Player-Management skills and proper use of cautions.

Fellow sports enthusiasts, it’s been one euphoric weekend here in Los Angeles… for pretty much everyone except Donald Sterling.

First, my Clippers managed to concentrate on hoops long enough to squeak past Golden State and into the second round of the NBA Playoffs, then my Kings stole the first game of their NHL Playoff Series from a bunch of Ducks, and everyone else (or so it seemed) took time to wish me a Happy Birthday.

Thank you, one and all, for making my birthday a special one indeed (especially Mark Zuckerberg… I couldn’t have done it without you, old buddy). I wonder if Mr. Z is a CD Chivas USA fan… I should give him a call, or send him a Facebook message… or a poke (whatever that is).

On Sunday afternoon, with the birthday festivities now over, I grabbed the assessor’s best friend (that would be the remote) and settled in to enjoy a glimpse of a potential MLS playoff match-up: Sporting Kansas City hosting the Columbus Crew.

Now, if it weren’t for the size of the two markets competing today, this could have been a ratings bonanza for NBC Sports. Once in a while, we get to sit back and thoroughly enjoy a game – largely because the two teams are evenly matched, the athletes from both sides “came to play,” and because everyone involved does exactly what they’re supposed to do. On this sunny day in Oz, players played for 90: + 5, coaches coached, officials officiated… and 20,565 spectators cheered, chanted and sang silly songs (perhaps as result of a bit too much sun).

Spoiler Alert: On this fair May afternoon, no one spoiled the game. Not even close.

I remember attending a referee workshop (about 25 years ago) held in conjunction with the Olympic Development Program. Instructor Austin Gomez kept harping about how we expect our National Referees to be “effective” — effective with their foul selection, effective with their use of cautions (the “tarjeta amarilla!”), and effective with their man management skills. (He also shared a really funny joke about a coach voicing his opinion of the referee… ask Austin the next time you run into him!)

Back to Oz. This particular game was made even more enjoyable by the solid performance of the officials, especially that of referee Ismail Elfath, who consistently applied effective man management skills. That’s right… our officials enhanced spectators’ and viewers’ enjoyment of the game.

As anticipated, this was a back-and-forth game, which SKC eventually won 2-0. It was balanced and entertaining, with flashes of brilliant creativity… and also with some key mental and tactical errors by the players. Ask a Sporting fan and they’ll tell you SKC could have won 4-0… and I would agree. Ask a Crew supporter, and you’d hear how they were shorthanded but still could have won or at last drawn… and I would again agree. These are the games our league needs more of (shots at goal were 14-10, open field crosses 14-14, corners were 4-3, and possession was 50.2% to 49.8%) in order to promote MLS’ continued expansion … and to boost its TV ratings (so desperately needed).

Enough fluff. Back to Mr. Elfath and his team’s performance today.

Casual observers might suggest that they really didn’t notice the officials all that much, and guess what – that’s because (with few exceptions) they did their jobs, nothing less and nothing more. True, this game lacked “orange card” decisions, there were no real hints of DOGSO, no crazy handling decisions to sort out, and few challenges inside the penalty area. Does that mean this game was “easy” or “not ratable?” Not for me… the officials earned their stripes, and the lack of craziness is credited to effective man management.

I only made one real observation of grave concern – and I fear this is becoming a recurring nuisance in MLS. I’m not sure what the pre-game routine is for officials (locker room pep talk, exercising on the pitch, mentally rehearsing decisions, etc), but like my beloved Clippers, our boys don’t always seem to be in top form at the onset…

Such was the case today: One can make an argument that the “worst foul” of the game (severity of the challenge, angle of the leg in the tackle, intent, outcome, “flinch factor” – I dropped the remote I flinched so badly), occurred in the game’s sixth minute… and yes, it was the first foul of the game.

I will be the first to recognize that it’s hard to go to the pocket so early – for the game’s first foul – but I also know the reputation of St. Peter Vermes and his band of merry men (is it too late to rename them the Kansas City ATTACK?). True to form, they “outfouled” their opponents 16 to 7 in this game…

Paulo Nagamura is an MLS veteran and he knows what he is doing, including when he awkwardly lunged into Columbus’ most creative player, Federico Higuain, in minute #6. I was disappointed that no caution was given (despite it being the first foul of the game), and was even more disappointed that Mr. Elfath didn’t at least make a “Big Show” out of a stern talking to the culprit – he certainly had ample time as the Columbus medical team scraped Mr. Higuain off the turf. Opportunity lost (this is where Alfred Kleinaitis demonstrates by dropping a glass from shoulder height and you are supposed to catch it).

Blogger’s Note: I would really like to show you “the Nagamura Incident” (so that you could flinch as well), but MLS has decided we are not worthy. Does anyone happen to have the clip?

Now, I don’t have an open microphone directly into MLS referees’ ears (at least not yet – for a reasonable fee, Los Angeles could become MLS’ answer to the NHL’s Toronto Control Room!), but broadcaster Kyle Martino and others must have shared my concern to Mr. Elfath, because he gave an excellent caution to Sporting’s Lawrence Olum after he clunked into Mr. Higuain half an hour later. And you know you’ve made a good decision (to go to the pocket) when St. Peter can be heard on the telecast saying, “No! No! No!” from the moment you start to blow the whistle. (VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT)

Mr. Higuain doesn’t walk on water, but he is a creative force and one that many MLS fans pay good money to see in action. So I was pleased to see Benny Feilhaber also booked for pulling him down in open space in stoppage time. For the game, two SKC players were cautioned for wiping out arguably the most creative player on the pitch… and only one other wriggled free.

