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NWSL Week In Review: Refereeing probably not as bad as you think

(copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

(copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

There is a shortage of sports referees and officials in America, and if you’ve been around youth athletics, it probably didn’t take you long to figure out why, and it’s sadly likely that you have seen some of the disgusting behavior from parents, players, and, yup, coaches.

We should and do hold professional officials to a higher standard. The aforementioned – like the players – are supposed to at the top of the game and perform accordingly.

And there is an officiating problem of sorts at the highest levels of soccer in the United States. Americans have not featured in the late stages of international tournaments, particularly on the women’s side, lately. Margaret Domka was the only U.S. official to make it to the 2015 World Cup in Canada, and she didn’t get a match in the knockout stages, while officials from Canada and Mexico did.

However, after pointing out last week that Danielle Chesky was the only female referee to work the middle of an NWSL game in that round, two others joined her (Chesky worked a relatively calm Boston-Chicago match): Amber O’Connor in the first NWSL match of her career for Sky Blue-Kansas City and Christina Unkel with Houston-Portland.

As you probably know by now, both were involved in controversy that ended by showing red cards and both were the subject of postgame vitriol by players and coaches. While you should probably consult various videos of all the incidents, here’s a brief recap of the red cards:

  • First in New Jersey, Shea Groom got away from Erika Skroski and was grabbed, as seems to happen every week to Groom. However, perhaps extra frustrated this time around, Groom swung with her right (open) hand and made contact with Skroski’s face. Groom had already been involved in an incident earlier in the game that saw Mandy Freeman leave with an injured ankle.

O’Connor took her time to talk to each assistant referee, showed Skroski a yellow and Groom a straight red, as an intentional hand to an opponent’s face has been called at least for the last decade in professional soccer. Kansas City led 2-0 at the time, but played the entire second half with 10 players and completely collapsed in the final half hour, allowing the final 16 shots of the match, three Sam Kerr goals, and a devastating 3-2 loss that is going to be tough to recover from.


To which Vlatko Andonovski went right after the officials: “There were two games. There was a game before and after the red card,” Andonovski told the Kansas City Star. “This league is the best league in the world, some of the best players play here, but with exception of some referees, this league has the worst referees in the world. (Officiating) I’ve never seen in my life. This is not just this season. Every mistake they make shows on the outcome of the game for us. I’m not gonna like it for the simple reason, not many teams will be able to beat us with good referees.”

You get that Andonovski wants to protect Groom (whose style I’ve written about before here), and, yes, he has a legal right to say whatever he wants. Andonovski was also upset about a red card given the week before to Lo’eau LaBonta, whom he definitely could have used on the field Saturday in the second half, but those are completely unacceptable comments coming from one of the league’s most respected coaches and should be treated accordingly by the NWSL.

And while I’m not going to get into the Charles Barkley role model argument, what coaches at the highest level say sets a tone for those below, and trickles down to levels below them. Comments like his do nothing to fix the problem. Not to mention that in this particular case, while slightly harsh, it was a hand to the face, which by the letter of the law, is a straight red card and would probably be called that way in most leagues in the world.

  • Meanwhile, in Houston, things were going rather smoothly for Unkel until, with Houston leading 1-0 in second-half stoppage time, Amber Brooks was whistled for pulling down Allie Long, a foul the Dash disagreed with. For some reason that someone has to explain to me, NWSL refs are not equipped with the shaving cream that marks where the ball should be and 10 yards, so it appeared that Unkel marked a little further than 10.

The rest you’ve likely seen. Lindsey Horan scored a wonderful free kick to even the game and then – six seconds after the ensuing kickoff – Carli Lloyd was sent off for putting her studs into Mallory Weber’s upper leg. Would another ref have given a yellow card? Possibly. But Unkel was likely worried the game might be slipping away from her grasp with a clearly frustrated Dash team. And referees’ attention to studs to the body has been heightened since one of the most famous non-red cards in soccer history happened in the 2010 World Cup final when one of the most respected referees ever, Howard Webb, did not send off Nigel de Jong for a kick much more vicious than Lloyd’s (he has since admitted he should have).

Pictures and replays show Lloyd did hit an exposed Weber, and by letter of the law, she doesn’t have much of an argument.


To be fair, Lloyd was much less incendiary than Andonovski after the match, saying, (to the Houston Chronicle): “I am the first to put my hand up if I deserve a red and I did not deserve a straight red on that one.”

Lloyd’s contention that it was a 50-50 ball and Weber was just as fault does not seem to be corroborated by the video, however, either. Weber looks like she hit the ball with the instep of her right foot. And while some of Lloyd’s teammates weren’t as reserved, coach Omar Morales at least – unlike Andonovski – made a specific argument that Horan had an ugly tackle in the first half that was deemed only yellow card-worthy by Unkel.


