MLS embarrassing itself with how it has handled referee lockout

Major League Soccer deserves a straight red card for its handling of the officials’ lockout, which will enter its second month this weekend. At a time when Lionel Messi’s presence means more of the world will be sampling MLS than ever before, the league has put its games in the hands of referees who are clearly overwhelmed and underqualified.

The results have been embarrassing, yet the league continues to gamble its reputation — not to mention millions of dollars in potential sponsorships and global recognition — to save the $95,000 per team it would take to bring the regular referees back this season.

In the first month, calls made by the replacement officials are being overturned on video review at a much higher rate then they were a year ago, according to the Athletic, and multiple games have been marred by glaringly missed or incorrect calls that changed the outcome of the match.

In Week 2, replacement referee Rafael Bonilla gave a throw-in to the wrong team, allowing the Philadelphia Union to score the tying goal against Sporting Kansas City deep in stoppage time. That same weekend, the scheduled center referee for an Inter Miami-Orlando City match was scratched just a few hours before game time after photos of the official wearing an Inter Miami jersey were posted online.

And last weekend, Montreal coach Laurent Courtois was one of several managers who took issue with the replacement officials, claiming two of the four Chicago goals shouldn’t have counted and that replacement referee DeShun Beard should have given Fire keeper Chris Brady a red card midway through the first half.

“Something was taken away from my guys,” he said.

The Galaxy have been cheated twice. In the first week, replacement referee Gabriele Ciampi — in real life a composer who once performed at the White House — called a phantom foul on Mark Delgado that led to the midfielder’s expulsion, leaving his team shorthanded. Five minutes later, Messi scored in stoppage time, costing the Galaxy a win. A review panel later rescinded the yellow card, ruling there had been no foul, but the result of the game stood.

Then last Saturday, replacement referee Atahan Yaya was so inconsistent that Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, who has spent well over half his life playing and coaching at an elite level, admitted he wasn’t sure what constituted a foul.

“I was frustrated,” he said. “I felt like the standard of what’s a foul, what’s not a foul, was off, and I felt like that was consistent for the night.”

Added Galaxy defender Maya Yoshida: “That’s very shame[ful]. Stop.”

The Professional Referees Organization (PRO), which provides officials to MLS, locked out the regular referees Feb. 18 after members of the Professional Soccer Referees Assn., the union representing the officials, overwhelmingly rejected a tentative labor agreement that had been agreed upon by negotiators from both sides.

The last collective bargaining agreement expired last month, and PRO said the five-year contract it proposed would have boosted overall compensation by approximately 25% by increasing salaries, retainers, game fees and other benefits, including improved travel for certain games. But the union, which represents approximately 260 officials, said that was misleading, arguing PRO’s offer didn’t go far enough at a time when MLS is touting record revenue growth.

The highest pay increases would have benefited only a few officials at the lowest end of the pay scale, not the entire membership, the union said, and would have left travel benefits for the 490 or so regular-season matches virtually unchanged from five years ago. Meeting the PSRA’s demands for across-the-board improvements in pay and benefits, the union said, would cost about $2.75 million a season, more than PRO’S most recent offer in February, the organization said. The union says that breaks down to less than $100,000 for each of the league’s 29 teams.

With the two sides far apart, PRO brought in replacement officials to start the MLS season, but there really is no replacing the regular ones. The top-tier officials who work for PRO have recently proved to be among the best in the world, with center referee Tori Penso leading a four-person U.S. officiating crew in the 2023 Women’s World Cup final in Australia, one which included assistant referee Kathryn Nesbitt, one of two Americans to work the last men’s World Cup final in Qatar.

Imagine the league replacing a top MLS player such as Messi with a minor league player and trying to pass them off as equals. Yet that’s exactly what is happening with the officials. And as the contract negotiations remain stalemated and the frustration among coaches and players grows, MLS commissioner Don Garber has made it clear that getting things right isn’t nearly as important as winning the showdown with the referees’ union, even if the integrity of the league suffers — which is already happening.

MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks during a ceremony honoring Lionel Messi in November.

MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks during a ceremony honoring Lionel Messi in November.

(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

“We’re prepared to manage through this labor dispute with PRO any way that’s necessary to ensure that we are coming out of this in a way that is rational,” Garber told the Athletic last week. “PRO is going to continue to sit down and negotiate with the PSRA to hopefully reach a resolution — but if there’s no resolution to be reached, we are more than prepared to see this all the way through.

“We have officials that we think are doing a really good job, our players think they’re doing a good job, our coaches think they’re doing a good job.”

That last statement was so demonstratively false that the MLSPA, the union representing the players, responded on X (formerly Twitter). “It is grossly inaccurate to say that players think that the current group of referees are doing a ‘good job,’ ” the union wrote in a Tweet tagged to Garber and the league. “In fact, the players are very clear that the replacements are under-trained, lack experience and are not nearly at the level that league of @MLS’s stature deserves.”

Yet it’s also clear the league is nervous about the optics. Earlier this month it sent a memo advising TV and radio broadcasters not to “belabor the point” when addressing the lockout. “Fans tune in to watch and listen to the game. They aren’t focused on the officials,” said the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Athletic.

When the officials affect the outcome of a game, however, it’s hard not to focus on them.

There’s no evidence to suggest the replacement officials aren’t doing their best. I think they are, and I’m sure the opportunity to work top-tier games that are being watched around the world was too much of an opportunity to turn down.

But if they were MLS-quality officials, they would have been working MLS games before the lockout. Instead, they worked lower-tier leagues, where the action is slower, the players less athletic and the spotlight much less intense. From all reports, they were good officials under those conditions. The huge step up in class, however, was one many stumbled over, through no fault of their own.

The fault instead lies with the league and Garber for passing the officials off as MLS-worthy. They’re not.

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.

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