Turmoil in Tukwila: Open Cup Fiasco Could Have Been Avoided

If the third time’s a charm, what is the fourth time?

For the US Open Cup, the Fourth Round of competition (the Round of 32 teams and 16 games) signaled the anticipated debut of the 17 U.S.-based MLS teams. And while only two matches saw MLS teams fall to lower division opponents (one each from the NASL and USL), three other MLS sides squeaked by via penalty tiebreakers.

Speaking of fours – before the Orlando City/Charleston Battery game was ultimately decided by 10 rounds of tiebreaker kicks from the mark, referee Rubiel Vazquez whistled and pointed to the spot no less than four times. Orlando City’s Carlos Rivas bagged his first career hat trick by converting all three penalty kicks awarded to the Lions. Interesting stuff indeed.

Here’s another interesting tidbit: Simple math suggests that if 17 MLS teams were scheduled to compete in 16 games, that would mean that one of the 16 games would be a battle of two MLS sides, an easily dismissed detail to the casual observer… until it was announced that the opposing MLS teams were the Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers.

In just a few short years, the Sounders /Timbers rivalry has developed into the most heated, animated and analyzed in Major League Soccer. It’s the Cubs/Cardinals or Yankees/Red Sox of pro soccer. It ranks right up there with Giants/Cowboys. And it features the same intensity and hatred as Lakers/Celtics.

How that plain, simple and obvious fact was lost in the referee assignment process for Tuesday’s game is absolutely unfathomable.

The US Open Cup – like the FA Cup and other national tournaments – is oftentimes downplayed or dismissed by MLS coaches and general managers as a necessary evil… midweek games jumble up an already busy travel schedule, while teams struggle to get players healthy and into midseason form. Over the years, this smorgasbord-style tournament has seen many MLS teams fall to NASL and USL clubs, as MLS coaches elected to rest key players – or even the entire first eleven – opting instead to test the mettle of their reserves in a competitive setting against motivated opponents.
Such was the case in nearly all of the Fourth Round match-ups played this week.

In that same spirit, in recent years, U.S. Soccer and/or the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) have traditionally used the early rounds of Open Cup competition as an opportunity for MLS referee candidates to be tested in a competitive but relatively controlled environment. In addition to identifying the next crop of contenders, these referee assignments have also gone to PRO officials who work in MLS exclusively as Fourth Officials… many of them have for years. They are given opportunities to grow by whistling pre-season MLS games or closed door scrimmages featuring one MLS team, and from there they might advance to the USL and NASL.

And then the question comes as to whether they are ready for the ultimate test: a regular season MLS match.

Back in my day, as an up-and-coming National Referee destined to pursue the Assistant Referee track, I was nonetheless given the opportunity to whistle two closed door scrimmages between an MLS side and a local college or amateur team. And though the players were focused on demonstrating their abilities (both games went without any shenanigans whatsoever), I can attest to the incredible speed of the MLS game (even with only one MLS team). The players run fast. They make decisions fast. And the ball is played even faster.

Back to this week’s Fourth Round Open Cup matches… and to the reason I am now pounding the keyboard in frustration…

June 16 Colorado Rapids (MLS) vs. Colorado Springs (USL) Chipalo Street
June 16 San Jose Earthquakes (MLS) vs. Sacramento (USL) Alex Chilowicz
June 16 Philadelphia Union (MLS) vs. Rochester Rhinos (USL) Robert Sibiga
June 16 New York Red Bulls (MLS) vs. Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL) Younes Marrakchi
June 16 Sporting Kansas City (MLS) vs. Saint Louis FC (USL) Baboucar Jallow
June 16 Seattle Sounders (MLS) vs. Portland Timbers (MLS) Daniel Radford
June 16 Chicago Fire (MLS) vs. Louisville City FC (USL) Nima Saghafi
June 16 Real Salt Lake (MLS) vs. Seattle Sounders 2 (USL) Bernhard Hosu
June 16 FC Dallas (MLS) vs. Oklahoma City Energy (USL) Daniel Fitzgerald
June 17 Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL) vs. DC United (MLS) Marcos De Oliveira
June 17 Richmond Kickers (USL) vs. Columbus Crew (MLS) Kevin Terry Jr.
June 17 Houston Dynamo (MLS) vs. Austin Aztex (USL) Luis Guardia
June 17 Charleston Battery (USL) vs. Orlando City SC (MLS) Rubiel Vazquez
June 17 New England Revolution (MLS) vs. Charlotte (USL) Mark Kadlecik
June 17 New York Cosmos (NASL) vs. New York City FC (MLS) Matthew Kreitzer
June 17 LA Galaxy (MLS) vs. PSA Elite (USASA) Alejandro Mariscal

Of the 16 assigned referees above, none are listed on the PRO website as Referees, 11 are listed as Fourth Officials (although one recently whistled his first MLS match), and five are not listed on the website at all. Fair enough: as I stated earlier, the early round US Open Cup games can provide a great test – one very important step on a pathway to growth and development for our next crop of MLS referees.

