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The MLS Grinder: A problem of skill, not of policing

Written by Will Parchman

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For years, those baptized in the soccer of the ascendants have marked MLS’s improvement in bedpost notches above the level of its technicians. While the businessmen counted money – or however much of it there was to be had – men on the ground looked toward its creatives.

For a long time, it has been a difficult assessment. Carlos Valderrama dropped like manna and had his 26-assist season and Thierry Henry left his indelible mark and other men have branded the league’s loin in equal measure. But having a storm of attacking ingenuity striking the ground at precisely the same time has forever been the goal. Top leagues are not top leagues simply because of their most visible players. They are top leagues because Dimitri Payet and Xherdan Shaqiri and Stephan El Shaarawy exist in far greater measure.

You may not, but I remember the Fortnight from Hell, when No. 10 hunting season opened in MLS. It has informed everything I’ve known about the league’s machinations since.

On April 22, 2011, Brian Mullan snapped talented young Sounders winger Steve Zakuani’s tibia and fibula like brittle rain-deprived kindling. If you still dare, the sound will follow you forever. Two days later, FC Dallas No. 10 David Ferreira – arguably the league’s best player at the time – had his ankle snapped in a match against Vancouver. Barely two weeks after that, Javier Morales’ left ankle was dislocated and fractured in one devastating fell swoop from Chivas USA’s Marcos Mondaini.

Three of the league’s most skilled players breathed onto the wind in the span of 15 days. If it did not mark a substantive turning point in the history of the league, we are doing all of this horribly wrong.

Before we venture any further, we have to drop the nut graf on your doorstep. What all this is about.

There is some measure of outcry in certain circles about all this. MLS refereeing is ruining things. Some would tell you they are quite out of control. Some players, even, would tell you that things are bad and perhaps getting worse by the week.

The league’s refereeing partner is a group called PRO, and PRO has struggled to make many allies over the last month, and longer than that if we expand things. Their legionnaires have called 16 red cards in 42 games through the last MLS weekend, which butts up against their 90 from 340 last year. The average, people will tell you, is up from 0.26 to 0.39.

I cannot stop thinking about Zakuani’s leg break. The sound and the fury.

Perhaps the answer is not what hell these men hath wrought. Perhaps it is inside what fiery canyons those tackles in 2011 and the ones around them calved into the ground that allowed these referees to simply enforce the laws that our own overzealous defending has created. And perhaps – perhaps – this league we call home has yet to really shed its jackboots in favor of the feathered cleats we so fervently desire.

Maybe it’s not the refereeing? Maybe it is something else?

Those 16 reds were as follows.

RSL at Orlando City, March 6
– Demar Phillips second yellow for spiking Cyle Larin in the family jewel cupboard as the last man back. Absolutely correct call.
– Darwin Ceren straight red for a retaliatory shoulder charge off ball on Javier Morales. Ceren headhunted one of the league’s scant No. 10s. Had to pull the red.

Sporting KC at Seattle, March 6
– Oniel Fisher straight red for a studs-flaring two-footed challenge on Connor Hallisey. It does not get better on repeated views. Calls do not get easier.

Chicago at Orlando City, March 11
– Michael Harrington straight red for karate kicking Brek Shea in the stomach. Horribly reckless challenge. Can’t expect to escape the gallows with leg kicks that high.

Vancouver at Sporting KC, March 12
– Jordan Smith straight red for a cynical, leg-shattering tackle from behind on Graham Zusi. Did not sniff the ball and dangerously trapped Zusi’s right leg between scissor blades.

San Jose at LA Galaxy, March 19
– Simon Dawkins straight red for a tackle on Sebastian Lletget. Easy yellow card, extremely harsh red card. Trailing leg in the tackle made it dubious, but (our first) incorrect call.

New England at Philadelphia, March 19
– Je-Vaughn Watson straight red for a tackle on Roland Alberg. Watson went in straight-legged and above the ankle on Alberg. Hard to argue with the real-time call.

RSL at Portland, March 19
– Kyle Beckerman straight red for a tackle on Fanendo Adi. Tough call, but not indefensible. Beckerman planted studs in Adi’s ankle. Didn’t get the ball, either.
– Jamison Olave straight red for punching Adi in the face. Well. Yeah. Well earned red, which gave him more than anybody in MLS history.

Toronto FC at Sporting KC, March 20
– Roger Espinoza straight red for raking a cleat down Marky Delgado’s right leg and then clearing him out. Perhaps you argue this one, but I certainly see red. Very hard yellow at best.

New England at NYCFC, March 26
– Gershon Koffie straight red for contacting Tommy McNamara’s right ankle. Poor call. Should’ve been a yellow, and Ricardo Salazar didn’t hesitate. Total breakdown.

