Officiating in Soccer

Like many people, I bemoan the officiating in soccer, especially in MLS.

I think this is particularly important for Major League Soccer in the US (MLS), because allowing excessive fouling degrades the quality of soccer, and the quality in MLS is already borderline; lax officiating only perpetuates the problem. Think about it:

  • Would you rather watch creative attacking players score goals (or at least make credible attempts), or watch those players get hacked, grabbed, or pushed to prevent them from scoring?
  • Would you rather watch your favorite players play, or watch them sit, injured, on the bench?
  • Would you rather watch attacking players confidently try to score, or defensively look for the foul they know is coming?

I thought so.

So what is the problem? I identify three factors:

  1. Inexperienced referees.
  2. Inconsistent or too-lenient refereeing.
  3. Not enough “eyes” to see what’s happening.

I’ll address each of these problems individually.

Inexperienced Referees

Major League Soccer is addressing this with the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), modeled after England’s Professional Game Match Officials Board and headed by English referee Peter Walton. Like player development, referee development is a long, slow process. They are now doing the best they can by taking some very smart steps in the right direction.

Inconsistent and Overly Lenient Calls

While the PRO will undoubtedly address this in many regards, I also feel that officiating in general is too lenient and inconsistent (not just in the US). I understand, and agree with, the approach of being friendly with the players, and I accep the sentiment that it’s a physical game, but I feel the game would be served better by making calls more strictly and consistently. The call can be made in a friendly manner, but it still needs to be an actual foul, not just a verbal warning.

What I mean is, there is no need to give players warnings – they already know the rules, they are professionals, and they play the game every week. There should be no need of giving a verbal warning for a first foul, and gradually escalating to a yellow card. Players just anticipate that since they will get a graduated response, there’s a certain amount they can get away with, and they will milk that for all it’s worth.

Instead, I suggest that anything that is ever a foul should always be a foul; anything that is ever a yellow card should always be a yellow card; anything that is ever a red card should always be a red card. Of course there are always judgment calls between these, but the goal should be 100% consistency, not a graduated response.

So how to deal with persistent infringement? Simple, use the same approach as is already used with two yellows = red, or basketball’s five foul limit. Simply specify that the third foul by an individual player is an automatic yellow. The third foul after the previous yellow by that player would be a second yellow, and hence ejection. Simple, predictable, strict.

I would also suggest that any foul involving clearly playing the player, not the ball (such as shirt tugging, or bear-hugging) be an automatic yellow card – it’s just counter to the beauty of the game. And I don’t think it should require the ball be in play to call a foul – would you not eject a player for punching another player even if play is not active? Any such infractions that substantially stop a developing attack (not just the last man) should be an automatic red, for instance, grabbing a player by the arm to stop them from passing a long ball on a breakaway. Similarly, I think they should formalize an experiment tried in a youth competition some years ago – give a yellow card for touching the ball in a dead-ball situation if the other team has possession. I’m sick of seeing players pick the ball up from where the free kick should be taken and carry it down the field – I can’t believe that’s not a card.

If refs started doing this, it would indeed be a shock to all the players, but I think it would help the game immensely. I would imagine the first games of a season (pre-season) going something like this: a dozen or more yellow cards, four or five ejections, and a handful of penalty kicks. On the first corner kick of the game alone, I’d expect, before the ball even gets into play, the ref to whistle madly then go hand out three or four yellow cards. Moans of “they’re ruining the game” would be heard, but after a few games of consistent application, the number of fouls, cards, ejections, and penalties would start to drop back to normal – not because the refs get more lenient, but rather because the players learn they can’t get away with fouling any more.

This would help MLS play greatly, at least in the long run: defenders would need to defend with speed, skill, and smarts (good positioning), rather than strength or fouling. Attackers would be able to attack with greater freedom, rather than always anticipating a clumsy foul. Eventually, the league would select for players based on skill and tactical acumen rather than strength and ability to foul, and in the longer run this could influence youth player development.

Not enough eyes to see everything

This is the gist of numerous proposals to help referees become more aware of what’s happening on the field. It started with the guise of errors in awarding goals, but really extends to all aspects of the game. Here are some of the proposals:

  • Goal-line technology. This is where it started, due to a number of botched goal calls. I think it’s a great idea, because all the other proposals might cut the likelihood of error, but not eliminate it as this sort of technology can. In the short run, it will probably be limited to just the goal mouth, but later it could detect a ball going out of bounds anywhere on the field. If it can track players, too, and where the ball contacts a player, then it could eventually even indicate possession, and maybe even offside? That would allow the actual referees to concentrate on fouls and player behavior. These latter applications may be years down the road, though.
  • Two extra assistant referees. Even with goal-line technology, I think MLS should definitely start using two additional assistant referees. These would be placed behind the goal, on the opposite side of the field from the linesman in this half of the field (definitely should be opposite, though they’ve experimented with being on near side as well), ranging from the corner flag to the near goal post. Unlike some of the other proposals, I don’t think they should be allowed to set foot on the field during play – they’d be strictly linesmen, like the other assistants. Here are some of the benefits:
    • Their angle of view is in the blind spot of the other assistant referees, and usually the main ref as well. That is, they can triangulate on the action, with coverage from all sides. I think a lot of the shirt-tugging etc. that happens around the penalty area would stop very quickly with such refs in place, because the blind spot typically exploited by players would no longer exist.
    • The action is closest to them exactly when it is farthest from the other assistant referees. For instance, near the upper left corner flag, it’s a half field length from one assistant referee and a full field width from the other. But the additional assistant could be standing right there.
    • They simply provide two more sets of eyes (though usually only one that is useful, in terms of being close to the play).
  • Video referee. This has also been talked about, and it makes a lot of sense. Among other things, it only makes sense that some member of the officiating crew can see the same things that are obvious to the TV audience (which is usually many more people than are actually in the stadium). Furthermore, the various and unusual angles, close-ups, slow-motion replays, etc. can be invaluable in learning what’s going on, particularly when combined with on-field information. However, I wouldn’t follow the NFL’s lead at all. Among other things, all decisions remain with the main ref, and part of his duty is to make quick decisions and resume play, so a video ref should interfere with that as little as possible. Here’s how I would do it:
    • Video ref is up in the broadcast booth; the main ref cannot review the video himself, he has to rely on voice communication with the video ref.
    • Video ref sees the same broadcast, minus onscreen graphics and commentator voiceovers, as the TV audience.
    • The video ref has no pause/slow-mo/rewind capability, he can just watch the broadcast unfold however it is produced by the TV crew. He can, however, benefit from whatever replays and additional angles the broadcast already includes.
    • The main functions woud be:
      1. Notify the referee of infractions that may have been missed by other refs
      2. Help clarify what happened in situations where play is already stopped and ref is already conferring with his crew
      3. Notify ref after the fact of infractions that may have occurred previously, but where it is too late to stop play for (though he can still give a foul or card).
      4. Increase confidence in calls by agreeing with consensus view where appropriate.
  • “Stats” ref to help keep track of how many fouls. With a formal system of counting fouls before giving a “persistent infringement” yellow, an additional assistant ref to keep track of this sort of data could help the main ref immensely. Yes, this is a total of 8 referees, but if the officiating team can master efficient communications, it could work very well.

Ultimately, I’d like to see Major League Soccer volunteer to become a leader in new refereeing techniques. I’d also like to see them become known as the strictest, most consistently-officiated league in the world. I think in future years the resulting clean play would benefit both the enjoyability of watching the game and the quality of players.


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