Get all of Alexander Abnos’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. LA Galaxy
For as dominating a performance as the Galaxy had against Real Salt Lake on Saturday night, it's hard to believe that they were actually down a goal at the beginning of their 5-2 win. After conceding, the Galaxy showed the type of team performance they need more of in the absence of Robbie Keane.
2. FC Dallas
A 3–0 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps isn’t as bad as the scoreline makes it look. FC Dallas had several great chances to score in this game, but Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted was truly on his game. Dallas played well, the Whitecaps just played better.
3. Real Salt Lake
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando had a penalty stop, but then followed that up with some uncharacteristically sloppy play on LA's opening two goals. Once the Galaxy took the lead, Salt Lake simply fell apart. At the moment, this shouldn’t be anything other than a blip on the radar for one of MLS’ early surprise packages, which was the last unbeaten to fall.
4. San Jose Earthquakes
The Earthquakes needed a penalty kick goal from Chris Wondolowski to win a game that was otherwise fairly dull on both sides of the ball. The team clearly enjoys playing at the still–new Avaya Stadium–it hasn’t lost there yet this season. That's now seven goals in eight games for Wondo.
5. Colorado Rapids
The positive signs continue to add up for Colorado. Jermaine Jones with another solid performance to go with a goal. A solid defensive effort. And new this week–a goal from Kevin Doyle, recently returned from a shin injury.
6. Toronto FC
Toronto FC won the penultimate game of its epic season-opening road trip impressively, with a 2-0 triumph over Canadian rivals Montreal. The team is starting to resemble the balanced squad many expected to see after offseason additions. Giovinco, with two goals, was superb as always. A run of home games at a renovated BMO Field looks to be coming right when TFC is finding its groove.
7. Montreal Impact
Saturday's loss has to be seen as a disappointment, especially since Didier Drogba made his first start of the season. The Ivorian was kept mostly quiet, and for whatever reason Montreal seemed to come out flat as a whole in their first game in the confines of Stade Saputo.
8. Philadelphia Union
Tranquillo Barnetta looked to be in top form and C.J. Sapong is arguably playing the best soccer since his rookie year. The impact both made in Philly’s 2–0 win over NYCFC exemplifies the variety of ways the Union can get the job done–Barnetta with deft skill, Sapong with pure strength.
9. Sporting Kansas City
Sporting Kansas City will chalk up Sunday’s loss to San Jose as bad luck, and they won’t be entirely wrong. Dwyer should have had a penalty kick, and Sporting forced Quakes goalkeeper David Bingham into five solid saves. The last time Sporting KC won in San Jose, was 16 years ago, when the team was called the Wizards and Preki was still in the lineup.
10. Portland Timbers
Portland was off this week, which is the best possible timing for a club waiting out the healing process on Darlington Nagbe's left ankle.
11. D.C. United
A delightful chipped goal from Luciano Acosta was the highlight of a performance that shows that D.C.’s floor may be higher than initially thought. United have grit to spare, have been competitive in just about every game that they’ve played in, and are finally scoring goals, delightful and otherwise.
12. Seattle Sounders
Without the services of Clint Dempsey and Nelson Valdez, the Sounders' attack looked toothless for large swaths of the game against Colorado. Jordan Morris getting on the scoresheet again is a nice silver lining to an otherwise forgettable performance.
13. Columbus Crew SC
You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone in Columbus who will complain about three points, particularly after such a rough start. That said, a 1–0 win over a Houston Dynamo team playing with 10 men for most of the match might be as unimpressive as a win can be.
14. Orlando City SC
Yes, the Lions have a legitimate gripe with the red card decision; however, that gripe should go with a long, hard look in the mirror. Orlando completely lost its composure after the no-call, not just in their play but in their attitude between plays.
15. Vancouver Whitecaps
The Whitecaps got the lucky bounce they needed when Dallas conceded an uncharacteristic own goal as the opener in Vancouver’s 3–0 win. From there the Whitecaps looked a bit more like the Vancouver of last year–a trend Carl Robinson will hope to continue next week.
16. New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls gave up a frustrating goal early, but absolutely dominated the game thereafter. Bradley Wright-Phillips snapped his scoring drought with a brace, and generally speaking the team looks much more like the unit that captured last season’s Supporters’ Shield. Defense is still a major concern–the Red Bulls have given up the most goals in the league (17), three more than second-to-last.
17. New England Revolution
Coach Jay Heaps has had a lot of complaints about referees so far this season, but I don’t think he can blame them for the Revolution’s collapse against D.C. The Revs had their chances, but can’t seem to find the scoring touch that served them so well two seasons ago.
18. Chicago Fire
The Fire endured a bye week and will return to action at home against D.C. United on Saturday, looking for a second win of the season.
19. Houston Dynamo
Owen Coyle made a swath of changes to his lineup on Saturday, but all the thoughts behind those changes went out the window after goalkeeper Tyler Deric was (deservedly) red-carded after taking down Federico Higuain in the box. The Dynamo did reasonably well considering, but coming back was too big a task.
20. New York City FC
Another game, another disappointing performance on both sides of the ball from Patrick Vieira’s team. NYCFC won the possession battle but could only muster one shot on goal from it, while the team’s defensive shape continues to be all over the place. No Pirlo or Lampard in this one, but they might not have helped.