The Curious Case of Red Card Appeals


Going into Week 13 action, the focus has been officiating and discipline from the previous week. Week 12 saw two red cards given to Shea Groom of FCKC and Carli Lloyd of the Houston Dash, both in controversial plays that had many questioning the validity of the officiating. Carli Lloyd indicated that they would appeal her card and one-game suspension, but according to Dan Lauletta, the NWSL doesn’t have a process for such an appeal to occur: 

Just when it seemed like everyone was about to turn the page on red cards, the league announced a series of fines on Thursday to Dash player Amber Brooks, interim Head Coach Omar Morales, and FCKC gaffer Vlatko Andonovski. Somehow, the outspoken Carli Lloyd managed to escape a fine, but she will miss this weekend’s match against the Washington Spirit. (Lloyd missed three games with Manchester City earlier this year after she received a straight red there for elbowing an opponent.)

Many are saying this type of controversy is taking away from the play on the field. As the NWSL looks to grow into one of the top women’s leagues in the world, it’s a serious concern that the league does not have a policy in place to review red card decisions.

So, is it time for the NWSL to make adjustments to league’s discipline policy? And what would that look like?

Major League Soccer’s policy to appeal a red card is pretty straight forward: each team in the league puts up a $25,000 refundable bond for the opportunity to have red card appeals. The team is only allowed two unsuccessful appeals a season, and as a deterrent from this system being abused, if the ruling body determines the red card appeal is frivolous then the team loses the bond, loses the right to appeal any decision for the current season as well as the next season, plus the punishment of the red card appeal is doubled. For the appeal to be successful, the decision of the ruling body has to be unanimous otherwise the appeal is considered denied and the suspension stands. The ruling body is composed of a three-person panel made up of a member of U.S. Soccer, a member of the Canadian Soccer Association, and a member of PRO, the organization which manages the referees in North American soccer. The makeup of the panel is such so MLS can claim that the panel is independent since no one from MLS sits upon it.

This seems to work in MLS as the majority of teams don’t appeal a red card unless it is an obvious error. One of the recent successful appeals was back on June 7 when Orlando City won a red card appeal from a decision of Ted Unkel – who ironically is married to Christina Unkel the referee who dismissed Carli Lloyd last week.

Can a similar system work with the NWSL structure? Already one of the glaring problems that would have to be addressed is that league is backed by U.S. Soccer, so the league couldn’t claim that the ruling panel was independent since it works with the backing of the Federation. Would it matter if the panel wasn’t “independent” like MLS? Could an individual from a separate organization–the MLS, perhaps–sit on the panel in place of U.S. Soccer? Since the numbers of appeals would be so few and far between, it wouldn’t seem likely to be an issue, but the optics of impartiality may be something that could not sit well with a fan base for a team already frustrated by a red card of a player which merited an appeal.

Another item which the league would have to address is the amount of the bond which teams would have to put up. This being NWSL, if the league established the bond would every team even put up the cash for the bond? It seems unlikely it would be an amount as high as $25,000 but it would still be an amount significant to act as a deterrent if a team were to appeal frivolously. Thankfully Western New York isn’t in the league anymore, to be the team that doesn’t put up the money to give themselves red card appeals. It would still be something the league would have to figure out, but keep it from being public since the team’s fan bases would have a meltdown if their team didn’t put up a bond.

Ultimately, it doesn’t seem the league has ever thought to have a red card appeal system because it didn’t consider that the growth of the league would merit such a mechanism. Even going into the fifth season, the league seemed more focused on maintaining the existence of the league. However, at this point, nobody is questioning if the league will have a 2018 season and beyond. The league can finally shift its focus on improving policies like the adjusted hydration break policy midseason. As more attention is on the NWSL, we can expect to have a red card appeal process. We could even see a change in policy in yellow card accumulation like other leagues, as the season continues the twenty-four-match season and looks to expand to a longer season.

The next issue to address is that of the referees. The inconsistent decisions of the PRO referees reflect two things. First, the league is still young–in just its fifth season–so our referee pool is not fully developed and may need more experience to mature. A part of the growing pains of being a five-year-old league is the referees for the NWSL need to have the match time to improve. Even though the officials go through a series of training sessions, nothing is a substitute for match minutes – just like the players. As the play of the league improves, the speed of the game will get quicker, and the skill of the some of the referees will need to catch up with that.

And lastly, now that the league is consistently on television and more eyes are on the league, officiating errors will be more magnified. The referees are human and will make mistakes. Every league in the world has some type of officiating errors and fans complaining about the refs is just as common as soccer scarves and tifos. For now, there needs to be some patience with how the league handles red cards. Fans, players, and coaches will all have to wait and hope the NWSL will adjust its policy for future seasons.

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