MLS Players kicking while they’re down: Upon review, why the obsession?

The World Cup has been over for a month, but I still can’t get the image of Joe Fletcher’s infamous failed handshake out of my head. But it’s time to move on.

Back in my pre-adidas MLS days (2001 – 2006), everyone’s friend and MLS’ Vice President of Competition Dr. Joe Machnik publicly declared war on player dissent, recognizing that the evil menace could no longer go unchecked (it’s ruining telecasts!)… he often referred to dissent as “a stone in his shoe.” It took several years and some really detailed referee instruction (including one of the ten 2009 U.S. Soccer Referee Program Directives) to finally make a serious dent in it. Remember the P’s we used to evaluate for dissent? I believe they were Public, Personal, Provocative… and Preki. Anyway, good eventually overcame evil, the dissent outbreak was all but eradicated, and Dr. Machnik enjoyed a much more comfortable stroll through MLS stadiums. That was five years ago.

Remember the 2009 Referee Program Directives? These ten officiating commandments provided excellent guidance to properly and consistently evaluate a number of situations and scenarios, from Tactical Fouls and Red Card Tackles (100% Misconduct), to Handling the Ball (Making Yourself Bigger, etc.), to Injury Management, to Contact Above the Shoulder – a four-page document that helped us differentiate between elbows raised as tools from those thrown about as weapons. Five years later, we still refer back to the Directives, and we use them to teach at referee clinics.

Flash forward to 2014, where I fear a new stain could spread over our beloved sport in North America — a newfound obsession with players kicking the ball after the referee whistles to stop play. The problem isn’t that players are kicking the ball away (that’s entirely passé) , it’s that they’re not kicking it away… they’re kicking it squarely at their opponents, with excessive force and intent to intimidate or injure.

So just tell the referees to get rid of them, right? Got to be Violent Conduct, you might assert. Throw the fools out! But hold on there. This is Major League Soccer… part athleticism, part show, part spectacle, part Alan Kelly. League executives, team owner/operators, coaches, athletes… and their colleagues down the hall at the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) headquarters… want to see justice dealt swiftly when they feel it’s warranted, but also with temperance and patience when it’s not so obvious.

So far in 2014, there has been a variety of unseemly incidents that occurred in MLS games after play had been stopped, putting referees in the spotlight as they tried to sort out players’ behaviors and then issue appropriate sanctions. When the ink dries on game reports, cautions and send-offs (and referee “misses”) are scrutinized, by either our friends on the MLS Disciplinary Committee or the Men in Black who comprise the secret Independent Review Panel. These committees then might choose to ramp up punishment to those who escaped justice on the field, or they might turn back time and undo officials’ decisions (putting red cards back in pockets).

The latest nonsense incidents: kicking the ball at a prone opponent.

For those in the dark about these two entities, the MLS Disciplinary Committee (a.k.a. “The DisCo”) is comprised of five voting members: three former MLS players, one former MLS coach and one former MLS referee. During the season, they spend their Mondays reviewing clips of game incidents from the previous week, cringe a bit, and then give a collective thumbs up or down. Sometimes, a player’s caution (or a simple foul or complete “referee miss”) is changed to being sent off, resulting in a suspension and fine (for incidents of Violent Conduct, the suspension handed down by the committee is usually two games). In an ideal world, The DisCo would be obsolete because MLS referees would consistently (99.9% of the time) issue the best decisions in the heat of the moment. We’re not exactly there yet.

On the other side of the wall lurks the secretive Independent Review Panel, comprised of three unnamed members – one each from U.S. Soccer, the Canadian Soccer Association and the Professional Referees Organization (PRO). These three agents hide in the shadows, where their identities remain well-guarded secrets. Whenever an appeal is made by an MLS team and an official’s decision is reviewed, the three-person panel of refereeing technical experts must be unanimous in their position to rescind a red card suspension. MLS does not have a representative on the Independent Panel (or as I like to call it, the Red Card Rescinding Committee), and this group is a separate entity from the MLS Disciplinary Committee.

The IRP does not change the color of cards. It does, however, rescind them altogether when they decide that the referee has made a serious and obvious error.

I present to you Exhibit 1. Consider the following incident in the New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew match on July 12. Not that it should color your opinion or your card of choice, but here are a few details leading up to this video clip gem:
In the 85th minute, New York leads the game 3-1. Columbus’ Bernardo Añor is playing under caution after going into referee Ted Unkel’s book in the 43rd minute.


Acting on information provided by veteran assistant referee Peter Manikowski, Mr. Unkel sent Mr. Añor off (and issued a “straight” Red Card) for Violent Conduct after the Venezuelan kicked the ball into the abdomen of a sprawled out Chris Duval.

Three days later, at the request of the MLS Players’ Union, the IRP got together and rescinded the “straight” Red Card:

Interesting decision to rescind. Did the incident occur after the whistle? Clearly. Was the ball intentionally kicked at an opponent? Sure. Was the opponent in a defenseless position? Probably. Did he kick it hard enough to injure? I don’t know… ask the two players. Mind you: these are not approved evaluative criteria I am throwing out to evaluate for Violent Conduct; this is just me trying to envision the decision-making process for something that has no place in the game.

