- Jason Kuenle

Like blossoming red and yellow tulips, one of the surest signs of spring is the annual MLS referee discussion. Here was the 2009 version, here was the 2010 version. And again we find ourselves in the same place once again as we enter an MLS season. As part of the discussion from last year’s discussion, I did research on the discipline records in other leagues. However, things came up and I never got to do the analysis. With the same issues arising again, I thought it time to blow the dust of those spreadsheets, update them with some new data, and give the analysis a go.

Fouls in Various Leagues
League (Year)Fouls per Match
Serie A (09-10)36.3
Bundesliga (09-10)34.0
La Liga (09-10)32.2
Bundesliga (10-11)31.6
Serie A (10-11)30.5
Eredivisie (10-11)30.5
La Liga (10-11)29.4
Premier League (09-10)26.5
MLS (first month 2011)26.0
Premier League (10-11)24.1
MLS (first month 2010)23.5
MLS (2009)22.9
MLS (2010)20.4

Cautions in Various Leagues
League (Year)Yellow Cards per Match
La Liga (10-11)5.4
La Liga (09-10)5.1
Serie A (09-10)4.9
Serie A (10-11)4.1
MLS (2011 first month)4.1
MLS (2009)3.7
Bundesliga (09-10)3.5
Bundesliga (10-11)3.4
Eredivisie (10-11)3.4
Premier League (09-10)3.2
Premier League (10-11)3.2
MLS (2010)3.1
MLS (2010 first month)2.9

The analysis of this data is open to a lot of interpretation, though some general statements can be made.

First, each league is unique in the game it calls and the style of play correlates with the style of refereeing. Of the Big Four European Leagues, England’s is generally considered the most physical and its number show that. By having the lowest fouls per match and yellows per match, the Premier League has created an environment where rougher play is not only tolerated, but expected. The Bundesliga is officiated as a relatively clean league, having a relatively high number of fouls called, but a relatively low level of yellow cards produced. On the other hand, you have Spain, where the high ratio of yellow cards can be seen as protective of the creative players that La Liga has become known for. In Italy, you have the most tightly called matches. This can be seen as correlating to some defensive styles and stereotypically, to a higher prevalence of diving. Finally, this year, I was able to find easily accessible info on the Eredivisie, which unsurprisingly from a stylistic perspective looks statistically similar to the Bundesliga.

What does this data tell us about MLS? Unsurprisingly, it says MLS has an environment that promotes a very (perhaps overly) physical style of play. What is more indicative of what is going on in MLS is this trend:

Fouls in MLS
MLS SeasonFouls per Match

Since its inception, MLS has been a physical league. While the talent in the league has greatly improved in the last ten years, the officiating has, at the same time, made it easier to continue to physical nature of the game. Because of the simultaneous increase in talent, the drop in fouls has not resulted in a more physical league, but the loss of control of matches. These ten fouls a game that are not called in MLS are the basis of referee control in soccer. For the most part, these aren’t crunching tackles that are going by unpunished; they are shoves off the ball in midfield; they are tackles that are a bit clumsy; they are the quick restart fouls you see called in leagues around the world. They are trend fouls. Accumulation of trend fouls allow a ref to control a match. A ref can warn a player who picks up a couple of these minors fouls and then comes in with a late tackle, that the next foul is a yellow for persistent infringement. If the ref doesn’t make those initial calls, it is difficult to give a persistent infringement warning on what then becomes the first offense on the late tackle.

However, a trend as strong as the one above does not develop without a driving force. In researching this piece, I ran across a few references to “Referee week in reviews” giving guidance to not call fouls that interrupt the flow of play, but they all have broken links, so I cannot attest to their veracity. This is a separate issue from calling an advantage, which designates the foul, but allows play to continue. If it is the case that referees are being directed by the federation to not call these fouls, then the refs are being done an enormous disservice. This has all of the markings of “Americanizing” soccer; make soccer as exciting as we can; don’t break the flow of the game. But it’s illogical. The restarts on these fouls are generally exceedingly quick. What is gained in game pace by not calling these fouls is not worth what is lost in game control by the referee. This loss of game control results in increasing foul intensity and retaliatory fouls.

While the fouls numbers are up for the beginning of the 2011 season, the same was true in the beginning of the 2010 season. If the final 2011 number drops by three fouls from the first month number as happened in the 2010 season, the final number will be basically the same as the 2009 number and continue to be below every European league that was had easily accessible data.

The quality of refereeing is not going to jump overnight. There will always be controversial calls because its impossible for any ref to make every call correctly; some harsh reds will always be given; some undue yellow cards will be given; some fouls that should have been yellows will be missed. To expect perfection is a fool’s quest. Rather, the expectation should be for referees to keep order in a match without influencing it more than necessary. On this point, MLS referees have been fairly criticized. Whether they are being given the tools and direction to carry out this task remains a question. For me, it will be a point of focus while the MLS and European seasons overlap to compare the calling of these "minor" fouls and look at their effect on the way the game is played and the way that referees control the game.
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