Top Stories

Monday Morning Centerback: On MLS referees

MLS Referee (

                                                         Photo by

Are there any good MLS referees in MLS? Any?

It is a question worth asking after another weekend of questionable decisions and matches decided by the incorrect or missed calls of the men whose jobs it is to get calls right.

Take Sunday's showdown between Chicago and Columbus. The Fire led 2-1 and looked like a good bet to secure a win and move into a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference. At least before referee Mark Geiger whistled for a phantom penalty call against the Fire (You can see the play here at the 4.00 mark).

That call came two days after referee Hilario Grajeda missed a clear penalty in the New York Red Bulls 1-1 tie vs. New England. After the match, Grajeda admitted to being screened on the play, but that doesn't explain why the match linesman didn't see the penalty and notify Grajeda.

Instead, it was another blown call and a point for the Revolution. New England isn't likely to feel bad for New York consider what happened to the Revs two matches earlier, when MVP candidate Shalrie Joseph was issued a highly-questionable red card just 23 minutes into a game vs. Kansas City. That call, made by referee Jasen Anno, left the Revs a man down in a match it eventually lost 4-2. A week later, without Joseph's dominant presence in midfield, New England lost to Chivas USA, 2-0.

It hasn't been a good year for MLS referees, with controversy and dismissals, but the bad calls almost appear to be increasing in frequency as we get later in the season.

Earlier in the year, I wrote an ESPN piece on officiating, with several coaches telling me that the refs were actually doing better than in year's past, with some of the early-season questionable calls being blamed on new mandates and emphasis on certain calls from U.S. Soccer. In the months since, MLS coaches have begun speaking out more and more about bad calls and game-changing referee mistakes, which shouldn't be a surprise since these calls could wind up costing some coaches their jobs at season's end.

Mistakes are a part of the game, and referees can't be expected to be perfect, but the number of major calls, and late-game calls, leaves you wondering whether some referees are trying too hard to show they can make the tough call, even if sometimes they wind up making the wrong call.

Whether it is still referees over-emphasizing certain plays they have been told to watch more closely, or simply a case of inexperienced referees enduring growing pains, MLS referees are having an awful year and there don't appear to be any signs that things are improving.


What did you think of some of the weekend's more controversial officiating calls? Think Wilman Conde was guilty of a penalty vs. Columbus? Have you accepted that bad referees are just something MLS fans have to accept? Think MLS referees are better than they're given credit for being?

Share your thoughts below.


  1. Bad calls are inevitable, but bad calls making the difference between a win or a loss is happening way too frequently in MLS. And don’t even get started on CONCACAF series – the games would be better off if the players made the calls themselves. Someone needs to tell the refs that being paid doesn’t make one a professiona, it’s knowing how to do the job.

  2. BTW, the presumption that referees are better overseas is rubbish. They aren’t. Watch any UEFA cup match and you’ll see this. It’s not so much the calls or the angles, it’s the lack of courage that is exhibited.

    As for NCAA — it’s a different league with different priorities — players are much more restricted and there is a behaviour and language clause that prevents incidents. Also, the game is significantly slower than MLS.

    Besides, the same guys who do MLS and USL matches are doing D1 NCAA matches.

  3. the whole structure is rotten. MLS — and USSF — are interested in referees who have the fitness to run all day. Whether they can actually call a good game is a way distant second. The attitude is that they will teach good-running referees how to call a game.

    But I think it’s been proven time and again that understanding the game and being able to put oneself in position trumps speed/fitness any day of the week. Now, that’s not to say that referees don’t need to be fit. Absolutely they do.

    But ask any referee with ambition — everyone knows of excellent referees who are passed over in favor of referees who run sub-5-minute miles. The selection starts from there and then moves on.

    So although there are a TON of really excellent referees who can run 6-minute miles, they do not even come into consideration.

    Until MLS remembers that this is soccer not track, the pool of eligible candidates is artificially small. Unfortunately, for some reason, the fast and super-fit referees just are not the same ones who understand the complexities of the sport. Not sure why but we’re seeing it out on the pitch every week.

  4. As a Fire season ticket holder, there have times when I have wondered if it is worth supporting MLS any more because of the inconsistent officiating. I have been to several games this year where it feels like the ref’s have some sort of bias. I usually figure that is me being a homer, but twice this year I really wondered if someone had paid off the ref. Of those two games, one we won (we really had a lot of odd calls go our way) and one we lost (we had a lot of calls go against us). Now I’m not saying that the ref’s are corrupt or that anyone is being paid off, but there are serious issues if the thought can cross a fans mind.

