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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Lack of Red Cards Thus Far in MLS

    Over the course of the first two weeks of the 2013 MLS season an interesting trend has begun to develop: 17 matches have been played and yet, no – 0 – red cards have been issued.

    Looking at the cumulative totals from 2012, 59 red cards were issued - 6 players with 2 each and 47 with 1 apiece – in 323 matches or an ejection every 5.47 matches.

    The first red card of 2012 came in the 11th match when New England’s Stephen McCarthy was controversially sent off for a tangle with Sporting KC’s CJ Sapong. A debatable decision that changed the match only 14 minutes into play as KC strolled to a simple 3-0 victory.

    That weekend featured another sending off, when then Colorado midfielder Jeff Larentowicz picked up a pair of booking, either side of half-time for heavy tackles on Philadelphia’s Michael Farfan and Keon Daniel.

    Colorado held on to win the match, regardless of being short a man.

    Prior to this season, MLS in conjunction with the Disciplinary Committee – and presumably PRO, the Professional Referee Organization headed by Peter Walton – announced three issues that would be a particular focus for officials this season: mass confrontation of the officials, unauthorized entering of the field of play, and contact to the head.

    But given the absence of red cards, one can’t help but wonder if there is a directive for the referees to be a little more lenient on the field, concentrate on managing the game and let the off-field bodies handle any serious infractions after the match has played out.

    There have been several opportunities for overzealous referees to brandish cards in these 17 matches: Philadelphia’s Ray Gaddis only saw yellow for a heavy lunge on Kansas City’s Peterson Joseph in week one; Columbus’ Glauber, KC’s Aurelien Collin, and Toronto’s Darren O’Dea could have seen red for blatantly obstructing a counterattack – pulling down Kenny Miller, a hand-ball on a pass that caught him out against Toronto and a hack on Graham Zusi in that same match, respectively; a Chivas defender put a heavy lunge into Kenny Cooper this past Sunday and then there is Salt Lake’s Kenny Mansally who appeared to head-butt DC’s Perry Kitchen as the two clashed after a heavy challenge – it would come as no surprise were Mansally to be suspended after the fact, becoming the first player sanctioned within the season, though, for the record, DC’s Dwayne De Rosario was suspended for a head-butt in preseason.

    Referees will always receive more criticism for wrongly handing out a card than for being slow to issue one and are often accused of ruining a match with decisions that could have gone either way.

    Last week’s Manchester United-Real Madrid Champions League match and the red card issued to United’s Nani is a perfect example of a referee changing the result with a debatable decision – United was leading and headed through until they were reduced to 10-men and conceded twice, resulting in Madrid moving on to the Quarterfinals instead.

    There have also been fewer yellow cards handed out thus far into the season – 45 in 17 or 2.65 per match compared to 51 in 16 or 3.19 per in a similar time frame in 2012.

    Fewer yellow cards early in matches allow referees more flexibility in confronting incidents later without being forced to send players off.

    Granted the sample size in both cases – red and yellow cards – is far too small to make sweeping statements, but it will be an interesting story to follow.

    To the naked eye, referees have also been allowing faster restarts and more injury time – actual figures for comparison are difficult to come by – resulting in more flow to some matches and increased tension at the end of tight games, all benefitting the level of excitement for viewers in stadiums and on television.

    One example from the Toronto-KC match on Saturday to illustrate all these points: Richard Eckersley is called for a hand-ball, Paulo Nagamura wrestles him to the ground to restart play, Danny Califf strides in to shove Claudio Bieler, who appears to strike Califf in the face with a flailing arm – granted, a weak one.

    Jimmy Nielsen, the KC goalkeeper, rushes to the top of the box to point out Califf to the referee, Nagamura pleads his case, Bieler is holding up his arm, brandishing an imaginary card at the referee, Aurelien Collin inserts himself into the fray – big surprise there – and CJ Sapong comes to get involved as well. Side Note – Oriol Rosell is busy setting up the free-kick that would lead to the Sporting goal.

    Toronto has Eckersley prostrate on the ground, Califf mixing it up, Robert Earnshaw, Terry Dunfield, and Jeremy Hall – who comes rushing in from a distance – involved in the discussion.

    Whereas in the past up to three or four players would be cautioned, Califf is the only player booked from the scrum for his third-man in shove – Nagamura was already carrying a booking and would have been sent off for his aggressive stance – and the free-kick is taken so quickly that the broadcaster nearly misses the goal as they are busy with the replay of the incident.

    There were 7 yellow cards awarded by referee Fotis Bazakos who called 34 fouls as the match descended a controlled chaos, all with a brilliant smile on his face, despite several times having the option of putting his foot down and potentially changing the outcome of the match.

    Truth be told, it made for compelling viewing and the referee’s fluidity only enhanced the occasion – plus his smiled shrug was the perfect counterpoint to the aggressive emotion in the players.

    5 minutes of stoppage time were added, despite no major delays, and over 6 were played, no doubt increasing the tension in stadium and ensuring any away fans watching from abroad were glued to the final throes of the match.

    While there has been no stated directive to try and keep 22 players on the pitch, it has seemed as though the referees are doing their best to remain as facilitators rather than deciders of matches. With the Disciplinary Committe and PRO now firmly established and primed to address any serious infractions of the law, perhaps this is a trend that will continue in the future.

    The mass confrontation rule, one of those crackdown issues, has yet to be enforced despite there being several such incidents already this season.

    Just how those mass confrontations are to be dealt with, whether any fines to club will even be announced publicly, is a separate matter, but another to watch.

    The first red card of 2013 is still to come, but rest assured, it will likely be deserved. 

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