“(In Lloyd’s case) It shouldn’t have been a red card, maybe a yellow at most. And if that is yellow then Horan should have had seven yellows, and it’s a different game,” Morales said. “The consistency of the refereeing in this league is not there. It is the most deficient part of our game, unfortunately. The biggest thing is, do they watch these games and do they learn? Is there a growth factor there with what they do, or do they just come do a game and go home and sleep it off? It has impacted a lot of people.”

Look, say what you want privately, or send film to the league office (or the Professional Referee Organization, who is pretty meticulous about reviewing each match, despite what Morales insinuated), but don’t air your grievances publicly. It just gives the public more fuel for their fire, and hurts referees’ credibility in the long run. That doesn’t help anyone solve anything.

Not to mention, there does not seem to be nearly enough evidence to say that either red card was unwarranted. That seems like vindication to me.

And perhaps the most questionable calls of the weekend haven’t even been mentioned here. Bruna had a two-footed challenge moments before Lloyd got sent off that was given only a yellow card. And there were not one, but two extremely dubious penalty calls in the national game between Orlando and Washington, but because they evened out, have sort of died down after the fact.

Is there a problem with the officiating in NWSL? Yes, but it’s not nearly as bad as you would think. So instead of griping and whining, let’s fix it together, shall we? Calling people names or shouting out entire organizations is not productive.

In the end, the referees, like the players and coaches, are doing their best. They will make mistakes, hopefully not many, but good teams and coaches find a way to win games anyway. And if you don’t want to get a red card, don’t put yourself in a position where the referee might give you one. Putting your hands on someone else’s face or putting your studs into an opponent’s upper leg is not advisable in that quest.

What else did we learn in a wild, wacky weekend of NWSL soccer?

FRIDAY

Boston 0:0 Chicago (recap  |  Lauletta)

What Went Down: It seems like weeks ago, but we started this round with a relatively tame opener that will be noted as the match where so many former players and coaches came to pay tribute to Tony DiCicco, which was very good to see for anyone who has been around women’s soccer since the beginnings. For a team as successful as the Red Stars, their attack can be really unproductive in the final third, and Rory Dames again tried Christen Press in the midfield, giving Stephanie McCaffrey a start. You can’t blame him for trying, but it didn’t work again. The game turned when Danielle Colaprico was introduced, but Chicago couldn’t find a winner.

They almost did. In the weekend’s first tough call, Press was initially ruled onside and scored on a breakaway when Megan Oyster and Julie King got confused on a ball played toward them. Under new FIFA rules, had either made intentional contact, Press (despite being in an offside position) would have been onside because of the deliberate touch. But the touch was ruled incidental, so the referees got together and correctly waved the goal off. Still think it’s easy to officiate?

Player of the Game: Christen Westphal – Moved to outside back, perhaps the most difficult position to play, Westphal has been very good of late and a big reason why the Breakers have not conceded a goal in more than three games.

Under the Radar: Casey Short – This pretty much goes for any game, but Short is the best 1v1 defender in the NWSL at the moment. Which is why she starts for the national team consistently these days.

Inside the Numbers: 316 – Number of consecutive scoreless minutes for Sammy Jo Prudhomme and the Breakers, which is quite remarkable. Boston was outshot 10-0 in shots that hit the target, so eventually they have to generate some offense without Rose Lavelle, but it could be worse.

Up next: Boston – at Seattle (Sat.); Chicago – at Sky Blue (Sat.)

SATURDAY

Washington 2:2 Orlando (recap  |  Gordon)

What Went Down: In front of a sell-out crowd and national television audience, Marta and Mallory Pugh scored twice each in what was a fairly even game with a just result, even if both penalties were very questionable. Tom Sermanni summed up the Pride’s shortcomings aptly at halftime when he mentioned that the Pride play very well and just have lapses that lead to them conceding goals, which is exactly what happened when a giveaway led to Pugh’s first goal (which was a nice finish with her left foot).

Alex Morgan was decent, if not spectacular in her first start of 2017 and Orlando looks as good a bet as anyone else to grab a playoff spot with what they can bring in attack. Many who picked Washington last did so because they thought it would be awful. The Spirit won’t be that, but someone has to finish last, per rules of life, unfortunately. There are other contenders, though, so we’ll see.

Player of the Game: Marta – She has been upstaged by Sam Kerr (ironically, those two will meet three times internationally in the next few months), but her quality is still amazing to see on a weekly basis, with the goal from the run of play vintage Marta.

Under the Radar: Estefania Banini – You may forget how effective she was for the Spirit when healthy, and that front line of Banini, Pugh, and Francisca Ordega should do some damage if they can stay out there for the rest of the season.

Inside the Numbers: 90 – Minute of Pugh’s penalty equalizer, which was very clutch for a 19-year old. From my seat, neither was a penalty, but they even out in the end? Alex Morgan complained afterwards, but I think Orlando’s was probably less egregious than Washington’s. But such is life.

