Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

Another week in MLS, another set of talking points centered on referee decisions. Alexander Abnos breaks down the latest in his MLS Power Rankings.

By Alexander Abnos
April 25, 2016

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HARRISON, N.J. – Twenty years of Major League Soccer have taught us to expect the unexpected, at least when it comes to on-field results. That was evidenced in full in Week 8, as four of the top five teams in last week’s Power Rankings lost and three of the bottom five squads won (with one, the Chicago Fire, on a bye).

When it comes to refereeing, though, things are the same as usual: Controversial.

“The official, my God…” Orlando City manager Adrian Heath lamented after Orlando City’s 3-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls on Sunday night. “It’s every week.”

Along with an incident in the San Jose-Sporting Kansas City game, a crucial no-call against Orlando City forward Cyle Larin on Sunday will keep MLS refereeing in the headlines in Week 8, though for a completely different reason than previously. Where once there were too many red cards and penalty kicks, now there is a drought of them in places where they are needed most.

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In the 55th minute in San Jose, Sporting KC forward Dom Dwyer was brought down on a run into the penalty box by Andres Imperiale. Contact was clearly made, and yet no penalty was given. Three minutes later, Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia went to ground to stop the run of Simon Dawkins. Melia made contact, and Dawkins went down. But this time, referee Jair Marrufo awarded a PK. Chris Wondolowski converted, and the Earthquakes held on for a 1–0 win.

“From where I was sitting, it looked like a penalty to me,” Earthquakes coach Dominic Kinnear said of the no-call on Dwyer. “I thought we got off the hook there, to be honest.”

In Harrison later that evening, an eerily similar situation unfolded. On a breakaway, Cyle Larin was on his way into the box when he was taken down from behind in the 63rd minute. Once again, the call could not have been more clear; Ouimette was the last defender and he clearly made contact. The only thing up for debate in live time was whether the foul took place inside the box. Instead, there was no call at all, and the Red Bulls scored two minutes later en route to a 3-2 win. Second verse, same as the first.

“Was Cyle Larin fouled? Yes he was. Is it a red card? Yes it is,” Heath said. “It could have been a turning point in the game."

Based on the remainder of their play Sunday night, the Lions deserved to lose that game—a fact Heath admitted. But the Lions also deserved the chance to have a man advantage, if not a penalty kick. They were denied both.

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We watch, play, and analyze soccer at least partially because it imitates life. In both cases, things can seem equally amorphous and interconnected. Or, perhaps, deliriously unfair. However, in both life and soccer, it’s possible to break things down into two categories: That which you can control, and that which you cannot. The space between those things is where so much of life—and sport—gets decided. And that’s OK. That’s life. That’s soccer. It’s both.

Thus, the imperative in soccer (and really any sport) is to win outside the margin of error—outside the space where the things you can not control can sneak in and take what you deserve before you even realize it’s gone. If you don’t want your game decided by referees, win in such a way that neutralizes their influence. Score more goals than you need. Hold more of the ball. If you’re a defender, keep your hands off any attacker in the penalty box. Up to a certain point, what you deserve may not be what you get. Expecting otherwise is unrealistic.

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Here, though, is where we reach the real problem facing the Professional Referees Organization, its chief Peter Walton and all the referees that work in MLS under its umbrella. The league’s officiating decisions have made that zone of ambiguity so large, so unwieldy and cumbersome, that it’s near-impossible for any MLS team to do anything to escape it. How should Heath or Vermes prepare their teams when there’s a rash of red cards some weeks then a bunch of bad no-calls the next?

“Too many times, the outcome of the game is determined by the official, not the people that are participating,” Heath said. “That’s a problem.”

That’s life. That’s soccer. But so far in 2016, MLS has experienced judicial problems that seem too ridiculous for either.

Offensive player of the week: Emmanuel Boateng, Los Angeles Galaxy

Bradley Wright-Phillips’ two-goal effort on Sunday comes close, but no player impressed more than the speedy Boateng. The Ghanaian gave the Real Salt Lake defense fits with his agility and relentless pace, which he used to fine effect in scoring his first MLS goal and assisting on Giovani Dos Santos’ marvelous chip.

Defensive player of the week: David Ousted, Vancouver Whitecaps

The Whitecaps needed a big performance to break out of their early-season doldrums, and Ousted provided that against one of the league’s best attacks. Dallas had its chances, but Ousted made a series of impressive saves to keep things close, allowing his team the opportunity to build upon its lead in a 3–0 win.

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