As the MLS postseason approaches, referees have been caught in the crosshairs of some of the most crucial moments this season and have failed to perform at an acceptable level.D.C. United captain Dwayne De Rosario issued an innocuous challenge to MLS referees about six weeks ago, after the officiating crew for D.C.'s game against the Philadelphia Union lingered as the major talking point following the key encounter.
"The referee has got to realize that everything is a fight for the playoffs right now," said De Rosario, who is on the shelf for the remainder of the season with a knee injury. "They've got to be 100 percent with their calls, and as players are stepping their game up, they have to step their officiating up."
The players have done their part, with this past week in MLS being marked by some tremendous individual performances. From Thierry Henry's masterclass at Red Bull Arena, to Graham Zusi's influential showing at Livestrong Sporting Park to Real Salt Lake strike tandem Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola, and San Jose's clutch duo of Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, many players stepped up to make for some great entertainment with the stakes rising.
The officials, however, have failed to heed to DeRo's call, continuing to lack the sharpness required to lend complete integrity to the postseason races while blowing high-pressure calls that have seriously altered the outcome of crucial results.
Bad calls and shoddy officiating are part of the game in any league in any country, that much is a given. And until the available technology is implemented to help make up for some of those blown calls, the human error will always be an element of the game that has to be taken into account. However, that doesn't make what has transpired in recent matches any more forgivable, nor should it be openly accepted by teams and fans alike.
Whether it was the blatant missed offside call by the assistant referee that gave Columbus a late win instead of a draw with Philadelphia, the one-sided set of calls that seemed to go against the Chicago Fire in Kansas City last Friday, or the controversial handball call on Portland's David Horst made by an assistant referee that yielded a penalty kick to D.C., the standard of officiating in the growing league remains, at inopportune times, shockingly low.
On the heels of the replacement official fiasco in the NFL during which those in the soccer community routinely made joking remarks about how much better the notoriously shaky MLS and CONCACAF referees were than NFL's replacement officials, the joke reverted back to MLS the same weekend the NFL's more steady, regular officials were reinstated after the tipping-point moment on Monday Night Football in Seattle.
Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Timbers side that not only was on the wrong end of Saturday's call but has also not been awarded a single penalty all season, reportedly went after officials on the field Saturday and took to Twitter to voice his displeasure and make his own comparison.
"Let's be real...nfl replacement refs have nothing on mls primary refs. Sick of this garbage. I will happily take the fine. It's atrocious. Should balance out," he wrote in a since-deleted outburst Saturday night that was followed by more level-headed, yet still-furious, remarks.
Referee development is something that the league has put resources into and is looking to address, with the creation of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) this past winter dedicated to cultivating a higher standard of officiating and breeding a crop of more full-time referees with the skills, experience and ability to perform at a higher level.
"We have a set vision, by 2022, for Major League Soccer to have the highest standard of officiating worldwide," MLS executive vice president of competition Nelson Rodriguez said upon the introduction of PRO in March.
In 10 years' time, we'll know for sure whether that lofty goal is reached, but in the meantime, MLS does not need the best officiating crews in the world. It just needs ones that can be counted on to routinely make correct calls and use sound judgment in high-pressure moments.
For the sake of MLS, a league enjoying some of the finest on-field play in its 17-season history and still attracting and appealing to a new fan base, the last thing it wants to stomach is a tainted championship. Here's to hoping that De Rosario's challenge gets met, and that the controversial calls don't make it to November.