Being a referee really is an impossible assignment in some ways.
To call too many fouls is to incur the wrath of half the players and coaches, the set who believe in a more physical match.
But don’t whistle enough of them and we get what Major League Soccer long ego devolved into, an overly physical league full of muscle and tussle – incurring the wrath of players and coaches who prefer a slightly more technical game. Lots of fans, too, though surely not all of them.
So it really comes down to balance.
And that is the starting point for conversations on Dominic Kinnear’s rant on Sunday, aimed most pointedly at FC Dallas striker Kenny Cooper, but also at those who dive and “cheat” around the league, according to the long-serving Houston Dynamo coach.
It’s a tricky balance, indeed.
A few years ago, MLS officials at the time believed that the scourge of diving and the slightly lesser offense of exaggerating or embellishing contact was the bigger issue. So Joe Machnik, head of MLS officials at the time, moved referees toward calling fewer fouls, reckoning that the game would “flow.” (He even cited a reduction in fouls called as evidence of better officiating.)
Of course, that’s not what happens. The referee whistle may blow fewer times – but the game tends to flow about as much as a clogged toilet. Players take the temperature and keep turning up the physical heat until they are made to do otherwise. The result is a mad circus of body checks, kicks and hacks, creating a game of turnovers that quickly gets hard on the eyes.
So, yes, it’s always about balance. It’s about hitting the sweet spot. It’s a contact sport, after all – but tackling and defending must always be about timing, skill, precision and just enough aggressiveness. It shouldn’t be tackle by collision.
Achieving that balance is not easy, but Kinnear has a point about more aggressive oversight on diving from Major League Soccer’s disciplinary committee.
The committee can and has issued punishments for diving. A little more of that certainly could not hurt, putting those who fall and feign in greater danger of something punitive.
That wouldn’t stop the stuff (which Kinnear calls a recent “epidemic”), but it couldn’t hurt.