CCL: The Galaxy went to Costa Rica and all we got was a dumb refereeing complaint

Intra-continental club soccer is back! Who's in? (image: concacafchampions.com)

Intra-continental club soccer: Are you in? (image: concacafchampions.com)

Please welcome OTF’s new contributing writer Austin Fido as he tackles the hot-button issue in CCL that shouldn’t be

Champions league is back! No, not that Champions League. Granted, UEFA’s ponderous, July – May vehicle for TV revenue and talking points is surely the Champions League. But the Concacaf version is trying very, very hard to get North American soccer fans to make more time for intra-continental club soccer in their own back yard, so to speak. Hell, MLS commish Don Garber is scarcely able to walk past an open window, let alone an open mic, without hollering about the need for MLS clubs to start winning our region’s premier club tournament.

And at least part of that message is for us, the fans. Because for MLS clubs to start winning CCL, they need to rest their best players during league games that precede or follow important continental fixtures. For that to happen regularly, clubs need to be confident that their supporters aren’t going to regard mailing in the occasional MLS fixture as an act of criminal negligence.

It’s a tough sell. Herediano vs LA Galaxy doesn’t get the nation’s DVRs whirring like Man United vs Real Madrid. So how does CONCACAF compete with matches that feature CR7, Robbie Van Persie, and gratuitous acts of (unintentional) violence? Well, it starts by offering a little controversy of its own.

Gomez: 9.8 from the Jamaican judge (image: facebook.com)

Gomez: 9.8 from the Jamaican (image: facebook.com)

LA’s recent jaunt to Costa Rica was the least appetizing of the three CCL quarterfinals that involved MLS teams this week. Herediano look overmatched on paper, and they looked overmatched on their plastic pitch Thursday night too. But the linesman decided to rule out a perfectly legitimate Mike Magee goal, and then the referee gave Herediano a penalty for, well, nothing really. Sean Franklin simply feathered his hand over Ismail Gomez’s ribcage, and down Gomez went. There was contact, but if a breezy touch is what it takes to get a grown man to fall over these days, they’ll need paramedics at the ready for the second leg pre-game handshakes.

Is this the latest chapter in the never-ending story of refereeing bias against US squads? No. Let’s put our tin hats away for the moment. There’s no conspiracy here, just gullible referee Courtney Campbell and his short-sighted assistant. But thier mistakes almost conspired to hand LA an undeserved loss. I’m not saying that bad refereeing doesn’t alter the course of a game; just that it does not prove that CONCACAF harbors some malignant prejudice against American teams. That analysis isn’t merely wrong, but obscures the real problem: our region suffers from a shallow pool of top-level, professional referees.

Campbell: It's a tough job, but he's got to do it. (photo: allaboutrefs.blogspot.com)

Campbell: It’s a tough job, but he’s got to do it. (photo: allaboutrefs.blogspot.com)

I get that it’s hard to be a referee. Soccer depends on a subjective arbiter to maintain the balance between fluid and fair play. And that subjectivity throws up 50/50 calls every game; calls that will reliably be debated by whichever coach, player, or supporters’ group feels their side got the short end of the stick. I spent a few weeks of my life as an umpire in a corporate softball league, and I would be happier with dysentery than I was when my evenings consisted of arguing about strike zones with enraged mortgage brokers.

Amateur refereeing is unpleasant. And I’ve always assumed professional refereeing to be some sort of non-custodial sentence handed down by a part of the criminal justice system I hope to never encounter. So I am not saying we need to turn up the volume on criticism of refereeing errors…well, maybe a little. mlssoccer.com’s official match report described the offside call that canceled out LA’s goal as “tight,” which is only true if you were contemplating trying to park a car in the space between Mike Magee and the last defender.

In truth, the most egregious blown penalty call I saw this week wasn’t in CCL. Rather, it was in MLS. Jair Marrufo apparently saw nothing untoward in Portland when Heath Pearce decided to get Greco-Roman with Andrew Jean-Baptiste. But that game had so much going for it that one poor refereeing decision wasn’t going to spoil things. It was still an elementary mistake by the referee, but not a biased one (I doubt Marrufo will accept so much as a greeting card from MLS players these days).

Rule 1.1: self-congratulation is always in order (image: calsouth.com)

Rule 1.1: self-congratulation is always in order (image: calsouth.com)

An honest mistake is still a mistake though. Which is why it was disheartening to see the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) pat itself on the back with a press release declaring MLS opening weekend’s officiating “a good start.” It wasn’t terrible, but certainly not good enough to justify such spontaneous self-congratulation. If anything, PRO should send the Red Bulls a thank-you note. They gave the Timbers so many chances to win in the second half that it was effectively impossible to blame that blown call for the result – a 3-3 draw that RBNY should have  won.

So I ask Don Garber to do us all a favor and not only work on improving the standard of officiating in MLS, but also the standard of the discussion about officiating. Spare us the pre-emptive, let’s-say-we-did-good-before-anyone-says-otherwise PR tactics. Fans are fickle and often irrational, but not stupid.

Inconsistent refereeing is a regional problem; highlighted by the CCL, which throws a spotlight on referees who aren’t necessarily up to the standard usually associated with international competition. The same can be said for MLS . In 2012, America’s top division had (brace yourself) only three or four full-time professional refs. So Mr. Garber, stop pretending that it ain’t so and look to foster a more mature level of discussion of our domestic refereeing blunders. Don’t counter irrational criticism with unwarranted praise. When the game’s talking points include refereeing decisions, allow referees to admit their mistakes.

I have no doubt Courtney Campbell thought he saw more contact in the area than actually happened between Franklin and Gomez. Just as I have no doubt that Jair Marrufo thought Jean-Baptiste lost his balance (if he saw the incident at all). Referees are fallible, and it’s OK to let them admit it. The point is not to encourage a fetish for self-flagellation, but to instead acknowledge that games are run by individuals subject to accountability and hindsight – just like the rest of us.

Build that sort of culture in MLS, and watch it influence attitudes and behavior in CCL. Then, maybe the next time the European press obsessively debates whether a kick in the chest is a red-card offence, fans in our hemisphere will wonder less why our Champions League seems so much less important than UEFA’s, and why European (rather than North American) sides are so easily distracted by the predictable misfortunes of the game. Soccer isn’t always fair, but it can be balanced.

OTF contributing writer Austin Fido is a friend of the game and enemy of the passive offside. Follow him @canetop

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