McCarthy's Musings: New red card appeals structure gives MLS clubs and players recourse in the aftermath of significant refereeing errors

On Tuesday Fernando Cárdenas became the first player to have a red card overturned by a newly formed independent review panel, but he likely won't be the last.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The first case for MLS' new red card appeals procedure popped onto the radar in the final 10 minutes of Real Salt Lake's 2-1 victory over New England on Saturday night.

Other teams may have contemplated whether to use this novel option in previous weeks, but the circumstances involved in this particular incident represented something of a perfect storm and prompted the first formal review since the league adopted the process during the close season.

Revolution midfielder Fernando Cárdenas and Real Salt Lake defender Jámison Olave both went into an 81st minute challenge. Replays showed that Cardenas made no contact with Olave before Olave appeared to step on his ankle, but the real-time view offered a completely different vantage point to referee David Gantar. Instead of pondering whether to dip into his front pocket to show Olave a second yellow card, Gantar instead reached into his back pocket to send Cárdenas off and spark a furious reaction from Revolution boss Jay Heaps on the sidelines.

(Note: RSL's crack broadcasting team did a nice job of illustrating the problems facing Gantar in this particular situation. At the time of the tackle, RSL play-by-play man Bill Riley said Cárdenas “has to be booked on this” and analyst Brian Dunseth wondered whether Gantar would go to his front pocket or his back pocket. After viewing the replay, Dunseth immediately reversed course on the initial assessment. “When you watch the replay, that's not a red card,” Dunseth said. The full highlight clip is available on

Many coaches and players have expressed similar levels of frustration with suspect refereeing decisions during previous seasons, but the league did not offer a structure to address that anger on appeal unless a player found himself a victim of mistaken identity.

Those days are now over. In the wake of the defeat and on the way back to Massachusetts, the Revolution technical staff huddled with members of the front office to discuss whether they should ask the league to initiate appeal proceedings for the first time.

“This is a new area for all of the teams,” Revolution general manager Michael Burns said after the decision. “It's the first year that the league has implemented a policy and procedure where you're able to appeal a red card. We certainly weren't trying to be the trendsetters or the leaders in this regard, but we felt very strongly that the red card given to Fernando on Saturday night was unjust. We looked at the video clips several times and it was clear to us that he didn't make contact with the player.”

A finely and somewhat objectively tuned sense of righteousness matters in these conversations, but financial and tactical factors also enter the deliberative process as club executives weigh whether to request a review within the allotted period (24 hours after the completion of the match).

Every MLS side posted a $25,000 bond at the start of the campaign in exchange for the right to make two unsuccessful appeals during the course of the season. Though this particular distinction would naturally indicate two choices (uphold the appeal or reject it), the independent review panel – a three-person body comprised of one representative each from the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) and U.S. Soccer – actually possesses three options for disposition when an appeal is presented to them:

1. Uphold the appeal: If the panel unanimously concludes that the referee's actions do not (1) correctly identify the offense in accordance with the Laws of the Game and (2) warrant the disciplinary sanction applied for the offense, then it can rescind the automatic one-match ban and fine. In such instances, the club retains the right to make unsuccessful challenges if it has any remaining and the player can feature in the club's next match.

2. Reject the appeal: If the panel unanimously decides that the referee's actions (1) correctly identify the offense in accordance with the Laws of the Game and (2) warrant the disciplinary sanction applied for the offense or it does not reach a unanimous judgment on the two aforementioned criteria, then the red card (and its accompanying punishment) stands and the club loses one of its remaining unsuccessful appeals for the season.

3. Reject the appeal and deem it frivolous: If the panel reaches a unanimous judgment backing the referee's actions on the field and unanimously concludes that the club had no “objective rational basis” within the Laws of the Game for contending that the red card should not have been issued, then the punishment handed to the player is doubled, the club forfeits its $25,000 bond and loses the right to mount an appeal for the remainder of the current season and the entirety of the following season.

(Note: The “objective rational basis” language used by the league here borrows from the legal term of art used to describe one of the three levels of scrutiny usually applied as part of the judicial analysis of cases pertaining to certain parts of the U.S. Constitution. Rational basis review represents “the most deferential of the standards of review that courts use in due process and equal protection analysis,” according to Black's Law Dictionary. For non-lawyers, the take-home message boils down to this point: the standard should present a low bar for any club to hurdle to retain its bond and sustain its right to appeal unsuccessfully if it has any unsuccessful appeals remaining. If the standard is applied as it might be in a court of law, a club would have to contest an incident along the lines of a leg-breaking tackle or a punch in the face in order for the panel to unanimously deem it frivolous. In practicality, the actual standard may settle somewhere just north of that line. No club will probably want to be the first to test exactly where the panel may fall on its particular interpretation of the standard.)

After contemplating the possibilities and reviewing the incident thoroughly, the Revolution front office and technical staff collectively decided to pursue the appeal. The club shipped off its evidence – including photographic and video captures of the incident – to the league office in New York to support their appeal and waited to hear the verdict.

“This is a first,” Revolution coach Jay Heaps said after the decision. “In terms of that [decision], I think that's where the commitment from ownership and the commitment from management, commitment from our staff and [commitment] from the player [comes in]. We were going to go for it. We never knew how it was going to turn out. There's never been a precedent set. We were certainly out in uncharted territory, but, at the same time, I think the fact that it was a collective decision made it a lot stronger from our side.”

The choice paid dividends on Tuesday when MLS announced that the independent review panel had lifted the automatic one-match ban and fine handed to Cárdenas after his dismissal. The panel decided that Gantar “made an obvious error in the disciplinary sanction,” according to a release issued by the league on Tuesday night.

“We feel good that the right outcome was made, even though it was after the fact,” Burns said.

Other teams may feel compelled to test the waters in the wake of the Revolution's success, but the operating structure is designed to limit an onslaught of appeals on a weekly basis. As presently comprised, the appeals structure stands a decent chance of fulfilling the league's stated goal of restricting these proceedings to matters involving “serious and obvious error” by the referee.

While the “obvious rational basis” standard likely limits the chances that a team would lose its $25,000 bond and its appellate privileges for the current year and the next year, the modest number of unsuccessful appeals will likely deter clubs from trying to overturn murkier incidents until the business end of the campaign. No team, after all, wants to find itself unable to act if a serious error occurs in the thick of the postseason race. By the time September or October hits and the stakes increase significantly, clubs may find themselves more inclined to push the boundaries to keep a crucial and recently dismissed player available for a key match if they have unsuccessful appeals in hand. If they do choose to follow that path, they will still have to weigh whether the potential pitfalls and the possible ramifications for the subsequent year are worth accepting in an attempt to receive a favorable judgment in a marginal case.

At this point, those assessments represent mere conjecture after just one appeal. The merits of the system – and its place in a league where retroactive discipline has increased substantially after offseason changes to the Disciplinary Committee directives – appear far more certain. For clubs and players, this avenue finally provides the means to rectify obvious errors made on the field of play. There are no guarantees that this panel will address all of them equally or influence whether those mistakes are made in the first place (two of the primary charges frequently levied against the Disciplinary Committee), but the arrival of a realistic form of redress in exceptional cases represents a significant step forward for frustrated clubs and players now and in the future.

Need further proof? Just scan New England's teamsheet for Cárdenas' name when Vancouver visits Gillette Stadium this weekend.

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