After “the Nagamura Incident” in minute 6, Mr. Elfath’s use of the caution was consistent, balanced, timely and fair. Effective game management requires a lot more than issuing timely cautions, but since there was no moments of player insanity resulting in whacky decisions, the timely issuance of yellow cards was what made the grade for this referee. I agreed with his decision to caution SKC’s Seth Sinovic in the 68th minute for pulling down Dominic Oduro (Assistant Referee James Conlee gets the assist for his flagwork in support), and his caution to Crew substitute Ethan Finlay in the 85th also seemed spot on. (VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT)

In the wake of a recent potential DOGSO incident (Mr. Gomez reminds us that DOGSO should bring out the “tarjeta roja”) that resulted in only a caution being given, MLS officials have come under fire for failed teamwork and communication – four sets of eyes, flags that make beeping noises, and open microphones between officials should optimize communication and teamwork. Both teamwork and communication were clearly evident throughout this game, especially in the 86th minute when Crew midfielder Tony Tichani took exception to the slow pace at which SKC’s Dom Dwyer walked off the field during a substitution, and gave Mr. Dwyer a good shove that sent him to the turf. On the telecast, you can clearly see Mr. Elfath reach his hand up to his ear while keeping players away (it’s funny how players always want to share their opinions to help you make an accurate decision), suggesting that he was processing input from a colleague, before correctly issuing a caution. (VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT)

Wait… No red card for Violent Conduct for the off- the-ball shove while the ball was not in play?

My friends, this was the correct decision at this particular time of this particular game. And do you know why? Because everyone involved – coaches, players, officials, spectators… even my remote – immediately accepted the decision and went about their business. The conflict was effectively man managed. A fair decision was rendered. Let’s get back to the game.

The other “+ +” from this non-assessor (full disclosure: I never took a class, never wrote up a single assessment, I learned from my own failures… thank you very much), came from Mr. Elfath’s correct, fair and just issuance of a second caution to Columbus’ Will Trapp in the 80th minute. I’m not sure I would label it a “Moment of Truth,” because after we armchair referees see it live and then 12 more times on replay (did I mention my remote?), we would all agree that it was clearly the correct decision. (VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT)

Once again, the game tells the officials that their decision was correct. Mr. Trapp promptly walks off, the Crew prepares to finish the match with 10 players, etc. But I have to wonder what Mr. Trapp was thinking during the challenge… I am convinced he had decided one of the following:

  1. “I can win this ball fairly” (you’re kidding yourself, young man)
  2. “There’s a good chance he WON’T send me off” (guess again)
  3. “I need to risk being sent off to prevent a goal” (OK, but your ‘keeper had a solid game)

How many times have we been reminded: Work extra hard in the waning moments (stoppage time!) to finish the game strong and avoid controversy. Mission accomplished today after two solid decisions in extra time.

The first isn’t incredible… but common sense is less common that you might think. After the NBC Sports commentators “leaked” that four minutes of stoppage time would be added, Fourth Official Fotis Bazakos fired up a giant “5” on the board after SKC’s Matt Besler cramped up and required medical attention in the 90th minute. I again assume this was handled through communication over their headsets – no one at the stadium was the wiser.

In the final minute of play, Mr. Elfath identified an excellent advantage after Soony Saad was erased just outside the penalty area. Before going down, Mr. Saad slipped the ball to a teammate who delivered a clear pass across the goalmouth to Claudio Bieler who kicked home the result-cementing goal, sending 20,565 home thrilled and leaving one arm-chair writer thoroughly satisfied.

Aspiring referees – particular the new Grade 7 (working competitive games at the Amateur Level) can certainly take a page from Sunday’s refereeing performance. Justice was served. Both teams and all players got a fair shake. Personalities, tempers and egos were effectively managed throughout. The game flowed from end to end.

And nothing was spoiled.

In past blogs, I’ve been harsh on others for their lack of fingerspitzengefühl . Today, I commend this referee and the officiating team for being consistently on the money.

Elsewhere around MLS: Handing out Handling decisions

While I suppose it could be saved for a future blog, I’d prefer to extend kudos in real time for three handing decisions that occurred over the weekend. All three were spot on, IMO — but one comes with an asterisk (there’s always SOMETHING with Davidson!).


Excellent award of penalty for handling – Philadelphia’s Amobi Okugo moves his arm towards the ball while lying on the ground. Well done, Silviu Petrescu. (VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT)


This is also a clear penalty… but is misconduct warranted? For me, this is NOT DOGSO. If you feel a caution is warranted, I defer to “in the opinion of the Referee.” I’m fine without one. Good decision by Mark Geiger on a rainy day in Toronto … and a horrific day for TFC’s Doneil Henry, who made two fatal mistakes that led to the two New England goals. (VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT)


This is a tough one. The handling is clear and obvious – to the point that you can’t diminish just how obvious it is. But was Mike Magee fouled on the play? Maybe yes, maybe no. I’m OK with no, but I would like to see the referee on screen when rendering such a decision. You make the call… then please place a call to referee Juan Guzman and remind him that presence lends conviction! (VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT)

Categories: MLS

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