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MLS Referees Are a Joke; It's Time for a Change

Timbers head coach John Spencer was thrown out of Saturday's game for critiquing the referee in stoppage time of the second half.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Timbers head coach John Spencer was thrown out of Saturday's game for critiquing the referee in stoppage time of the second half. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
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We've heard it all before. The complaining, the woes, the bitterness at the end of every game about how such and such referee ruined Team A's game or blah blah this and blah blah that. Fact of the matter is that referees will always be blamed in the sport. It's just their role in the grand scheme of things. Rarely, very rarely, do I not hear somebody complain about the refereeing of a specific game no matter what league I happen to be watching.

While I'd be lying if I said I didn't complain either, I'm a fairly empathetic guy so most times when the referee botches a call, I take his side. The sport is sort of set up to ensure the referee fails every so often anyway and I can certainly understand how a few wrong calls could easily be given out. I also don't envy being the most hated man on the field every single week. That's gotta be tough.

This year is different, however. With the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps joining the league this year, MLS was forced to hire, graduate, or recruit four additional referees who have never officiated at a level as high as it is today. Suffice it to say, with those new refs and an increasingly higher amount of more technically skilled MLS players, things are starting to really slip up much to the chagrin of, well, everybody. If you thought the frustration was held solely by the fans you're wrong.

Last Saturday's game marked the first time John Spencer publicly spoke out against the refereeing while as the Timbers head coach. Not the first time ever, mind you, as he has a long record of speaking out against calls he believes are incorrect. Here's what he said in the post-game interview:

"The referee was getting tired. He couldn’t cover the ground. And I said that to the fourth official, ‘He can’t cover the ground. He’s blowing calls from 50 to 60 yards away.’ Poor, poor performance by the referee."

Looking back at the game, John Spencer was correct. Referee Abiodun Okulaja was visibly worn out by the 70th-80th minute. Granted running for that amount of time is exhausting (I'm not sure I could do it), but given his job I feel a bit of physical conditioning would obviously be a requirement.

And therein sort of lies the problem at its core: we don't know how referees are trained, where they get their physical conditioning, even really what sort of disciplinary action is taken (if any) for referees that have a bad game. Upon scouring the U.S. Soccer Federation's website this is the best I could find with regards to any information on referee training:

The Instruction Program oversees the development and distribution of the training curriculum for U.S. Soccer referees, instructors and assignors. Currently, U.S. Soccer offers seven (7) referee courses, four (4) instructor courses and one (1) assignor course. In addition to the training courses, we develop supplemental material in various media, including books, DVDs, slides and video clips for use at all clinics from entry level through the professional league level. The Instruction Program is responsible for preparing the annual memorandum of Law changes and authoring position papers clarifying issues pertaining to the Law throughout the year.

How can we, the fans, coaches, players, executives, etc., truly critique the referee's and their conditioning or accuracy when there's no way for us to know what's wrong at the core. Something is wrong, as evidenced by some absolutely remarkable gafs this year, we just can't say what it is exactly other than the obvious.

So, it's time for change. The first of which is to know exactly where the USSF gets their referees. Where are they hired from? Who trains them? What kind of drills do they undergo? Are they required to train once a week? Are they even paid enough to make this their full time job?

Information, at this point, is key to being able to lead a concerted effort to establishing a respectable refereeing team. Until that time comes I won't be the least bit surprised when FIFA passes over the US once again for refereeing the World Cup. I sure as hell wouldn't have nominated any of them, not at that high of level and, at this rate, I certainly don't see them making it for 2014.

And just to clarify, I don't think all MLS referees are terrible. There are actually a few that I respect quite a bit as they've shown a consistency over the past few years, but, by and large at this point, I'm not feeling confident about the majority of them.