Back on the 10th of April, the defending MLS champion Portland Timbers took a highly hyped trip to Stubhub Center to play the LA Galaxy. The holders versus the odds-on favorites for the 2016 crown. The match got top billing – a primetime spot on Fox Sports One.
The referee for the match was Allen Chapman. Late in the second half, Nigel De Jong – of studs-to-Xavi Alonso’s chest fame from the 2010 World Cup Final – took a bad touch and then came in high and over the top of the ball on Portland playmaker Darlington Nagbe. I believe in England they call this a “good English challenge.”
(Sorry, I don’t mean to insult the English, but English people are probably nodding knowingly. No worries, folks, we still have Yorktown.)
Nagbe crumpled. Trainers rushed on to the field, and the worst was feared. Nagbe was carried off and eventually was rolled off the field at the end of the match in a wheelchair. Chapman took a moment to analyze the play, then issued de Jong a yellow card for unsporting behavior, because the challenge was reckless.
This play was an instant talking point in the media that covered MLS. De Jong explained post-match that it was an “honest challenge,” he hadn’t meant to injure Nagbe. The media screamed for blood, and MLS subsequently fed the hounds as the Disciplinary Committee subsequently banned de Jong for three games. Before that happened, LA coach Bruce Arena made sure to point out that this wouldn’t be so bad if the media hadn’t blown it up. This led to a public response by MLS commissioner Don Garber, in which he pointed out that Arena, “… needs to understand, as I think he does, that there’s no place for tackles like that on our field.”
The incident could have had far more reaching ramifications than it did on both the competition that is the MLS playoff race, and, incidentally, the hopes of the United States in the Copa America. Nagbe dodged a major injury, and in case anybody hadn’t noticed, was a constant rallying point for the media and fanbase for playing time in the Copa. If de Jong breaks his leg, one of the stories of the summer doesn’t happen. His quick recovery also re-ignited Portland’s offense and restored their status in the MLS playoff race.
Now that it’s July, and Nagbe made his recovery and impact on the USMNT, most of us have forgotten about this incident. But the incident provides a great reference point for my subject this month, to help people understand the challenges that referees face that extend far beyond a decision made in an instant, and how those decisions are made.
First, consider challenges are either going to be clean, careless (meaning simply fouls), reckless (meaning cautionable for unsporting behavior), or involve excessive force (meaning a send-off for serious foul play). When a challenge occurs on a soccer field, referees are expected to neatly fit the challenge into one of these four categories. When I’m sitting in the stands at NSC and a hard foul occurs, the fans will erupt around me… “That’s gotta be a card!” “How is that not red?!?” “C’mon, ref, you can’t card our guy when their guy drilled CR21 worse five minutes ago!” Most casual observers will evaluate a challenge along the no foul-foul-yellow-red scale as having very distinct borders:In truth, the process is far more murky and vague. When I teach foul and misconduct recognition to referees looking to make the jump to higher level games (think MYSA Premier play, or even the PLA games that 55.1 has been covering this season), the goal is not necessarily for referees to fit the severity of that challenge into one of those four divisions, but rather place it along a spectrum that has very undefined borders:
Our goal as referees is to try to identify where on this scale a challenge sits and then administer the correct level of discipline for that spot. The funny thing is, when you sit in a room with 15 referees, or even 15 players, coaches, and/or fans, you’re rarely going to get 15 identical locations along this scale.
Let’s start with a somewhat simple example to show the challenges referees face: Damion Lowe’s send-off against the Cosmos back on April 23:
Lowe was on a caution at the time of this challenge, the score was 0-0, and at this point in the season this match was looking like an end-all decider for the spring title (you know, the good ‘ol days). Lowe takes the ball on this play, but on his follow through his studs rake down the calf of Michael Lahoud. Going off my own personal experience and assumptions about referee Chris Penso’s training and skill level, this challenge would probably get placed here on that scale:
There’s plenty of nasty elements to this challenge that make it “more than a foul,” even though Lowe takes the ball first. Lowe doesn’t have to come through with his studs exposed, Lahoud is right in front of him, so he can adjust his follow through to minimize risk to Lahoud. Plus, studs-to-leg contact is automatically going to put referees on high alert. Considering that Lowe was already on a caution at the time, he was pretty much done for the moment Penso called the foul… which probably explains his reaction, to run off the field with no argument and applause for the supporters.
Of course, Minnesota United supporters would naturally insist that this is just a normal follow-through and Lahoud shouldn’t throw himself in front of the leg like that. Odds are a poll of Cosmos supporters, on the other hand, would be filled with a lot of head-nods to Penso’s decision, with a few quiet dissenters who see the MNUFC’s supporters’ point of view, but, you know, we’re up a man now, can’t argue with that.
This vast difference in opinions are heavily slanted by team bias, which, incidentally, is the whole reason referees were invented for soccer back in 1891. Players couldn’t resolve these disputes, so they decided they needed a neutral arbiter to make these decisions. (Little did they know that this decision would give journalists and supporters so much to write about! If only they had envisioned social media in 1891.)
However, there are other influences beyond the nature of the actual challenge that influences the referee’s decision. Remember, Lowe’s challenge is on April 23… that’s just under two weeks after Chapman’s decision on the de Jong tackle, followed by the massive media outburst, which, incidentally included PROReferee general manager Peter Walton going on ESPNFC and stating the de Jong challenge was a clear red card.