Up next: Washington – at Houston (Sat.); Orlando – vs. Kansas City (Sat.)

Sky Blue 3:2 Kansas City (recap)

What Went Down: Well, two paragraphs won’t do this match justice. FCKC dominated the first half against an ultra-shaky Sky Blue defense that wasn’t helped when Mandy Freeman left with an injury, and had a justified 2-0 lead.

And while Andonovski can blame officiating all he wants, FCKC got trampled in the second half. They were down a person, yes, but weren’t down three players, which is how it appeared. There was zero possession, and Sky Blue really could have scored five or six goals if it weren’t for a goal-line clearance from Becca Moros and some saves by Nicole Barnhart. So we can argue about whether Groom deserved red, but FCKC was still awful in the second half and very close to the bottom of the table, and neither of the final two had anything to do with the officiating.

Player of the Game: Sam Kerr – Kerr’s hat trick was remarkable, but her teammates do deserve at least a cursory mention, including Daphne Corboz, who was fantastic in the second half with time and space to pick FCKC apart and Kelley O’Hara, who got forward for almost the entire final 40 minutes.

Under the Radar: Christina Gibbons – Gibbons was the best player in the first half by far. I called her rookie year “miserable” so far and took some legitimate heat for it. But I eventually expect Gibbons to be a USWNT regular with her vision and technical skill. It’s possible that she might be better as a midfielder at this level, where she played for the first time Saturday, and not outside back, which has been difficult.

Inside the Numbers: 16 – Number of unanswered shots for Sky Blue in the final 40 minutes of the game. Again, some of that is due to being up a player, but we’ve seen teams with 10 on the field do much, much better than that, some even outplaying opponents depending on circumstances. It’s also worth noting that there were only 9 fouls called in the entire match combined, so it wasn’t exactly a chippy encounter.

Up next: Sky Blue – vs. Chicago (Sat.); Kansas City – at Orlando (Sat.)

North Carolina 2:0 Seattle (recap)

What Went Down: As opposed to the rest of the weekend, this was a prototypical Courage suffocation that could have been a worse scoreline with better finishing. At one point, you could hear Laura Harvey scream, “Just get it out of there,” after another turnover in their half of the field. North Carolina was missing that against Sky Blue, and it’s possible a long lightning delay actually helped them to cool things off. Lynn Williams returned, but did not score.

The Reign had their moments, most notably when Megan Rapinoe did the hard work, stealing the ball from Katelyn Rowland, but missed an open net late in the first half. Somehow the Courage took 30 shots but only put five of them on frame. Three points nonetheless, though.

Player of the Game: McCall Zerboni – Zerboni likely won’t finish near the top of the NWSL MVP race, but maybe she should because without her, it’s unlikely the Courage would be sitting in first place. She scored here, but the way she set up North Carolina’s first goal shows what she brings, reading the play better than anyone else on the field, being strong enough to win a tackle, and then putting the ball in a dangerous area for Ashley Hatch to finish.

Under the Radar: Ashley Hatch – Continuing in the Courage/Flash tradition, Hatch took 10 shots in this match, scoring once. Her play has been good enough to put Jess McDonald on the bench for now, but it will be interesting to see what Paul Riley does when McDonald and Williams are both 100 percent healthy, which is probably next week.

Inside the Numbers: 53.2% – Possession for Seattle in a match where they were second-best throughout, which is how the Courage like to roll when they’re rolling.

Up next: North Carolina – at Portland (Sat.); Seattle – vs. Boston (Sat.)

Houston 1:1 Portland (recap)

What Went Down: You get why the Dash were super disappointed after this match. A win would have drawn them to within four points of a playoff spot with a favorable schedule the next few weeks. They were minutes away and the Thorns were not exactly peppering their goal when they scored, although they carried most of the play in the second half.

Horan’s free kick was just the second directly into the goal in NWSL this season, and was perfectly placed. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a road point in their first game without their European players. They’ll feel much better if they get three at home on national television against North Carolina this week.

Player of the Game: Andressinha – Her field vision and ability to make the correct decisions with the ball continues to be underrated, even if it doesn’t create as many goals as Houston would like.

Under the Radar: Tyler Lussi – The rookie from Princeton was impressive as a second-half sub, and Mark Parsons and the Thorns are likely going to need her in the next few weeks.

Inside the Numbers: 6 – Number of fouls Carli Lloyd committed in the contest, which really has nothing to do with the red card given, but interesting nonetheless. It’s also worth remembering that Lloyd nearly got sent off the week before, when – already on a yellow card – she took down Becky Sauerbrunn to stop an attack in stoppage time.

Up next: Houston – vs. Washington (Sat.); Portland – vs. North Carolina (Sat.)

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