at 22.6, the lowest average at this point in a season since the league began play in 1996.

While the complaints about poor officiating will never disappear, chances are the increased complaints from early in the MLS season will begin to subside as players and referees adjust and new standards are established for what is and isn't allowed on the field. As frustrating as many big calls have been for players and fans early in the year, signs point to the officiating in MLS improving rather than getting worse.

"You have more teams now in the league, and more teams missing the playoffs, so these matches are getting more intense," said Mondelo. "Sometimes that intensity can lead to plays that go over the top, and the referees are handling it. You will see players adjust and I have a feeling when we get to the end of the year we will see numbers similar to what we've seen in the past.

"Once players adjust, I think fans will be able to see more clearly that the referees are actually doing better instead of doing worse."

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at

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