The refereeing problem in MLS

I don't think it's a stretch to say that Major League Soccer has a problem with its referees at the moment.

It is not just a Major League Soccer problem, of course. Referees in this country are trained by the United States Soccer Federation - and let's make that very clear, because if you get upset over a bad call, that's where you should aim your fire.

And it's certainly not just a problem in America, either. There isn't a soccer league on the planet in which a week goes by without a coach, a player or a fan base expressing outrage over a call or non-call they didn't like. It happens at every level of the game too, from youth soccer to professional clubs to the World Cup.

But the issue has been especially pronounced in MLS in recent weeks. The league is perceived as being "physical," and some people think this is a bad thing. Others do not. The variance in perceptions does not break down evenly across groups of people either - you will find fans, coaches, players and members of the media with opinions of all different kinds on the matter.

Don Garber, the league's commissioner, has quite directly expressed a desire that the league should promote a brand of soccer that is creative and attractive to watch. As with the perception of physicality in the league, you will get a range of opinions from a range of people about the merits of Garber's position.

(I am being polite here. It won't last, but let me go this way for now.)

The people who are charged with manifesting Garber's vision are in three camps: coaches, players and referees. The coaches draw up tactics and choose which players to put on the field; the players execute that vision in a way that is based on their skill sets; and the referees tell the players when their actions have violated the sport's rules.

That last clause is what has caused most of the problems in MLS over the last two weeks. The rules of soccer are simple, but are also open to some interpretation by the officials. Not every referee has the same view of whether a given foul is worth just a free kick, a yellow card or a red card.

There is a sliding scale somewhere here. In the last few weeks, MLS referees have moved rather clearly towards the end of the scale that produces more whistles and more cards. Again, you may or may not like this turn of events, depending on how you think soccer should be played.

But it has happened, and now MLS' referees are in the spotlight more than ever. The spotlight became even brighter in late April, when in the span of barely 24 hours MLS lost two of its most creative players - Seattle's Steve Zakuani and FC Dallas' David Ferreira - to potentially season-ending injuries.

Since then. MLS referees have seemed to be a lot quicker to call fouls and assess cards. We saw this first-hand on Saturday at PPL Park, when Mark Geiger gave out four yellow cards and one red in the first 60 minutes of the game.

Here is the official misconduct summary from MLS' game recap:

PHI -- Amobi Okugo (caution; Reckless Foul) 27
PHI -- Faryd Mondragón (caution; Unsporting Behavior) 31
SJ -- Brandon McDonald (caution; Unsporting Behavior) 32
PHI -- Jordan Harvey (ejection; Violent Conduct) 41
SJ -- Bobby Convey (caution; Delaying a Restart) 60

Okugo's yellow card was for an elbow to the head of Steven Lenhart as the two players went up for the ball. The simultaneous cards to Mondragón and McDonald were for their roles in a ruckus that erupted after Mondragón and Chris Wondolowski collided with each other chasing a loose ball in the six-yard box.

The game got quite testy after that. Geiger was tasked with what is known in soccer parlance as "taking control of the match" - getting the players to stop fouling each other. Most referees do this by calling more fouls and assessing cards. That is what Geiger did, but the manner in which he did so deserves serious scrutiny.

In the 41st minute, San Jose's Chris Leitch slid under Jordan Harvey as the pair converged on a loose ball. Harvey's legs got caught between Leitch's legs. In order to get untangled, Harvey pushed off of Leitch's chest with his left foot. As Harvey did so, Leitch swung his left foot high and tried to kick Harvey in the backside.

Geiger blew his whistle and immediately ran towards the pair. He sent Harvey off with a straight red, but did nothing at all to Leitch. The fans at PPL Park howled in anger.

Here's a video of the play:

It's one thing to have bad refereeing. But to have inconsistent refereeing creates two problems instead of just one. Observers of the game, whether neutral or partisan, will question why a given call was made and another was not; and they will also wonder what will happen next time a questionable situation arises.