    I agree that the MLS is very physical, to the degree that for some teams, being in defense simply means hacking at the man with the ball. This makes for a very ugly game. That is an MLS salary cap problem not a refereeing problem. However, all I really want is consistency. I want to leave a game and not be thinking about the ref. That hasn’t happened much this year.

    I know earlier in the year I used to get a podcast from USSF that reviewed the ref’s from the previous week. I thought that this was a great idea…transparency is always a good thing. The podcast stopped coming over iTunes sometime in July. I would be curious to hear what they have to say after this week.

  5. Ives-

    Question…Doesn’t US Soccer supply officials for the MLS?

    If so, they make MILLIONS. Why don’t they spend more money on A. importing better officials, or B. better training.

    It’s ridiculous. Even if MLS supplies their own, Garber needs to take some of the $40 million x 3 he is going to have and use that to get better officials.

    I have no faith.

  6. Olave’s tackle was no where near a straight red card! If you take of your Dynamo/RSL colored glasses and look at it from the stance of a 3rd party. Not a red.

  7. I was at the Dynamo/RSL game the other night and the only justice was that Dynamo won the game. Unholy Toledo missed three clear take-downs of Dynamo players in the box, all three of which should have been penalties. The highlights on show only two, and do not show the hack job that Morales did on Ching (only Ching’s retaliation far later in the match, which led to his (deserved) red.)

    Olave’s takedown of Davis was a deserved red, and Borchers’ slide into Landin later should have sent RSL down to nine men. This has got to stop before someone gets seriously injured out there. Unholdy Toledo should never ref another game.

    Similarly, the penalties in the EQuakes and Fire games were dismal. That’s two weeks in a row that the Crew, who have a deserved reputation for going down when you direct a stray breeze their way, have benefitted from highly questionable PKs at the end of a game. Both times they should not have been whistled. Those are four undeserved points for them, when they should be walking around with three less right now.

    The inconsistencies, just general bad calls, missed calls, loss of control of games, all point to a serious institutional problem in MLS, a league that just suspended its 2008 Ref of the Year, Jair Marrufo. Toledo deserves no less.

    This is a problem of MLS, USSF and CONCACAF and it needs to be addressed soon.

  8. But, is this debate any different than what goes on in any soccer league in the world? We could have this same debate about missed or blown calls in the Champions League, the EPL, Serie A… name it. We’ve had phantom goals awarded in England, as well as goals taken away that had clearly gone in. Emmanuel Adebayor was suspended for stomping on Robin Van Persie’s face, but where was the ref at the time of the foul to make the call?

    The fact is, with one referee on the field and little or no help, it’s easy for the official to be intimidated by the home fans, or feel he has to try and go out of his way to showboat a call. Or feel that he has to even things up. It’s not an MLS problem. It’s a FIFA problem. What happens in North America is part of a larger issue; the game is moving faster than ever, players work harder than ever to deceive refs and soccer execs refuse to embrace any kind of technology to help officials.

    Maybe the added officials in Europa League games will make for a better game. Maybe.

  9. No replay usage in soccer for foul calls, ever. Period.

    I wouldn’t mind a second ref. Or replays on a debate about whether the ball crossed the line for a goal.

    But replays for in-game play? Next you will have us pausing for timeouts and going to commercial breaks.

  10. There should be a referee with replay capability that can intervene when there is a clear missed call that can be immediately addressed.

  11. not to mention a terrible pk awarded 2:53 into 3 minutes of stoppage time in the earhtquakes-rapids match…..the foul call may have had merit (although still photos of the incident show drew moor starting to go down before the contact was occuring) the crap part of the whole thing was the fact that a good 4-5 players were offside when the ball was sent into the box…..christ i’m tired of watching such poor officiating

  12. Just look at the comments in this thread about the Fire game.

    People STILL are wondering if the foul was actually CJ Brown, which it wasn’t.

    The foul was on Conde, and it wasn’t a foul at all. Lenhart was the on committing the foul by kicking Conde near his face, but Conde gets flagged for the PK.

    What a total joke.

    The reason people are still wondering if it was CJ Brown was because it seems impossible that the ref could have actually called a foul on Conde, but he did. The commentators were equally clueless, and assumed they called it on CJ, again because Conde did nothing to deserve a call against him, but I was at the game, and it was on Conde.

    Lenhart deserved a card on that play for kicking out at Conde’s head, not winning a PK.

  13. I’d love just seeing people know the rules, be in position and make the easy calls.

    Last time I checked, there aren’t water breaks in professional football, Marrufo….

    I get that more teams means more games for refs not experienced enough to handle the load already, but it isn’t as if this has been ANNOUNCED YEARS IN ADVANCE or anything so the Fed can start preparing for it.

    Is the Fed a bad service provider or is MLS a bad customer?


Leave a Comment