Before I even get into this, I want to acknowledge that by no means do I pretend to be the first to point this issue out. In fact, sources from across the league have been pointing this out all season long. But if we don't continue the conversation, then nothing will be done and it'll all get lost in the shuffle. So, if you haven't realized it yet--we have a ref problem.
It seems to me that it all really came to a head with Portland Timbers coach John Spencer getting fined $2500 and suspended for criticizing referee Abiodun Okulaja after their 1-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids. As fellow SB Nation blogger Geoff Gibson points out on the Timbers blog Stumptown Footy, Spencer's issue was primarily focused on the physical fitness of the referees, and specifically Okulaja who was visibly worn out and tired in the final quarter of game time, which Spencer believes caused him to call more fouls than he should have when he was unable to keep up. This is just one aspect of the problem with the refs that have come to light this season. And I could go on about that alone, but I'll leave it to the Portland peeps to educate and discuss.
Earlier in the season, the infallible David Beckham spoke out after the Galaxy's 0-0 draw with Toronto FC back in April, criticizing the refs as "becoming the stars of the MLS" instead of the players, and their bad calls ruining games as a result. This wasn't long after the Revolution saw their own share of bad calls in their 1-1 draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps on April 6th, a game which yielded 3 red cards.
Most recently, New York Red Bulls GM Erik Soler released an official statement following the 3-3 draw this past Sunday against the Portland Timbers which delicately condemns the decision during the game to give Thierry Henry a red card. The press release continued to say:
"We are aware that U.S. Soccer and MLS are working hard to improve the officiating in this country and we support those efforts wholeheartedly. However, if we want to continue increasing the level of play, we cannot let these types of refereeing performances occur."
It seems pretty clear to me that the decision to publish this statement from the Red Bulls' GM was clearly in light of Spencer's situation the week before. And I think this goes to show that we have reached a point where we have no choice but to escalate issues on the field up to the highest authority possible within an organization in order to disparage this ongoing problem out of fear of being punished.
Here's an analogy: imagine you are in elementary school and you and your friends are getting harassed by a bully week in and week out; he steals your lunch money, he gives you swirlies, and worst of all he totally ruins recess for you. One day, you've had enough and you decide to try to stand up to this bully yourself, but that results in getting beat up and then your teacher tells you that you can't go to recess for the rest of the week. The bullying keeps happening. The next time you decide that, instead of trying to fight this battle yourself, you'll just wait until after recess and then tell the teacher what happened, hoping that she will reprimand the bully and make it stop.
It still doesn't stop. So, what do you do now? After the next pummeling that you take at recess, you return home bloody and bruised. Your dad comes home from work and asks "WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO YOU!?" You tell him the whole story. He's pissed. So, what does he do? He goes to the school principle and maturely and politely asks that something be done to stop this from happening.
But there's no guarantee that anything will change. And what is the next step from there?
Now, I'm not suggesting that all the teams' GM's get together and go beat up Don Garber and key his car or anything. But it seems like every team has been affected by poor refereeing to some extent so far this season. For instance, just this week Real Salt Lake got robbed of 3 points because Charlie Davies took a blatant dive inside the box and yet was awarded the penalty kick by the referee. Yet earlier this month Sporting Kansas City's Omar Bravo got clearly taken down from behind by the Chicago Fire's Bratislav Ristic but was awarded no penalty (and barely even acknowledged), much to the dismay of coach Peter Vermes and indeed all Kansas City fans on the night of their first home game in their new park. Now, you can argue that Ristic's tackle was clean, sure, but if that warrants no PK then Davies' antics surely don't either. Inconsistency is what I'm getting at here.
Poor refereeing is also a large contributing factor to the number of serious injuries that have occurred this season to players like Steve Zakuani and Javier Morales as well as others. When a referee has no control over a game, players are in danger. This is a fact. It's pretty obvious.
So, where do we stand? What has to happen in order for MLS to change this outrageous, deplorable, and seemingly endless problem? The one thing that anyone who cares about the integrity of Major League Soccer can do is continue the conversation-don't let it die out. If our teams are going to be punished for criticism, then we'll have to do the criticizing. After all, they can't suspend fine us, right?
I also encourage everyone to listen to the opening segments of this past Friday's edition of the Around The League Extra podcast (episode 4) during which Zach Woosley very articulately conveys his thoughts about the refereeing this season, why it's a such a problem, and how it threatens the entire sanctity of the league. It's a perfect example of how we should use every corner of every medium to talk about this until something is done about it.
There may not be any clear solution, and I realize that I'm not really offering one here. But I believe that there must be one out there and we must find it soon. The league has made it clear that it will not take this poor quality of officiating lightly, so neither should the fans. Be heard. Demand a change.