MLS refereeing: is Platini’s Fantastic Five the answer?

Back in June, as Major League Soccer was finding its stride on the other side of the Atlantic, Michel Platini and UEFA confirmed that this year’s Europa League would be the testing ground for a new officiating structure.

By adding an ‘additional assistant referee’ behind each goal line, Platini hopes to do away with the cheating which occurs in the penalty area, from a playful tug on the shirt at a corner to the game’s crime of the moment, diving.

Meanwhile, the MLS season has again been blighted by refereeing controversy. Basic errors are made too often and can only be reduced through better training, assessment and punishment of match officials. Conversely, the league’s referees are, compared to their European counterparts, relatively good at issuing red cards when they are deserved.

They seem to struggle with diving, though, and it is one of the criticisms most often hurled in their direction. Several questionable penalties have been awarded this year, penalties which may have consequences come time for the playoff cut.

So with Platini putting all his eggs in five baskets, should MLS follow suit?

MLS referees not up to scratch

The referees have come under more scrutiny this season than ever before. With the blogosphere kicking into overdrive, decisions have been questioned from all sides. Soccerlens has noted before that they have a difficult job, and that’s as much to do with structural growing pains as players trying to pull the wool over their eyes. But the controversies have ranged from the ridiculous to the insane this season, and not all have occurred within the dimensions of the football pitch.

In April, Jair Marrufo – already a controversial character thanks to his on-field performances – came under fire when he allegedly took delivery of a signed shirt from Chicago Fire playmaker Cuauhtehmoc Blanco in the referees’ dressing room after a match against Columbus Crew. Marrufo had sent off Crew’s Gino Padula for a challenge on the Mexican, whose team fought back from 2-0 down to pick up a point against ten men. While there is the possibility of a serious problem, it seems Marrufo’s apparent acceptance of a gift stemmed from an innocent stupidity and misplaced loyalty to a popular player.

By September, Marrufo had been struck off for the season. The league cited his performances – hardly surprising to most MLS fans – but the Blanco incident will have remained a mark against him in the eyes of the powers-that-be. The general state of refereeing was summed up by a double suspension for Michael Kennedy and Abbey Okulaja, removed from the rotation after failing mid-season fitness tests. It’s a worrying state of affairs and one which highlights the lack of depth in the refereeing pool, but it’s encouraging that MLS was bold enough to take action.

Of course, the most visible controversies have taken place on the pitch. Some weekends this season have been characterised by multiple red cards, although MLS refs are arguably rather better at punishing over-aggressive challenges than their colleagues elsewhere. However, several matches have been spoiled by game-changing penalty decisions, two of the most high-profile resulting from dives – or at least easy tumbling – by Taylor Twellman and Brian McBride.

Penalty referees

If diving is a major problem in MLS, it must be tackled – pardon the pun. In the US there is a perceived division between flair players – the likes of Fredy Montero, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and, of course, David Beckham- and the less skillful players who are supposedly keen to make up for their deficiencies by showing those with more technical ability who’s boss physically. Marcelo Saragosa’s lunge at Montero last weekend was a sickening example.

Add to this the modern footballer’s in-built propensity to draw a foul and hit the floor, and the job of the officials begins to look a difficult one. We struggle with divers in Europe and our referees are, in theory, higher quality. The MLS officials don’t have a bad reputation for nothing, but it does mean that players intent on conning them will be able to do so easily.

Platini’s fourth and fifth officials have been given a specific task: spotting divers. And while they will have other responsibilities, the eradication of diving is Platini’s desired legacy. If the move reduces simulation, is it not logical to apply the same approach to a league whose self-perception is as soured by diving as it is by the poor quality of the related decisions? A long shot it may be, but perhaps penalty refs would have the desired effect.

Downside of experimenting

Experimenting isn’t all about the adulation of being a pioneer and taking the credit for a significant quickening of evolution. Sometimes it goes wrong, too, and then you look rather stupid. If the five officials system turns out to have a dramatic flaw, MLS – as a league which I believe to be developing at pace and learning a new lesson every week – would do well not to have its name on the laboratory door.

Even trialling proposals like this one leads to a negative perception of the test competition. The Europa League, a tournament which is at best treading water, is the rebranded UEFA Cup. But instead of breathing new life into it, Platini has turned it into a poor man’s Champions League. That may sound obvious, but the UEFA Cup had a charm of its own until the late 1990s.

Celtic manager Tony Mowbray has been vocal in his skepticism, criticising the idea on its own questionable merits. More importantly for this discussion, Mowbray also believes strongly that the competition is being further devalued by UEFA’s decision to use it as a relatively early testing ground for what would amount to a game-changing development.

Such degradation would be cause for concern for MLS and probably outweighs the poor quality of refereeing. As the league grows and – in the eyes of this English writer at least – matures, the last thing it needs is to gamble its credibility on something of which traditional football fans are often suspicious. MLS has worked well in recent years to “footballize” the American game, and even if Platini’s experiment would improve its officiating, perhaps it’s best to let it be introduced into European leagues first.

But we’re talking about the quality of refereeing here, and far preferable to adding to the matchday officials would be an effective programme designed to improve the ones we have already, or at least preserve the structure which has been used for generations worldwide. Refereeing problems are as global as the beautiful game itself and we should always be looking to improve how they are trained, assess them more closely and punish them more effectively (note: that doesn’t just mean more harshly) before opting for a structural change of this magnitude. As in any walk of live, it’s a question of education, motivation and discipline.

And if extra officials become a fixture of the European game, Don Garber might understandably be asking himself if it helps solve one of his main on-field problems.

Chris Nee writes at twofootedtackle and co-hosts The twofootedtackle Football Podcast.

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  1. Art 26 September, 2009
  2. Gaz 28 September, 2009