Red Card, Ref!

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It’s no secret or surprise that the only aspect of the NWSL that seems to bond all fans is the quality of refereeing. Or lack thereof.

Since 2015 fans have been consistently lamenting and bemoaning the quality of refereeing in the league and how it seems to get worse every year. There have been some questionable non-calls and some downright incorrect ones. One of them being when Utah Royals goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart kicked Orlando Pride striker Claire Emslie in the stomach, denying her an obvious shot on goal, and Emslie was the one who received the yellow card. Granted nobody likes the referee when a call goes against their team, as Utah fans can attest regarding defender Becky Sauerbrunn and the imprint of the ball she wore on her cheek for a while. However, the pool of referees seems to be getting smaller, leaving the ones that fans know and most certainly do not like.

The two major complaints that all fans seem to agree on are the perceived inexperience and inconsistency of all referees in the NWSL. While it’s easy to rip on the referees when they make a call fans don’t like and their team ends up losing because of it, there is a deeper problem that lies at the heart of this and it’s something that fans won’t like but will need to accept: referees are only human and are only as good as the organization they work for.

The first complaint I’ll tackle is the perception that referees in the NWSL don’t have all the experience they need to do their job properly. The training to become an official referee is not an easy one. US Soccer recently made changes to the referee program in June of this year, merging some of the levels, or grades together. The first grade is the grassroots, which is typically for the little kids/youth games. Next grade is regional, where the candidate gets their training and experience from a minimum of 50 adult amateur matches. The grade after regional is national. This is where they begin their training at US Soccer national camps and must have assistant referee experience as well. Once the person has been certified as a national referee, the dream is making PRO and FIFA grades. Once they’ve reached PRO, the next step is the NWSL, then MLS, then national team games. It is very time consuming since in order to move to the next grade and be certified nationally, the candidate must log in a lot of miles, which calls for a lot of free time to work enough matches and tournaments so they can continue to advance.

Ian Knighton is a referee that was gracious enough to give insight to what it takes to become a referee. “I think that the whole system is trying to gear towards bringing people through that are better prepared, but it’s just a few years behind. It’s a hard system to work through for most people, so you really have to narrow in on people who have the flexibility in their life to do it.”

Everyone has a side hustle that they really enjoy. More often than not, referees have day jobs or at least one other job that pays the bills. Spending all their free time working matches to climb the ladder to do NWSL games is no joke, but it can turn into one when the referee that has worked so hard makes every call incorrectly on the field. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you’re good at it.

Which leads to the main issue NWSL fans have with referees: Inconsistency, with a capital “I.” Perhaps the best example of fans’ long-term frustration with inconsistency is the parallel situation of Lindsey Horan and Shea Groom. Groom had a particular thought about Horan’s yellow card and tweeted out on September 6th “I distinctly remember getting a red card for shoving…#NationalTeamImmunity.”

Let’s travel back in time to July 2017 to an FCKC vs. Sky Blue game. Things got a little saucy between these two teams, coming to a head in stoppage time of the first half. Sky Blue’s Erica Skroski loses the ball to FCKC’s Shea Groom and decides to show her displeasure by grabbing a hold of Groom’s jersey. Of course, nobody likes being choked by their collar, so Groom swings an arm back, trying to dislodge her. Once Skroski lets go, Groom turns and raises both arms to shove her in the neck/face area, letting Skroski know that she is not the one. Skroski was shown a yellow card for a dangerous foul and Groom was shown a straight red card for violent conduct. FCKC would not only lose the game to a Sam Kerr hat trick, but head coach Vlatko Andonovski would be fined for his comments about the officiating that saw his team go down to 10 men. “This league has some very good referees, but some of the referees are the worst in the whole world. And, unfortunately, if we want this league to go forward, if we want good players to come [to] this league…something needs to happen.” Now those were super bold words for 2017, and, some would say, a prediction for the future.

Fast forward to the Portland Thorns vs. Utah Royals game this September. In the 77thminute, after being on a yellow card for a foul against Christen Press, Emily Sonnett brought down Amy Rodriguez. The Portland defender was given a red card and received quite the unnecessary ass chewing from Rodriguez that I’m sure she will never forget. In the 80thminute Lindsey Horan, who took great offense at the treatment of her best friend and was dead set on defending her honor, shoved Rodriguez off the ball from behind. She capped her action off by spreading her arms wide open and stating “You wanna fight?” What should have been a straight red was merely a yellow card for the national team midfielder.

There are arguments that since it was the first offense for Horan, it was only a yellow card. Groom’s red was undoubtedly earned. She had both of her hands up in the face/neck area of Skroski’s face and pushed her hard enough to upset her balance. However, in Horan’s case the play had been called dead, the ball wasn’t moving, and it was clearly done out of pure spite. It’s easy to categorize Groom’s actions as violent but not so with Horan’s.  

Those two instances, out of the MANY over the past 7 years, have cemented the legacy of inconsistency among NWSL referees and honestly, it’s hard to dispute. PRO pride themselves on their extensive training, and yet none of their referees ever seem to be on the same page when it comes to calling, well…anything. In an Orlando/Houston game earlier this August the Pride lost 1-0 on a controversial PK call. Later on it was reported that the NWSL front office admitted to Orlando head coach Marc Skinner that the foul shouldn’t “have resulted in a penalty kick.” There is also the separate issue of violence that seems to be becoming more overt as referees lose more and more control over players, but that is a separate article.

It’s long been rumored that the NWSL is a training ground for referees who want to make it to the MLS level, something that Portland head coach Mark Parsons seems to believe himself when he was quoted saying, “the NWSL is a training ground for referees.” If – and that’s a big if – that is true, it’s just one more way that shows how low the women’s game is treated in America. Or it could simply be a continuous case of human error. “You get inconsistency across all referees. Just depends on experience and perspective”, says Knighton. “When you have referees with different external influences, that can create a lot of differing opinions on calls.”

So where does that leave the fans and players suffering through those differing opinions? Right where they started – nowhere. Accepting that it may take more drastic measures for refereeing to get better is a fact of life. MLS referees are barely any better and the same issues happen across the pond. And before you lot all scream “VAR!”, that’s just putting a band-aid over a bullet hole instead of stitching the wound closed. You still have the issue of human error when it comes to VAR, opening the door for even more complaints from everyone and their mom. Putting more resources into proper training would go a long way into changing the legacy of PRO.

But what about the right calls that fans and players just don’t like? Suck it up, buttercup. Knighton recommends encouraging education and dialogue. “There’s only so much you can do, but it helps to look at things from the physical position of a referee in time and space without the aids of a replay camera. It’s very easy to call a game on TV and the more people have experience or empathy for what it’s like to try and make those calls at a full sprint after 90 minutes.”

I’m not a fan of PRO at all, but I do think it’s important to recognize and embrace that some things are just a fact of life and that includes suspect refereeing at all levels of the sport. Perhaps things will get better and perhaps they won’t. But as fans, and ever as reporters, we can try and have a little more grace towards the referees who are doing their best. As Knighton says “it’s really just a change of perspective in the narrative.”

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