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Russell Berrisford

Russell Berrisford

Russell’s support of Derby County eventually led him to leave the country. He has lived in Canada since 2007 and currently writes about soccer for The Vancouver Sun.


MLS Officials And Truth

Written by on July 8, 2011 | 12 Comments »
Posted in General, MLS

When psychologists discuss the science of memory they will sometimes speak of the “illusion-of-truth effect” which states that the more we hear a particular opinion the more likely we are to believe it.

Strangely, even if we are told that a certain fact is false that still won’t prevent us from giving it credence if it keeps cropping up in our everyday life.

That is why politicians will keep repeating the same slogan over and over again, and why those commercials during the Fox Soccer Report are gradually convincing you that “Tylenol” can save your weekends and that “always infinity” is the pad for you.

So where does Major League Soccer fit into the “illusion-of-truth” theory?

Tune into almost any game, or read any match report and more often than not there will be mention of the low quality of the officiating; a red card that shouldn’t have been awarded, a penalty kick that should have been given. The list will be extensive and probably taking up as much air time and space as the analysis of the action itself.

There’s nothing wrong with discussing controversial decisions, in many ways they are the life blood of the game, but the conversation is steering away from the criticism of individual calls towards a general argument that every bad decision is somehow representative of all MLS officials.

Even decisions that take one or two replays to debunk are starting to elicit howls of outrage from armchair pundits and the twitterati, as the pitchforks are gathered and the torches lit in preparation for running each individual referee out-of-town.

Players and coaches love it of course. They can argue that they didn’t lose the game because of that missed open goal or that decision to play a defensive midfielder wide on the left, it was all because of that goal kick that should have been a corner, or that harsh sending off for a two footed tackle.

Are there bad officials in MLS? Yes. Are there bad officials in all leagues? Yes. Yet for some reason Major League Soccer and it’s supporters have become obsessed with the quality of officiating to a degree that has become unhealthy to the progress of the sport.

Wrong decisions happen; we need to deal with them, discuss them, and move on, and most of all we need to stop treating individual incidents as being indicative of some kind of universal law.

Perhaps the cruellest irony of all is that even a piece like this which sets out to defend MLS officials will, according to the aforementioned “illusion-of-truth effect”, merely strengthen the idea in your mind that they are inept.

The more we hear it discussed the more we believe it.

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12 responses to “MLS Officials And Truth”

  1. So… you wrote an article about the illusion of truth/self-fulfilling prophecy effect but without any evidence to suggest that the officiating overall is not bad/not as bad as we think/the same as it ever was/etc.

    Confirmation bias DOES exist, but it is just as possible the standard of refereeing in MLS is poor, if perhaps not as dismal as it is portrayed. What evidence do you have to suggest that the officiating is good?

  2. Soccerlogical says:

    Instead of getting on the officials, fans should start complaining about the awful defending in the MLS.

    The first NYRB goal against TFC was comedic, a low daisy cutter cross of no particular pace from the right touch line which 2 Toronto defenders completely missed while being occupied with a 5’2 Luke Rodgers.. as the ball rolls past all 3 of them and onto an open Henry to put in. Are you serious? 🙂

  3. Russell Berrisford says:

    Chase- as you said yourself “not as dismal as it is portrayed”. It’s the portrayal that is the issue.

    Obviously the officiating can be improved but, as Soccerlogical implied, officiating has become the lightning rod that conveniently attracts the attention away from the genuine problems that some teams have.

  4. fizzle says:

    As a season ticket holder for the Timbers I have to say that I’ve yet to totally blame any result on the ref, but the refereeing of every game I’ve seen has been questionable (about on the level with our players decision making…) in that there is very little consistency from one moment to the next and I understand that offsides is tough to see, but some of the calls are almost unbelievably bad (we are the most offsides team in the league, not because of the linesmen, which makes it even more frustrating when our players are actually onsides for the whistle to be blown). I don’t read mls match reports or watch enough analysis to be misled in the manner stated, the standard of refereeing is poor enough that it will continue to be a point of discussion regardless of any illusion of truth.

    Maybe we shouldn’t expect high quality officiating, if the players on the pitch are far from the best? Maybe we should accept that the refs should be held to the same level of quality expected from the players (poor to average with the rare gem)? I don’t think its the answer though as we should always be looking for improvement without making excuses.

  5. Clay says:

    Russell – the one element you fail to mention about officiating is the seemingly blind eye MLS takes toward its quality of referees. Like Fizzle, I have seen numerous questionable decisions made by officials. Yes, they are only human. Yes, they must make split second decisions. However, if nothing else, they should be consistent. In most cases, they are not and often seem to work to a different set of rules. If a player blatantly continues to waste time, then card them (stop just pointing to your watch all the darn time then adding a minute of stoppage time). When a player is (supposedly) injured, get them off the park. Don’t hold up the game – and usually an opposing team’s momentum – by allowing on-field treatment for several minutes (and again, adding a minute of stoppage time). UEFA and the English FA review post-game decisions to address bad fouls missed by referees. It has also demoted top referees to lower league games based on poor performance. Why doesn’t MLS do likewise? Will it change the outcome of games? No. However, it would send a message that MLS is prepared to hold its officials accountable. So far, it has shown little sign that it cares. Does the name Baldomero Toledo come to mind?