Perhaps the safer decision on the part of the officials (hindsight is always 20:20… even my blown offside decisions) – and one that I am told the IRP would have likely supported: Issue Mr. Añor a second caution (for Unsporting Behavior)… and then immediately send him off. But because the “straight red” for VC was rescinded (and not downgraded to a caution… again, the IRP doesn’t change the color of cards), the Crew midfielder was declared eligible to play in his team’s next game.

So wait, does that mean it shouldn’t be a red card for Violent Conduct because the action wasn’t violent enough?

Now I like teaching moments, but I like them better when there is written instruction to illustrate a point, clear examples are provided, and then we have spirited discussion, along with a few intelligent questions and answers (for you National Instructors, be ready to think “extinction”). Whatever discussions that have taken place amongst PRO (at least to date), the content and guidance have remained closely guarded within the ranks or PRO, so we can only speculate how the topic was addressed, if at all.

I am told that the term “brutality” was introduced by PRO management as a means to differentiate Violent Conduct from Unsporting Behavior… and collective wisdom suggests that perhaps this particular act wasn’t brutal… enough. OK, that’s interesting. I found the word in a published document – but it wasn’t the 2013 U.S. Soccer Referee Program Advice to Referees (the version with Salazar’s 8 x 10 glossy on the inside front cover), nor was it the new and improved 2014 ATR (you know, the one with the plain white cover… like the Beatles’ White Album).

Thankfully, our friends in Zurich put something somewhat definitive in print in the 2013-2014 FIFA Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees (which appears with the 2013-14 Laws of the Game), providing some level of guidance to best evaluate Violent Conduct… and here we do see the word “brutality:”

Speaking of brutality, this brings us to D.C. United’s bad, bad Eddie Johnson, my MLS Villain of the Week.

I present Exhibit 2. Let’s set the stage: D.C. United was being badly outplayed on Saturday evening in Salt Lake, to the tune of 3-0 in only the 30th minute. Dr. J. picks the perfect time to commit an obvious foul and then pretty much lose it, right at midfield, with cameras rolling in clear focus:


Given that this latest incident occurred just a few weeks after the first clip, I have to wonder how quickly and thoroughly news of the rescinded red card spread through the ranks of PRO referees and assistant referees, because in my opinion, this seems to be a textbook example of Violent Conduct committed against an opponent while the ball is out of play. Excessive Force? You bet. Brutality? Certainly. Intent to injure? Likely. Disregard for the safety of his opponent? Opponent sprawled out on the ground? Yep. We can go on and on (and I can keep making up criteria beyond excessive force… maybe I can write my own Directive!).

Guilty as charged on any other night… just not on Saturday night. Seriously, what on Earth can we expect Real’s Carlos Salcedo to do in this situation? Be relieved that he was struck on his backside… and then gladly turn the other cheek?

For those on the fence (including you diehard United followers) or thinking “orange card,” give a read to the following excerpts of Steve Goff’s post-game article on the website of the Washington Post… and enjoy his take on the antics of Dr. J:

One last thought to those who still agree with Hilario Grajeda’s decision to issue a caution and keep “Lucky Boy” in the game (granted, making Dr. J stay out there and suffer through another humiliating hour could certainly be construed as cruel and unusual punishment): Law 5 requires referees to treat all players equally for the full 90+ minutes… which, my friends means simply this:

If you give a caution to Mr. Johnson for this incident, you are telling “the game” that every player on the field of play can do this once… and remain in the game.

The MLS DisCo did not read an advance copy of this Blog… but they did the right thing on Wednesday, suspending Dr. J for two games and fining him milk money for his incredibly irresponsible act in Utah last weekend.

So now I have a stone in my own shoe. We have red cards being rescinded and yellow cards becoming red cards “upon further review” of how hard players kick the ball at each other. And we have referees around the country watching and wondering if anything definitive is coming down the instructional pike anytime soon. Is it?

I’m not sure what upsets me more: the inconsistency in how officials have approached this new menace; the message sent by the IRP by tossing aside Mr. Añor’s red card because the ball wasn’t kicked hard enough and/or semantics of not showing a second yellow before sending him packing; or the absence of recent, relevant and specific instructional material to teach the masses. And by masses, I don’t mean PRO referees who happen to be Catholic. I mean the 145,000 youth and amateur referees who watch sad incidents like these on television, read about them in Blogs (perhaps even this one – feel free to share with friends), and then we “do as we see our role models do” when we head to the park on Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps it’s time for Chicago (or New York) to publish another next set of Referee Department Directives. Perhaps not another ten commandments, but we could use another four or five points of emphasis (topics might include Contact By/Against the Goalkeeper, Appropriate/Approved Use of Technology, Player Misconduct During Stoppages, etc.). Five years later, less than attractive changes to team tactics and player behavior merit it. The game continues to evolve… has our referee instruction program kept pace? But who will step up, author such a document, and provide the next generation of officials (and “the game”) with the guidance we need?

Categories: MLS

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