An Open Letter to Don Garber


Apr 16, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks during the announcement of an MLS expansion team in Atlanta. The event was held at Ventanas. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Dear Mr. Garber,

Before I launch into my main purpose for this letter, allow me to offer my best wishes in your recovery from prostate cancer. While you may draw some criticism, as any commissioner in a professional sport often does, the truth is that you have done a tremendous job in growing MLS. We as fans benefit significantly from everything you do.

With that having been said, I fear you have a growing problem in MLS this season. There is a shocking increase in decisions being made by referees that have a direct impact on the outcome of matches. It has become so noticeable, that many otherwise reasonable MLS fans who I personally know are beginning to turn away from the league in disgust.

This is a bit of an ironic letter for me to write. In truth, ordinarily I find myself defending MLS match officials. I have lived in England, France, Belgium, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand and my experience has been that fans in every league are convinced that their officials are the worst in the world.

The simple fact is that officiating mistakes are made on every weekend in every league in every country. MLS hardly has the monopoly in that area. Soccer is arguably the most difficult sport to officiate. Referees need to cover a massive area of space with only two sideline officials and the main official.

Aug 4, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; Referee Ricardo Salazar holds up a yellow card during the second half of the game between the New England Revolution and the Toronto FC at Gillette Stadium. Toronto FC won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The speed of the modern game often makes it challenging for officials to be in the right position to see and make calls. It is, therefore, impossible for a referee to call a match perfectly, yet we as fans unrealistically demand perfection.

I take what I view to be a more practical approach towards expectations of referee performance. A good referee is one that you do not notice throughout the course of the match. When it comes to match changing decisions, he exercises caution and only makes those calls if absolutely certain that it is the right thing to do. In a perfect world, fans do not even know the names of the officials as there is no cause to know them.

MLS is far from that perfect world. The officials are very noticeable, so much so that several strike fear into the hearts of fans when they are assigned to officiate their favorite team’s match. Certain officials have nicknames – “Red Card” Ricardo Salazar for example. A referee who has a league wide nickname of “Red Card” cannot be considered a good thing.

Fans do not attend matches or watch them on TV for the officials. The phrase, “I was not going to watch the match tonight but then I learned Baldomero Toledo is officiating so I changed my mind” has never been uttered, nor will it ever be.

Through the first 7 weeks of this season based on MLS stats, 20 red cards have been issued and 27 penalties have been called across 62 matches. That is a rate of nearly one red card per every three matches, an absurdly high figure. At this stage last season, 6 red cards had been issued and 15 penalties called in 60 matches. In 2012 at this stage there had been 9 red cards and 12 penalties in 63 matches.

The 2014 referee stats don’t truly tell the full story. To get an accurate reflection of how MLS refs have performed we need to remove the numbers for the replacement refs. By my tally, the replacement refs officiated 16 matches, handed out 2 red cards (one as a result of a second yellow) and called 5 penalties. That leaves us with 46/18/22 for the “real” refs. 

Have the number of fouls and seriousness of those fouls truly increased by that much? In my mind the answer is no; if anything the overall quality of play has improved.

Simply put, these numbers are astounding. That is more than one card per every three matches. That is nearly one penalty per every two matches. Clearly the officials are doing the exact opposite of going unnoticed. In fact, the officials have been the stars of the match far too often this season.

Jun 23, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Referee Baldomero Toledo hands out a red card to New York Red Bulls midfielder Lloyd Sam (10) (not pictured) against the Philadelphia Union during the first half at PPL Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

MLS referees stand out even more this season by comparison to the performance of the “replacement” refs. While there were a few mistakes made, the replacements generally received fairly high marks from fans. Ask fans today whether they would prefer to lock the real refs out again or retain what we have, I would be very surprised if the real refs received even one vote.

Just this past weekend there were five red cards. A couple were deserved, most were questionable and probably should not have been issued given the potential impact on the match. Ironically, the most deserved red card of the weekend – Giancarlo Gonzalez of Columbus tackling (in the football sense, not the soccer sense) Eddie Johnson from behind when Gonzalez was clearly the last man – resulted in only a yellow card.

I do not write this to debate which red cards should or should not have been handed out or to debate penalties. I write this because, as a fan of MLS I am highly concerned. There is very little enjoyment in watching referees decide the outcome of matches as much as 50% of the time. The quality of decision making demonstrated by MLS referees this season will do little to attract new fans and risks driving existing fans (especially the marginal fans) away from the league.

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So my key question is this: where is the accountability? There is no obvious process, at least from my standpoint, for disciplining officials who make poor decisions. At least in the Premier League, officials may get demoted for a week or two for egregious decisions.

Clubs, players and managers are not allowed to try and hold referees accountable – if they do then they receive a fine. So what is to dissuade a referee from continuing to perform as they have been? They are above criticism and beyond reproach, it seems.

If a player is under performing, he draws criticism from his manager and ultimately may find himself on the bench. Why is the same not true of referees?

Mr. Garber, you have been a leader in many areas of the game in the United States. I implore you to take leadership in this area as well and seek to make referees more accountable for their decisions and restore some sense of normalcy to the league. I do not expect perfection, I do expect to be able to watch a weekend worth of matches without seeing half of them decided by the referee.

Best regards,

Hal Kaiser

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