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When A Referee Makes The Beautiful Game Ugly

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All over the world, football, or soccer as we Americans refer to, is known as the beautiful game. It soars with speed and agility taking the players and fans on a roller coaster ride of attacks, counter attacks, dazzling the eyes with amazing goals and miracle saves.

What the world saw on Mother’s Day in Seattle, however, was not the beautiful game. It was a slog of brutality that was an ugly thing to watch. The play was thuggish and the referee was, in a word, pathetic.

All fans, players, and coaches complain about the referee, usually for one or two missed or bad calls. It’s a tough position to be in, the only one with a whistle on the field and a different colored uniform. Other sports overdo the number of officials and still get calls wrong. Talk to a fan of any sport and sooner or later the subject of bad calls comes up. I’m a Seattle man and the travesty of the 2005 Super Bowl or game 7 of the Sonics in Phoenix in 1993 will always be with me. I can see the images when I close my eyes.

Most fans, players, and coaches understand that an official is human. Good officials are not noticed during a game. If a good official is noticed, it’s because people are saying they called a good, fair game. That is all the people want. If the official is calling holding, for example, on the offensive line, and he calls it on both teams, then fans can feel like it is being called fairly. Call it against one team all day and not the other only reinforces the opinions of the extreme fans, the conspiracy ones that believe the NBA had it in for the Sonics that day in Phoenix since they wanted the dream matchup of Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan to face each other in the 1993 finals and not some upstart, but better, team that was dominating the guard play and … deep breath … okay, that’s better.

Players and coaches will always play to the limits of what a referee will call. Baseball pitchers know an umpires strike zone and will work all day at the limits of it. Basketball players know just how much of a pick they can set, cornerbacks know to turn their head to look for the ball to avoid pass interference.

Soccer players are no different. The LA Galaxy came out of the locker room with some hard, late, and behind-the-player tackles to test referee Tim Weyland and his whistle. When he failed to call them on it, they continued to push the limits, taking down Seattle forward Nate Jaqua in the penalty box late in the first half, a tackle that would have resulted in a penalty kick with any other referee.

Seattle went into the locker room knowing that any semblance of control from Weyland was gone. He could no more control the physicality of the match than I could have. Play continued in the second half with a hard edge to it, a fire looking for a place to start.

That spark came in the 56th minute when Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter snatched away the ball on what was to be a Seattle free kick. That led to a scuffle between Sounders FC defender James Riley, who was given a yellow card, fighting for the ball with Berhalter and Galaxy defender Mike Magee, was also cautioned. Magee joins Vlade Divac in being a natural in Hollywood for the acting job he put on trying to sell that Riley had punched him. Replays show that all the players were swinging arms at the ball in the melee but no punches were thrown. Unfortunately, an assistant official bought Magee’s performance and convinced Weyland to change Riley’s yellow card to a red meaning Riley was ejected, and Sounders FC had to play with just 10 men from the 58th minute on.

For the final 22 minutes, the whistle never stopped. Fouls were more frequent than any kind of scoring opportunity. With a final total of 27 fouls called, 16 against LA and 11 against Seattle, Weyland was a busy man in the middle of a firestorm. Just under 30,000 fans booed Weyland and the officials lustily after the, thankfully, final whistle, closing the book on an ugly 1-1 draw.

Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, who said after the match he has a history from his college coaching days with Weyland, sought out the referee on the field and read him the riot act. In post match comments, Schmid accused the officials of inequities and said he was “disappointed in the refereeing.”

MLS executive vice president Todd Durbin said that Weyland is “an experienced official who didn’t have his best day”. That is telling that the word they use is experienced rather than a good official.

Despite the complaining about officials, all fans would rather talk about the game than the officials. For my money, Weyland, and officials like him, ruin that for the fans, players, and coaches. Too much of the attention is taken away from the match and focused on the one person that is there to make sure it is played fairly.

Officials of all sports have a very tough job and must do it for the love of the game to put up with the abuse they take. That does not excuse them when they are not having “their best day” though. Even on a bad day, the game is supposed to be about the two teams, not the official.

It was a shame really. Despite the brutish physicality and packed defense displayed by the Galaxy, the match showed a lot of promise. Maybe next time, when the two teams hook up in LA, we can see if the beautiful game will be allowed to make an appearance.

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About Russ Evenhuis

I'm a writer with a mid-life crisis. I'm into sports of all kind, a Seattle fan to my bones. A retired rugby player, now I punish myself with triathlons when I'm not hanging out with the family, drinking Guinness and playing PlayStation.
  • Casey Keller had a good comment after the game. He said that in Europe the referee is trying to keep players in the game. In the MLS they are trying to kick them out.

  • Yeah, I was at that match. Out of control… LA just played for a tie.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Or the Chicago vs. Vancouver playoff series. Yeesh.

  • Sounds like the MLS borrowed refs from the NBA for a weekend.