That element of uncertainty can be really dangerous, and it can be really hard to get out of people's minds.

After Saturday's game, I wanted to get some players' perspectives on how they deal with referees while on the field. So I went to three of the Union's veterans: Danny Califf, Justin Mapp and Stefani Miglioranzi. Not only do they all have lots of playing experience, they have lots of playing experience in MLS specifically.

I want to present the players' views in full context, so here are the quotes as a direct transcript.

Danny Califf

After all those cards, including Jordan Harvey's red, what were the players saying to each other on the field?

I think it was a collective kind of spirit, that we were just going to band together. Regardless of what the referee was doing, we were just going to band together and do what it took, and give them a really good fight. And I think that's what we did. We battled for everything, the three of us that were left.

And then when Michael [Farfan] came on in the second half, he did a fantastic job as well.

What's your perspective in general on the balance between going in too hard or not hard enough on a tackle, and trying to judge what the referee might call?

I think you can't really worry about it. Before [Geiger] handed out the red card, I thought he was more concerned with what went on after the play - the pushing, and guys getting in each others' faces. He seemed to think, and he communicated to us, that was what he was more upset about.

And then he goes and gives a red card on that play. So for me, it didn't really affect our challenges anything like that. In my mind, it was more stuff that was going on after the play.

Justin Mapp

You've seen plenty of referees who've been out there in MLS over the years. Where is the balance between getting 'stuck in' with a hard challenge versus playing a more open style?

It's a hard thing. It's a physical league. The league wants good soccer, for creative players to create and ultimately entertain. It's not always an easy call for the ref. Some they get right, some they miss. Hopefully they get more right than they get wrong.

You usually hope you're on the team that's on the right end of a red card. It's a hard thing for the refs to do. Their job is tough. Each game is different and plays are tough to call, so they see what they see and they make their judgements.

People talk sometimes about a referee trying to 'get control' of a game. When you're on the field in a game that's pretty physical, and there are a lot of cards going out, what are the players saying to each other?

To each other, they're mainly saying: 'Everybody stay focused, keep each other in check.' When cards start flying and things get heated, you don't want to cost your team a silly red or push yourself in jeopardy with a silly yellow. So the leaders are trying to get the other players to just focus and worry about the task at hand, and not so much the heated part of the game.

Stefani Miglioranzi

When the referee is out there trying to get the game under control, what are the players saying on the field in a situation like that?

Nothing much. We're pleading our case, but a lot of times it falls on deaf ears. It's almost not worth it, but you have to make a point so that he's making calls both ways and being fair.

In your estimation, where is the balance between the challenge that is too hard and the challenge that is too soft?

You can always see when somebody goes in with malice, and I don't think there were any tackles today where a guy was going in to hurt anybody. They were all fair, hard tackles. Sometimes they are badly timed. I don't think it's a case of fair or unfair. It's just sometimes you don't get the ball, or you're late to the ball, and you happen to catch somebody.

MLS has talked about the state of officiating in the league, especially with some of the injuries that has happened in recent weeks. Has that been a topic of conversation among the players?

I don't think we've talked about that very much. We know that the referees have a tough job. When they are making a good call for one team, it's always a bad call for the other one. So they have a tough job, and I think the less we get on them, the better they will be able to do their jobs.

When Zakuani and Ferreira went down hurt, one of the first thoughts I had was to wonder who might be next. We can all come up with names: Roger Torres, Landon Donovan, and Juan Agudelo come to my mind quickly.

I suspect that just about all of us will agree that it would be a bad thing if any of those players get injured in the manner that Zakuani and Ferreira were. The question is whether MLS should try to prevent that from happening. It will have to be answered by league officials, players, coaches and referees alike.

I can't help fearing that the answer does not exist. If that is the case, then that uncertainty I referred to earlier is not going to go away for quite some time.

And I also can't help thinking this: Presumably, the referees in Major League Soccer are the best we have in the United States. If that's so, what does it say about the rest of the referees in the country?