'Flavor of the month': PRO hits back at critics of MLS referees

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An early-season spike in red cards has fans and players crying foul, but refs are actually just getting more accurate, their bosses claim. Paul Tenorio explains.

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In the midst of a debate about a wave of red cards handed out early this Major League Soccer season, Peter Walton, general manager of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), cut straight to the point on a conference call with reporters on Thursday afternoon.

“It would seem that referees are flavor of the month,” he said in his opening statement. “And that’s something I don’t want them to be, because it’s about the players and not the referees.”

MLS fans might argue otherwise after seeing 16 red cards handed out in the first four-plus weeks of the season, and that’s not counting additional punishments rendered by the MLS Disciplinary Committee, which is run separately from PRO. That rush of red cards has led to criticism, both in the public forums and from players and coaches.

Yet Walton maintained Thursday that the red cards are being handed out correctly and more consistently this season – a direct reflection of an emphasis on serious foul play from MLS ownership and the competition committee that began in 2012.

“This is nothing new and this has been on the agenda since 2012 ever since the poor days in 2011 when a number of key players in MLS had significant injuries,” Walton said. “The thought then was to perhaps act on challenges that would impact the game and would impact individuals.”

Walton outlined the work that has been done with PRO since 2013, which includes decreasing the overall referees pool while increasing the number of full-time referees, using technology to collect data and analyze refereeing performances and increasing the number of meetings with all referees from two per year to 18-19 times per season.

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Fans and players alike are screaming about red cards. (Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports)

The goal has been to add more consistency, Walton said, both across the entire group of referees and in individual referees over the course of a game.

Using technology and analysis, PRO determined that referees identified and correctly punished 72 percent of red card infractions last season.

“Which sounds good, but means we we’re missing 28 percent,” Walton said.

Analysis showed that 84 percent of those missed calls were as a result of “poor positioning and poor movement,” Walton said. The increased numbers this year are a sign referees are in better positions to get those calls right, he said.

Serious foul play is defined in law as lunging at a player with excessive force, and Walton said the referees consider a number of factors within that: the speed of the challenge, the force behind the challenge, a straight leg or two-legged challenge, if the legs are off the ground where the player is not in control of his body, and where on the body contact is made with the opponent.

Walton said PRO referees have correctly identified 85 percent of red card offenses this year, and that of the 16 red cards handed out this season, he judged 13 as being “nailed-on,” and three where there is room for debate.

“Referees are seeing more of those challenges,” Walton said. “There are more red cards rather than more reds as consequence of two yellow cards. We are now punishing the offense as it should be.”

Walton explained that MLS referees undergo detailed evaluations after every game. Those evaluations begin with a match assessor and include analysis from an independent contractor. The independent reports compile every “event” in a game – from goal kicks to yellow cards to offsides and goals – and then are synched up by the match assessor with how each was called by the referee.

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Blas Perez clearly disagrees. (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

An algorithm then issues a mark for the referees, which can impact the referee’s ranking within PRO’s 23-man referee pool. That ranking influences the number of assignments referees get per season, and poor marks could also lead to termination of employment, Walton said.

“There is a bit of competition within group and that competition is nice because it means that referees want to perform, want to perform well and want to get more games,” Walton said. “There are not many jobs in the world where a person is assessed as much as my referees.”

Walton said PRO met with every MLS team this offseason to go over what infractions would be emphasized, and that players and coaches were on board during those presentations.

He said he believes players will begin to modify their behavior as the red cards continue to come out of the referees’ pockets.

“Nothing has changed in law, nothing has changed in the way that PRO wants the game to be played and administered,” Walton said. “What has changed is our referees are much more consistent in the application of the law.”

More notes…

** Walton talked about the use of instant replay in games. He said PRO is working closely with the federation, MLS and FIFA to test instant replay.

“We are really in the early stages of this,” he said.

They are still determining who uses the replay, who instigates it, what language used and what video replay referees should be looking for. The next trial will likely include competitive games.

** Walton said the referees “do not necessarily agree with all the decisions” of the MLS Disciplinary Committee, which has the power to retroactively punish players. “We do talk about them and do understand, in a majority of cases, where the decisions come from.”

Walton said his goal is to “put the disciplinary committee out of work,” because he wants the referees to get every decision right.

“Referees don’t see everything, TV doesn’t lie, the camera angles don’t lie,” he added. “There is no hiding place now for players who transgress and the disciplinary committee will pick up what falls between the cracks.”

** Walton also pointed out that due to the CBA, referee assignments must be done four weeks in advance. That could impact any instant visible punishment for a referee after a bad week, because the schedule for the next week of games had already been completed.

Walton also said referee grades and analysis would not become public because that data was a “very personal thing for the referee,” and it could be misread if disseminated to a wider audience.

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