FC Dallas at D.C. United, March 26
– Marcelo Sarvas straight red for a hand to the face of Michael Barrios. Extremely ticky-tack foul. Yellow at absolute worst, but the ref doesn’t hesitate. Again.

New York Red Bulls at New England, April 1
– Felipe straight red for a tackle on Kellyn Rowe. Yellow at worst. Felipe swipes the ball, Rowe sings showtunes and he is off. Mark Geiger does not ponder the issue. Again. Again.

Philadelphia at Chicago, April 2
– Warren Creavalle second yellow for a tackle on Razvan Cocis. No questions. Could’ve been a straight red. All ankle, no ball, and from the deer blind no less.

Toronto FC at Colorado, April 2
– Benoit Cheyrou second yellow for a wild arm on Bobby Burling. Harsh call. Casual intent from Cheyrou, who didn’t throw an elbow. No chance this is yellow, let alone a second in the 12th minute.

LA Galaxy at Vancouver, April 2
– Matias Laba straight red for a tackle on Mike Magee. Studs up contact. Laba doesn’t catch a piece of the ball, and his studs are high and revving hard. Good call on second glance. Maybe hard to see in the moment.

You will notice something about each of the players doing the tackling and each of the players being tackled. If we can meditate on each of those things and what they mean in themselves, perhaps we take steps toward the destination on our collective map.

I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with 12 of the 16, and I am fungible on one more, perhaps two. These are not perfect numbers. They are human numbers. But there is no crisis here. There is no conspiracy. And there is certainly no grindstone upon which to lose your enamel.

This was a point of emphasis among PRO’s denizen’s this offseason, and we all knew it. To say this wasn’t always coming is a grave miscarriage of the facts.

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I was in-house for the Cascadia Cup match between Vancouver and the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field in March. By most accounts, World Cup veteran referee Mark Geiger had a bad day. It was worse than that if you wore green. He missed the first penalty by factors of 10 and 20 and 100. Joevin Jones did not so much as make contact with Cristian Bolaños. The latter went down like a shot, and Geiger was rushing toward the spot with moral impunity. It was a brutal missed call. Later that match, he called another penalty in Vancouver’s favor. Blas Perez, that most infuriatingly effective embellisher, went down over Chad Marshall’s challenge. It was maybe a good call. Maybe not. There was gray area.

In this moment – this crucible in which Sounders fans were pushed quite passionately into thinking the league’s refereeing system was broken and perhaps never returning – some Roman Tribune of the Plebs smiled gratingly from his tomb. There are some works that were not made to be lauded. Some areas that allow no room for failure and few spaces for praise.

As a baseline, the Plebeian Tribune during the era of the Roman Empire was a check on the power of the aristocracy. It was the only major office open to the masses, and in their power mandate they had the ability to veto the most headstrong and power-hungry men in the world. The trade-offs to this were not insubstantial. While the person of the tribune was inviolable, they had to essentially straddle the worlds of the aristocracy to which they suddenly belonged and the masses to which they served. While they read and internalized the grotesque graffiti scrawled on the walls of buildings depicting a consul in the midst of some foul act, they catered to the equites and policy-makers who ultimately watched over their station.

This was always a balancing act requiring an enormous amount of skill, and indeed more than most men possessed. How to be all things to all men while serving a narrow slice of his own conscious is not something politicians of today will struggle to understand. And it is certainly not a station the referees in today’s MLS will fail to connect with.

The easiest thing about improving a league’s skill base is improving the player pool. But there are impediments to that if you are MLS. Technicians are not cheap. In fact they are the most expensive commodities in the game, pricier at their zenith than even the most rampant pure goalscorers. The number 10 has always been a more expensive number than nine. And while you may be increasing their number in MLS – the league is doing this, however slowly – you need to protect them.

And how else to do that than to tell your Tribunes to stamp out the very attacks that would snuff them out of the league altogether?

There may be more red cards in the league so far this year, although we should note that the sample size is painfully slim. But the more difficult facet of building a skill-forward league is developing a base of referees who understand that to brook flaring studs is to see the league devolve into rugby. MLS has been there. I dare say it does not want to go back.

Refereeing is difficult. A smattering of poorly issued red cards already this season will tell you that most obvious of facts. If you are a partisan figure, you no doubt have a litany of examples from the past pointing to why your team is targeted and the bull’s-eye is upon you and there is no escape.

But there has to be an understanding that without a police force systematically rooting out hard challenges in all their destructive vigor, there is anarchy. And as we are all humans, the only substitute for the occasional benign disorder wrought by our referees is the constant destructive and castle-shattering nihilism of something else.

And still I cannot stop thinking about Zakuani’s leg break. The sound and the fury.

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