Blame the referees if you want, but players and coaches share responsibility for MLS’s officiating woes

Verbally beating on referees is an Major League Soccer fan pastime and practically a rite of passage for soccer journalists. I know my arms have gotten pretty tired from throwing a few haymakers of the written word. Alas, refereeing is topical once again due to a couple of huge MLS playoff contests last weekend where yellow cards became problematic (although for two different reasons). So, time to dust off our favorite referee-bashing lines, eh?

Well, maybe. But there is another side to this: At some point, all this routine mayhem is on the players, too.

Aren’t MLS players contributing to an overall match temperature that reaches “boil” way too early and too often? At some point, shouldn’t professional athletes stop the whining and complaining and “working the referee” and just get the hell on with it? You know, concentrate more on passing, trapping and shooting – and have you seen the generally awful crossing in MLS? – and less on doing the referee’s job for him.

The problem is that too many players get caught up in the frenetic frenzy of it all and lose the larger plot. So do the coaches.

At some point, clubs and players have to decide: Will they be a team that fights through adversity? (We hear that particularly tiresome platitude a lot, don’t we?) Or a club that whines and gripes when things don’t go its way but suddenly develops amnesia about decisions that help? Remember, referee choices are always a zero-sum game.

Yes, ample culpability falls on a crew of MLS referees that frequently fails the test in overall match management. But too many fans and media members don’t care to hear about the bigger complexity of it all, that there’s more involved than wobbly officiating. It’s just easier to blame the man in the middle and then move on to the debates we prefer: Brad Evans’ best spot on the field, where Lee Nguyen fits in the MVP debate, etc.

I get it. The referees represent authority; the guy with the whistle is The Man. When things fall apart on the field, it’s his fault, right? Let’s not blame our athlete heroes.

We all love Clint Dempsey, for instance; the man has scored in three consecutive World Cups, so a mighty tip of Uncle Sam’s hat for that! But the guy gets away with a lot, complains more than a NIMBY neighbor and always seems to be in the center of the next skirmish. Robbie Keane? Great player! But he complains when he doesn’t get the calls … and even more when he does!

The fussy complainers get plenty of encouragement from their managers; have you seen the coaches chew on those poor fourth officials? At opening whistle they take up position for a 90-minute tirade, arms aflutter and dancing around like they are auditioning for American Idol.

Both conference semifinals were difficult, starting at Red Bull Arena, where Alan Chapman did a commendable job with a combustible New York-New England first leg. Fans or media members who claimed Chapman didn’t do enough to control matters or that he started issuing cards too early must have missed the two early warnings issued to New York’s Richard Eckersley. Twice, that is, in the first seven minutes!

That looked like proper tone-setting to me. That done, once Eckersley finally gets a yellow card (which he did), that’s on him. Eventually, Chapman issued 10 yellow cards. It’s above average, but anyone who complains needs to show me which incident wasn’t caution-worthy.

The one softie was probably Tim Cahill’s. So, 9 out of 10? I’ll take that. Besides, on another day Jermaine Jones may have seen red for his awful scissors tackle from behind on Dax McCarty. So we could actually make an argument that Chapman was too lenient here and there, couldn’t we?

But let’s not let that ruin the narrative. It’s just too easy to proclaim “card happy” (which is surely king of the lamest excuses for analysis). When we can’t be bothered with context or nuance, we scream “card happy,” congratulate ourselves for a strong opinion and then check out for a nice nap.

Here’s something we don’t say enough: Once the referee shows players how things will be on a certain day – calling it tight, or letting certain things go or letting it devolve into a freakin’ free-for-all or whatever – then it’s on the players to adjust. It’s a condition of the day, like wind or rain, not something to scream about at every turn.

True, adjusting thusly is difficult due to the frequently overly heated atmosphere inside MLS grounds. Players are screaming at each other when they aren’t giving the referee hell. The coaches are straining the limits of their technical areas. The athletes play off the manager’s fury and vice versa while the fans grow ever more frothy in this reactive fission of angst and anger.

The league has recognized all this silly business is an issue; it’s just been a bugger-bear to tackle. Three years ago, MLS attempted to tell everyone to “cut it out already” and behave. The league announced an overdue initiative to reduce some of the sideline and on-field histrionics – what my junior high teacher would call “foolishness.”

Welp, it didn’t take. Oh, they drew a circle around “mass confrontation” and continue to punish the most egregious cases. But mostly the whole thing just kind of went away. When MLS owners and officials couldn’t figure out how to get a better handle on it, they punted. So here we are.

The media acts as accelerant on this flame, too. The prevailing narratives last weekend were that too many cards were issued in one match (not really true) and not enough were handed out in the other (possibly true in Los Angeles). Well, which one?

Remember the voices who complained loudly about FIFA referee Mark Geiger’s choice not to issue a few more cards during the Galaxy-Sounders slugfest to close the regular season? Wonder if some of the same had their soccer shorts in a big twist because Chapman dished out too many last weekend? Sometimes the referees just can’t win.

Maybe, sometimes, rather than hammering the refs we should tell the players and coaches to take it down a notch, too.