Imagine being a referee at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday. There are 62,000 fans watching you, plus more on television, and you have to keep two hyped expansion teams in check as they try to win their much-anticipated opener. And since it’s the first match of the season, they’re probably not in the best form of their lives, either.
So no big deal, right? Just 8,436 square yards for you to keep an eye on all by yourself (let’s be honest, the assistants are only giving him so much help). Alan Kelly was probably going to be screwed no matter what, but then to make things that much worse, New York City FC decided leave their feet for tackles time and time again, while Orlando City used each one as an excuse to go tumble to the turf.
And how did Kelly react? Yellow card for diving. And yellow card for diving. And yellow card for diving.
He gave out three yellow cards for diving in a single match. All to Orlando City.
How crazy is that? Only five teams got multiple yellow cards for diving all of last season.
The first card went to Brek Shea, who absolutely dove. A defender got near him and he went tumbling over, but the defender never kicked or pushed him. The card was deserved.
The next card went to Kevin Molino, who saw a defender coming, kicked the turf and went to ground, too. There was the slightest bit of contact with Jeb Brovsky, but even that was initiated by Molino.
Finally, Cristian Higuita went flying down because of a rush of air brought on by a Brovsky tackle, one the New York left back pulled up on, never touching Higuita. Once more, Kelly reached into his pocket and, with good reason, showed a man in purple a card.
It’s tough to say Kelly was wrong once. If he was ever harsh, it was on Molino, but even that had a healthy amount of embellishment, if it wasn’t an outright dive. But to see a referee have the guts to reach into his pocket and show a card to the man on the ground three times? That’s just about unheard of, even if Kelly was right each time.
Orlando City did eventually give Kelly a gift with as easy a call as he will ever have. Late in the second half, Aurèlien Collin came in high, late and with two feet on David Villa with a challenge that looked more like an aggravated assault than a tackle. After three times controversially carding the Lions for diving, he didn’t have to think twice about this punishment. Collin got a red, and again, Kelly got it right.
The packed Citrus Bowl wasn’t happy with Kelly. Orlando City probably wasn’t happy with him, either. But MLS’s offices will be. He punished diving, three times, all fairly, and then sent off a man for dangerous play.
It was a strong, if bizarre day for the man with the whistle. Hopefully he got a beer or six after.