MLS Has to Fix Refereeing to Improve Quality of Play

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MLS Has to Fix Refereeing to Improve Quality of Play
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

One of the major talking points from this past weekend in MLS surrounds the referees. In Sporting Kansas City's 2-1 win over Toronto FC on Saturday, referee Ted Unkel was the center of attention for the wrong reasons.

His indiscriminate use of yellow cards, combined with poor foul calls, are just two of his blatant errors. This is the latest example of why commissioner Don Garber has to work on improving the officiating in the league.

Refereeing is one of the most difficult jobs. A decision has to be made on the spot without any help from replays. Also, Unkel is inexperienced in MLS. He took charge of just three games during the 2013 season, per the official PRO website. He's officiated four this season.

USA TODAY Sports
Ted Unkel, left, was in way over his head on Saturday night.

Unkel hasn't been the only referee that's been guilty of making incorrect calls or being too card happy. There have been 5,221 fouls called in 190 games in both MLS and the US Open Cup, per the PRO website. That's an average of 27.48 per match. There's also been 621 yellow cards issued (3.27 per game) and 57 reds (0.3 per match).

MLS has significantly higher foul numbers per team than the Premier League, per Whoscored.com. In the 2013-14 season, 1,167 yellow cards were brandished. The average is around 58 per team over 38 matches. The red card count was about 2.65 per club compared to 2.8 in Major League Soccer.

The amount of fouls isn't only the issue.  The needless bookings and sending-offs are ruining the flow of games and slow down the pace dramatically. Referees are too quick to pull out a card in order to stamp their authority, but more often than not, it's the wrong decision.

Players dive, no yellow is drawn. Studs come up, red isn't shown. A player is hauled down when he's in all alone against the goalkeeper, and the defender isn't sent off. The FIFA rulebook defining the laws of the game is readily available to everyone online, so it's incomprehensible why so many officials make poor calls.

Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter has been reprimanded for criticizing officials this season, and he isn't the only one. If MLS puts so much effort into their disciplinary committee and punishing coaches for their harsh criticisms of referees, the league can do the same by improving the officials.

Toronto's Michael Bradley claims that better officiating has to be priority number one for MLS, as mentioned in his post-game interview following the SKC match.

If big names in the league are calling for this to happen, Garber must listen and follow through. Poor officiating is giving MLS a bad reputation and that has to change soon, or else the quality of play won't improve and other top players won't want to be involved in this league.

There are some talented, experienced referees, like Mark Geiger, who took charge in the 2014 FIFA World Cup this summer and did a great job. MLS should use more of its' resources and invest in instructors from Europe, and there would certainly be a noticeable improvement in officiating. A move like this would lead to more referees like Geiger.

The level of officiating will never be perfect, but it can be much better. If this initiative is taken, MLS will benefit greatly.

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