  6. Rhywun says:

    Maybe it would help if they stopped telling us how inexperienced the ref is at the beginning of every match…? I’ve been hearing an awful lot of “this is so-and-so’s first officiating an MLS match” lately.

  7. John Bladen says:


    There are curious decisions (and sometimes just plain incorrect ones) in every league or competition in the world. I’ve been watching the WWC of late (if you haven’t caught any of it, it’s been a joy to watch… no diving, very little whining, and the quality of women’s football is improving across the board) and have never seen so many on side goal scoring opportunities flagged. It’s odd that players are never held to the same standard of perfection as officials, don’t you think?

    The reality may be that MLS officials are statistically more error prone than other leagues, I do not know. However, these are the best officials available to the league at present, like them or not.

    In my view, the talking heads (who are increasingly just-retired or just-released players, possibly with axes still to grind) bear much of the responsibility for this as they seem very keen to make an issue of every contentious call (and many which aren’t, witness last weekend’s “offside” claim on a goal kick… which I believe the alleged commentator did ultimately correct).

    Some match officials (and some commentators and players) are more gaffe prone than others. Having those in the booth rush to judgment is not helping, particularly for casual fans who may not be able to determine for themselves what the truth is.

    I believe MLS should commit resources to improving it’s officiating standards (and it’s commentating standards too). Continually blaming individual officials for what is a systemic problem is not the answer.

  8. John Bladen says:


    The fact that MLS doesn’t publish it’s disciplinary or remedial actions is not evidence that none take place. If leagues (be they European, American or Asian) truly want to improve officiating, publicly humiliating their officials is not the way to do it.

    A few years ago Howard Webb was forced into a press conference to explain one of his decisions to the media. I’ve never been so appalled at the actions of a sporting federation/association. If officials are to remain impartial wardens of the game, they cannot be forced into popularity contests to save their jobs (or, more likely, their employer’s jobs).

    Either an official has the confidence of his league/association or not. Whether the public (or club managers, frankly) like them or not is and should remain irrelevant.

  9. Russell Berrisford says:

    John- if I had a dollar for evey time somebody in the broadcast booth made an incorrect call-then two minutes later lambasted the official for doing the same thing I would be a rich man.

    Clay- the slight oddity in all this is that MLS officials are actually controlled by the USSF which takes away much of the control that, I suspect, MLS would like.

  10. Clay says:

    Your point is well taken John. MLS may certainly be scrutinizing its referees behind the scenes and I certainly do not favor a strategy that attempts to openly humiliate or embarrass officials. My issue is around transparency, accountability and a commitment to quality improvement. There have been occasions where referees have openly admitted they made a mistake. It did not change the outcome but it showed they were not only human like the rest of us, but were also willing and prepared to learn from that mistake. My view is they earned respect by doing so. Even if MLS is trying to deal with the quality of its officials (although you could argue that Mr. Toledo’s continuing frequency of red cards puts that into question), doing it behind closed doors will never address the issue or help to turn the focus of fans, media and even players away from it. MLS is a professional league which means it is essentially a business. On that basis you could argue that the fans who follow it are shareholders with a collective interest to see that business (the quality and standard on and off the pitch) improve. Openly commiting to quality improvement is not only the right thing to do for all of us as “shareholders”, it is the right thing to do as a business. As you rightly point out, this is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed. Having said that, the issue goes beyond MLS. Cases in point – Guinea’s “non-handball” in their WWC match against Australia last week ( and the bizarre keeper handball by Brisbane against Melbourne Victory in a 2010 A-League game ( that led to a last-gasp equalizer from the keeper’s subsequent kick up field. Neither resulted in an admision of the need to improve refereeing standards.

  11. John Bladen says:


    I think everyone is shaking their heads over the Equ. Guinea ‘catch’. Could it be that the officials were so stunned by the move that they were paralyzed by it and thus unable to blow whistle/raise flag??? Fortunately, it did not affect the result.

    I agree that improvement is warranted. I’m not an admirer of Mr. Toledo’s either (though I don’t like to point fingers at individuals for the reasons stated), but is there someone in a lower league that you believe could more adequately perform in MLS?

    I have watched a few (non-MLS… usually cup or fr) games run by officials from other north american leagues. I wish I could tell you they were better than the MLS guys, but in my experience, they are not.

    As with others, I’ve been calling for some time for MLS to write large checks to retired European referees (age limit) to come over and work with the guys we have to make them better. While I get mad at them sometimes, these guys (and ladies) are the best we have. Our best hope is to help them get better, not replace them with people who are no better and often significantly worse.

    We all make mistakes in our jobs – some perfectly horrible. Yet when we (or players) do it, there is considerably less outrage. I respect what they do (even though they are sometimes infuriating!) and wouldn’t wish to change places with any of them.

    Having said that, I was shown red as a youth for saying something to a match official that no human being should say to another… (sorry Mr. Jenkins).

  12. Shaun says:

    Science and technology have evolved the abilities of players but it appears that referees’ abilities haven’t similarly progressed.

    To compensate/equalize we, soccer’s financiers, have to demand the introduction of Hawk-Eye technology.

    I also really like the idea of having the officials discuss the calls immediately after a match, ‘live’ like managers do. The ref’s association seems like a closed club beyond inspection.

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