The State of MLS Part 2: How Referees Affect Viewability

Earlier, I had outlined how the marketing techniques used by MLS could be hurting its outreach to Average Joe American.  Next, I want to open a discussion on how MLS can improve its product on the field.

Last night was the US Open Cup Final between Sporting Kansas City and Seattle Sounders.  As I watched this match, two things became very apparent to me.  One, the athletic ability and talent level at certain spots on the field weren’t as far off from top level as some are led to believe.  And two, the atrocious refereeing prevented it from being viewable for most of the game.

This is the biggest area of improvement MLS could take in my opinion.  Figure out what kind of league you want to be (i.e. a skillful open attacking game like La Liga in Spain or a direct, fast paced game like the Premier League in England) and set a standard with your referees to call a game consistently and protect the attacking play.  Currently, players are sliding into the opposition all over the field and sometimes not even called for a foul, let alone seeing a card.

Last year, one of the budding stars of the league, Steve Zakuani of the Seattle Sounders, broke his leg on such a tackle.

Zakuani made a nice skill move to get by a defender and started streaking up the sidelines when Brian Mullan of the Colorado Rapids slid into his leg, breaking it clean.

The now former Sounder starlet has only just recently made his return to the field and has been used sparingly since.  Who knows if he will ever regain the electric play we once saw from him, an attractive style of play that could have made casual viewers want to watch Seattle.

My point in telling you this story is if those kind of reckless plays are tolerated at all, more boneheads will perform them, more good players will get injured, and more times the league will stall because of a “lack of talent.”  It is a trickle down effect.  The standard must be set.  Referees need to clamp down on these type of challenges and start showing red cards for reckless tackles of any sort.  Only then will the league begin to adjust and attackers will be free to play, use their ability and imagination without hesitating.

A couple weeks ago, CONCACAF Champions League opened up with Real Salt Lake taking on Herediano in Costa Rica.  RSL were trying to battle back from a 1-0 deficit and almost looked destined to do so, when Nat Borchers barreled into a Herediano player (maybe with intent to injure or maybe not) and was subsequently shown a red card much to his amazement.  Herediano controlled the rest of the game with RSL a man down, and won 1-0, a result which could prove to be vital as they are now in the drivers’ seat in the group.

The reason Borchers and RSL fans were shocked and appalled was because this is the kind of thing that would fly with an MLS referee.  But it was not going to fly with Francisco Chacón who hails from Mexico, a country that prides itself on attacking play.  Again maybe Borchers was going for the ball, but the fact of the matter is, this is a call that was supposed to set the standard for the rest of the tournament.  It’s saying to every team involved in the competition “This isn’t going to be tolerated,” therefore freeing up the attackers to perform at their best without hesitation because someone isn’t going to target your ankles all evening.

This is a perfect example of what MLS needs to employ in their own league.  America has the athletes to play attractive soccer.  Take one look at Eddie Johnson for the Sounders last night and you know that.  There were times when he looked downright explosive, as did Zakuani before his injury.  Other players in the league have the same type of ability.  Kei Kamara showed it at times last night, Graham Zusi showed it at times, and I’m just rattling off players featuring in one game last night.  There are areas of MLS that have this kind of talent, but they must be allowed to show off their skills.

It was a good step when MLS decided to launch the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) earlier this year.  Now they need to show consistency in clamping down on recklessness, and allowing the attackers to play.  If they do this, MLS could be a decent to watch league tomorrow.  The talent is there.  I’m not saying they’re the Premier League.  But the USA has unrivaled athletic ability and no one is going to argue with me there.  Let them showcase that raw talent.

Next: Is the retirement league approach the right one, or is this hampering perception?