The referees in PRO are doing weekly video review, looking at the week’s decisions, discussing the accuracy of those decisions, and listening to their superiors so that they can continue to get assignments at the highest level. I’m sure that if you asked Chris Penso, he would give you four or five reasons why Lowe’s challenge was a straight red card, but one he would not likely list is the influence of Walton’s public comments on the de Jong tackle. If I’m Penso AND I take into account the public atmosphere coming off the de Jong tackle, I’m actually going to put Lowe’s challenge here now:
The guy wants to keep getting assignments, especially in MLS, and Chapman got publicly (though indirectly) reprimanded for going only yellow on de Jong. That is going to slide Penso’ scale to the left and push the Lowe challenge higher on the discipline scale.
Let’s back up a second. When you consider how referees look at Lowe’s challenge, again, you’re going to see some variation. I recently taught a class in which I showed the Nagbe challenge and asked referees in the class to rate the tackle on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being a clear red card and 1 being an absolutely clean tackle. This is the response I got initially:
I showed those same referees the above referenced ESPNFC clip of Walton saying it was a clear red card and explaining why. Then, I asked the same referees to re-rate the Nagbe-de Jong clip again. This time:
Simply hearing Peter Walton’s opinion pushed the referees towards more clear and severe punishment. This is important for a lot of reasons. Obviously, it helps drives home the point on why Lowe was shown a straight red card. But it also gives us a means to evaluate a referee’s judgment.
When a challenge occurs, a referee assessor is not necessarily looking for a specific type of discipline in that challenge. The assessor certainly has his or her own opinion on where that challenge sits on the scale, but instead, we look for a range. Generally speaking, here is Lowe and de Jong’s challenges’ ranges as perceived by most referee assessors who assess the professional level:
Lowe’s challenge is going to have a much larger range. You’re going to get some argument, even among referees, about the red card-worthiness of Lowe’s actions, and that will stretch that range considerably. Most assessors at the professional level are still going to see Lowe’s action as clear misconduct for the reasons already mentioned, so the range clearly sits over the colored part of the scale.
de Jong, on the other hand, has a very narrow range. His challenge was over the top of the ball, late, studs to the ankle, clearly capable of causing serious injury (and it did). No aspect of that range enters into the yellow part of the scale.
Remember where we are guessing where the referees placed these fouls on the scale (with the ranges) visible:
Penso’s decision is at the high end of Lowe’s range, but, importantly, it’s within the range. Yes, the decision angered supporters, but that’s partially due to supporter bias and partially due to the fact that general lack of agreement, even among those in the referee field, creates a much wider margin for error. Why go straight red when some of that scale might dip into the foul-no card range? It becomes controversial, and would have been more so had the Cosmos not taken their man advantage and flushed it down the toilet in that game. An assessor watching and grading Penso on this decision would still consider the decision a “hit” however, because it’s in within the range.
Chapman’s decision, however, is a clear miss. You show the de Jong tackle to 10 referees or match inspectors who work MLS games, at least nine of them are going to put it somewhere in that green bar, and Chapman went yellow. Even if we tick his mark up into the orange range- still giving him an option to go yellow- he’s too low. This is what assessors call a Key Match Incident (or KMI), and referees at the highest levels need to nail KMIs. This is a bad miss, and I am guessing it hurt Chapman’s assessment score severely in this match.
That doesn’t mean that Chapman is a poor referee, or is banned from MLS now (he did DC United-NYCFC on May 8, just three weeks after the de Jong incident), or that Penso is slated to work the MLS Cup thanks to his proper response to PRO’s instruction. What is considered allowable violence in the sport has evolved significantly over the years (hence my tongue-in-cheek reference to a good English challenge in the opening paragraph), and it is continuing to evolve. Things that result in red cards today were just yellows 10-15 years ago. Before that? Go check out the Battle of Santiago from the 1962 World Cup… rest be assured the game has evolved, and will continue to do so.
Ultimately, though, the goal of officiating is to continue to crack down harshly on challenges like de Jong’s or Lowe’s, and not because referees want to make their mark on the match. The Nagbe challenge could have been devastating to Portland and the USMNT had Nagbe suffered a severe injury. Seattle’s Steve Zakuani basically had his career ended on a tackle by Brian Mullen (don’t click on that link if you are squeamish), and de Jong himself started Stuart Holden on a series of injuries that led to his eventual early retirement by breaking Holden’s leg in a friendly. These were two incredibly skilled players in the prime of their careers with amazing promise.
Unless there are severe consequences for these kinds of challenges, they will persist in the game. Minnesota’s spring season was arguably derailed when Ben Speas took a high boot in front of the benches against Jacksonville back on May 14 and had to leave the game with an ankle injury. This wasn’t as bad as any of the challenges we have mentioned here, but remarkably the referee in that match declined to even call a foul.
Speas missed all of the next two games (losses to Indy Eleven and Tampa Bay) and played only the second half of the Rayo OKC loss… a span in which the Loons scored just two goals. The Speas injury absolutely killed Minnesota’s offense, and had a major impact on their spring season championship hopes. Remember, the referee didn’t even call a foul on the play… that’s a big miss.
Would calling a foul or administering a card have magically healed Speas’ ankle? Of course not… the Loons’ offense likely would have capitulated even if the Armada player had been sent off (for the record, I thought it was worthy only of a yellow). But by not even calling a foul, there is no deterrent for players to avoid those studs-up challenges in the future.
That’s why referees are constantly being assessed and reviewed, and it’s also why you are seeing a trend towards more severe punishment for studs-exposed challenges. Soccer at the professional level is entertainment, and people pay good money to see each team put its best and most exciting players on the field. One of the goals of the referee community at the pro level is to help ensure people are getting their money’s worth, by changing the game for the better.