The one issue that has plagued Major League Soccer during the first five weeks of the season has been the enforcement of red cards.
In the 42 matches played across the league since March 6, 16 ejections have been delivered by 13 different referees.
The concern about the presumed growing number of red cards throughout the United States and Canada came to the forefront again after four players were sent off during Week 5.
During a conference call with the media on Thursday afternoon, Professional Referees Organization general manager Peter Walton tried to clear things up regarding the increased criticism of officials.
“Nothing has changed in law," Walton said. "Nothing has changed in the way PRO wants the game to be played and administered. What has changed is our referees are much more consistent in the application of the law we want them to apply."
While the quality on the pitch in regard to the personnel has dramatically improved over the last few years, PRO has worked on fine-tuning the skill sets of its referees.
What we are seeing at the start of 2016 is the consistency that Walton and others in charge at PRO are looking for.
"I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with the refereeing group in preseason going through plays, various examples from previous seasons and talking to them so they understood," Walton said. "What we’re seeing now is that application being consistently applied."
The consistency across the board from the league's officials is needed in a division that continues to raise the bar in terms of talent. In order for MLS to become one of the best leagues in the world, like commissioner Don Garber wants it to be, every part of the game needs to have the highest possible quality.
Instead of griping about most of the red cards, most of which don't warrant legitimate arguments against an ejection, players must adjust to the way the referees are calling the games.
“Reality is when you speak to players and coaches in the comforts of a hotel in January, what we show them, I think, makes complete sense, and they absorb, they take it in, they understand and agree," Walton said. "When it manifests itself on the field in March and April, it’s a different feeling."
"When it’s applied in action, it becomes slightly more hard to accept," Walton said. "If the players continue making such challenges, referees will continue making such decisions. I do think given time it will be modified."
Just like every top striker misses a golden opportunity in front of goal, referees are going to incorrectly rule on fouls that should warrant red cards at some point in the season. That happened in Week 5 as Orlando City's Brek Shea received a yellow for a first-half challenge that should've seen him sent off. In that situation, the left-back went on to influence Orlando City's win over Portland with a goal 17 minutes after his reckless tackle.
The good news when it comes to retroactive punishment is MLS has a Disciplinary Committee that rules on challenges like the one Shea made during Sunday's game at the Citrus Bowl. The league rectified the situation by suspending the United States international for Friday's trip to Philadelphia.
Suspending Shea a few days after he made an impact in a match that could've witnessed a different result won't sit well with fans, especially those in Portland, but that's what happens when you play the game with a human margin of error.
As we move on with the rest of the 2016 campaign, we are sure to see more ugly tackles, especially those of the two-footed variety that have been on display too much early in the year. The adjustments made by the players to the officiating will be key as the season progresses into the summer and fall.
Whether those alterations will be made starting in Week 6 remains to be seen, but if the coaches and players across MLS want to see a decrease in red cards, they must do their part as well.
Week 6 Schedule
Orlando City at Philadelphia Union (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, UniMas)
Columbus Crew at Montreal Impact (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, MLS Live)
Toronto FC at New England Revolution (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, MLS Live)
Vancouver Whitecaps at D.C. United (Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live)
Sporting Kansas City at New York Red Bulls (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, MLS Live)
San Jose Earthquakes at FC Dallas (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, MLS Live)
Colorado Rapids at Real Salt Lake (Saturday, 9:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live)
Seattle Sounders at Houston Dynamo (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Chicago Fire at New York City FC (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)
Portland Timbers at LA Galaxy (Sunday, 9:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)
Players to Watch
Kaka, AM, Orlando City
After his tremendous display on Sunday against Portland, Kaka is expected to make his second start of the season against Philadelphia on Friday.
Even if the Brazilian legend is without forward Cyle Larin, who left the Portland match with a hamstring tweak, he should have plenty of tricks up his sleeve.
The skill set of the 33-year-old will hand the Union defense a massive test in the fight for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Bradley Wright-Phillips, FW, New York Red Bulls
Something needs to change in attack for the New York Red Bulls in the near future, or they could sink further down the Eastern Conference standings.
Jesse Marsch's side come into Saturday's home match versus Sporting Kansas City with one win and three defeats in four matches.
Bradley Wright-Phillips has been active in front of goal early in the season with seven shots on target, but none of them have found the back of the net. If the 31-year-old forward is able to open his account at home on Saturday, the Red Bulls could get their season back on track.
Axel Sjoberg, CB, Colorado Rapids
After pulling off impressive home wins over the Galaxy and Toronto FC, the Colorado Rapids need to prove they can get the job done on the road as well.
In addition to earning seven points from four matches, the Rapids have only let in two strikes over 360 minutes.
The contributions of Axel Sjoberg in the middle of the back four on Saturday will be key for Pablo Mastroeni's side in Week 6 as they look to stop Joao Plata and the Real Salt Lake attack in this season's first edition of the Rocky Mountain Cup.
Nigel de Jong, CDM, LA Galaxy
It turns out Bruce Arena knew exactly what he was doing in the offseason.
On Sunday against the Timbers, the Galaxy have a chance to prove that new acquisitions Nigel de Jong and Ashley Cole will wreak havoc throughout the 2016 season.
De Jong will be tasked with stopping the dangerous Diego Valeri at the StubHub Center. If he disrupts the Argentinian playmaker over 90 minutes, the Timbers may have a hard time producing in the final third.
Game of the Week
Orlando City at Philadelphia Union
When the schedule was initially released, no one expected Friday's match at Talen Energy Stadium to be a showdown of first versus third in the Eastern Conference.
Orlando sits atop the East with eight points from four games, but the Union have an opportunity to overtake the Lions with a win on home soil.
If Larin reaches full fitness, we should witness a terrific showcase of forwards between the Canadian and C.J. Sapong, both of whom have the ability to create something out of nothing.
The top head-to-head battle on the pitch will come in the middle of the park, where Orlando's defensive midfield pair of Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita face the improved Union attack that could feature Tranquillo Barnetta from the start of the match for the first time this season.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.