But Tuesday’s match at Starfire Soccer Complex in Tukwila, Washington – where the Sounders had never suffered a single defeat in their history in MLS – was anything but shenanigan-free… just as one would have anticipated. The atmosphere was intense from the moment the teams took the field. I’m sure that Caleb Porter saw the game as a great opportunity for his Timbers to continue to build momentum as they rebound from a disappointing start to the 2015 MLS season. While other Fourth Round matches saw MLS reserve players thrust into the spotlight as their coaches downplayed the importance of the game result, the Sounders/Timbers match-up was nothing less than the next installment of the most intense and heated rivalry in MLS history. First eleven vs. first eleven. Nothing held back. Game on.

I suspect that even one Daniel Radcliffe would have had his hands full in this game, and I’m not convinced that Harry Potter’s magic wand would have been enough to keep the players in check for the full 120 minutes (yes, predictably, this match went into extra time).

Although he probably circled the date on his calendar as his opportunity to show his mentors at PRO that he was up to this rather momentous task, largely untested Daniel Radford was done a great disservice by being given this game assignment. Anyone who has met or worked with Mr. Radford will speak of his dedication and professionalism as a member of “the next crop.”

But to be thrown into the deep end… to sink or swim? It didn’t need to happen.

While Mr. Radford was doing his very best to maintain law and order inside an increasingly pressure-packed stadium, a dozen or so PRO seasoned and battle-tested referees were lounging at home. Given his experience at the MLS level, even the game assessor might have been a more qualified candidate for this assignment.

How was this game assignment made? And who made the assignment?

I will state here and now: I did not watch the game live, nor have I had a chance to review the entire game on video, so I refuse to criticize the performance of the game officials. I will not dissect the decisions to issue two cautions to Brad Evans — the first of three Sounders players sent-off. I will not opine on whether Micheal Azira’s challenge in extra time constitutes Violent Conduct – the second send-off to Seattle. Each of these decisions was made in the heat of the moment and based on what was observed in real time by the officials, and I have no reason to criticize them.

Fouls were whistled against Portland and against Seattle. Both teams were flagged for offside by the assistant referees. After 90 minutes, each team had managed to score a goal. Portland eventually won 3-1 in extra time, while Seattle finished the game with seven players after three were sent-off and a fourth left due to serious injury after the Sounders had completed their three substitutions.

I will, however, state how thoroughly disgusted I am about the on-field spectacle of Clint Dempsey. His behavior has become as volatile and unpredictable as Mount St. Helens. Having watched the following clip over and over and over again, I have concluded that U.S. Soccer has no choice but to suspend him for a minimum of six games for referee assault.

As Paul Gardner correctly suggested in his recent column, an assault on a game official was committed when Mr. Dempsey destroyed the referee’s personal property (the notecard on which he logged cautions and send-offs).

Yes, one could argue that match control was suspect. A bit more polish and panache might have gone a long way. A more experienced MLS referee who had survived such a test many times might have better reacted to the challenges thrown at him and found a way to maintain calm and the respect of the players… perhaps, perhaps not.

Given a day to reflect on what had transpired, Sounders minority owner Adrian Hanauer addressed the media at Thursday’s training session, saying “Right below our logo, there are three words that say passion, courage and community… Tuesday evening, the passion piece maybe went a little bit overboard.”

Nice touch, Mr. Hanauer, but it doesn’t undo the damage that was done. While we wait to hear what disciplinary actions are taken against the Sounders’ prized designated player, perhaps the powers that be in Chicago (U.S. Soccer) and New York (PRO) can decide who needs to step forward, take responsibility for this botched game assignment, and issue apologies to Mr. Hanauer, to Gavin Wilkinson (general manager of the Timbers), and to Daniel Radford.

None of this needed to occur, but it did occur, and it cannot be undone.

On Wednesday afternoon, I sent the same E-mail to U.S. Soccer and to PRO, requesting an explanation as to who was responsible for the US Open Cup game assignments, and what criteria were used for the Fourth Round assignments. As of Thursday evening, I have yet to receive a response from either organization. I don’t suppose I should expect to hear from them … so I will finish this rant by making one additional request: Give Daniel Radford the fair opportunity he’s earned through his years of dedicated service to MLS. Schedule him to whistle an MLS regular season game sometime later this summer.

Just not pro soccer’s equivalent to Red Sox/Yankees.

Categories: USSF

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: