Author’s note: What I should be writing about today is Ross County F.C.’s 4-2 loss at the hands of Dundee United yesterday morning, but I just can’t. I know the scoreline flattered the visitors, I know that manager Derek Adams will get things sorted out going forward, I know that the club is financial stable (and moreso after their kit sponsors signed on for another 5 years), and I know that with St. Mirren being an abysmal side and Hearts still working to overcome their 15 point penalty there is little danger of relegation this season. Still, I just don’t have the strength for it today. Instead, something I’ve been working on for a while.
Let me be clear: Everything in MLS is better now than when the league kicked off on April 6, 1996- EVERYTHING.
If this league were a person this season would be it’s senior year of high school and adulthood- whether reached through further education, gainful employment, or some kind of service, would loom ahead. Looking back I think we can honestly say that MLS has been a “good kid.” It took a few years to get going, there were a few stops and starts along the way, but all along there was movement in the right direction- growth, maturation. We should be careful, however, not to fall for that canard casually tossed into so many graduation speeches that, “these are the best years of your lives…” How sad that would be for a person, or a league, to have peaked in high school. What follows, then, is not an attempt to lambast the league or to take away from all of the progress it has made. Rather, it is an exhortation to Major League Soccer not to become complacent in general, and to redouble its efforts at improvement in several specific areas.
It has often been said that you know an official has done a good job if, at the end of the match, you don’t really remember him having been involved in the match. That doesn’t mean that he has kept his whistle and his cards in his pocket, but rather, that he has used each fairly and judiciously. Moreover, at no point did he make the match “about him.” Which is not to say that a referee must be a shrinking violet who defers to players and coaches alike. A referee can, through his personality (provided it is combined with ability!) command the respect of players and coaches alike and oversee a match whose quality is elevated by his presence. There is no better example of this than the Italian Pierluigi Collina, who not only was chosen as the best referee on the planet six years running, but also gave player, coach, and supporter alike a sense of calm when he walked onto the pitch because each could be confident that there would be no shenanigans and that the match would be called fairly.
My greatest complaint about officiating in MLS is a lack of consistency. This lack of consistency takes several forms, but there are two that trouble me the most. The first is inconsistent enforcement of the rules of the game. I know that every referee is different and if playing and coaching taught me anything it was that one must “play” the referee just as much as one must play one’s opponent. There does, however, have to be a “baseline,” a foundation upon which the idiosyncrasies of the individual referee rest. Within a match all players must be held to the same standard- be it a strict or lax one- a foul for one is a foul for the other. A yellow/red card for one is a yellow/red card for another. By extension, both clubs involved in a match must be treated equally as well. Finally, there must be more consistency not just within matches and not just by individual referees over the course of a season, but also by the league’s officials as a group over the course of a season. Again, while players must know how to operate under the hand of each individual referee, they should also have the expectation of a certain level of competence and consistency from every referee in every match.
One of the main problems is that for a long time MLS did not control it’s officials, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) did. Yes, MLS “worked” with U.S. Soccer on matters relating to officials, but ultimately it was the national federation that trained them, assigned them to matches, and evaluated their performance. All of the “right things” appear to be happening to improve that situation. In 2011 the USSF MLS and the USSF helped set up and fund PRO (Professional Referee Organization) which will be tasked with running the referee program in professional soccer leagues in the United States and Canada. PRO is also intended to improve the quality of officiating in U.S. and Canadian leagues by identifying and developing more professional quality referees.
PRO is run by form Premier League official Peter Walton who began his career in 1993 as an assistant referee in the Football League as an assistant referee in 1993 and who worked his way up the ranks, eventually officiating over 200 Premier League matches. Among the improvements Walton will oversee are increased funding of the referee program, the hiring of more experienced technical staff, increased training for officials, additional identification and training opportunities for young officials, and increased evaluation of match performance. Additionally, the number of full-time referees is expected to increase as a result of PRO’s creation and funding
That’s all good news and I’m probably just being impatient, but every time somebody like Baldomero Toledo steps onto the pitch to officiate an MLS match the league loses a measure of credibility, the players are done a disservice, and the supporters are presented with a diminished product.
TOMORROW: Soccer Specific Stadia