Let me start off by saying this first: Sporting Kansas City did not lose to the Colorado Rapids on Saturday night because of the referee performance. I’ll go a step further: Sporting KC’s 2019 season did not go off the rails because of referee performances.
Yes, there have been controversial decisions that have gone against Sporting KC. There have also been times where Sporting KC has benefited from poor refereeing performances. This article is not meant to be an excuse for sub-par performances throughout 2019 by Sporting KC.
However, that does not change the fact that, throughout Major League Soccer, referee performances seem to be a discussion point week after week, and that needs to change.
Sporting KC’s game against the Rapids is only one data point in this discussion. This has nothing to do with Matt Besler’s 20th minute red card, which I would argue was deserved. What head referee Nima Saghafi showed on Saturday night, outside of that decision, was a lack of control of the game. The few times he did try to take control he did it at awkward times, delaying the restart of play when it was unwarranted. Often, the focus was more on his curious behavior and strange interactions with players instead of the play on the field.
Frustration with referees is nothing new. Any MLS fan will tell you that the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) that produces referees for MLS games has had problems producing quality refs for years. Different fan bases have their own unique least favorite refs based on certain games or situations in the past, but one thing that unites nearly every MLS fan is a dislike of PRO.
Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes echos some of those thoughts.
The complaints that I have, or the issues that I have, they’re so much bigger than just our club. I’ve voiced them for a long time being in this league.
Vermes is not shy about expressing his opinions on referees. While he generally is careful about the words he chooses, he’s stated multiple times in the past, be it during halftime interviews or post-game press conferences, that referee performances need to get better in MLS.
The most frustrating aspect about it for him is that, for as long as he’s been a champion of progress and improvement, nothing seems to get better.
Unfortunately, a lot of those things don’t get addressed. We talk about them being addressed, but they just aren’t.
This isn’t just a problem for his team. Vermes says his concern is much larger. He’s focused on improvement of refereeing and Major League Soccer as a whole.
I think the thing for me always is when I ever think about, I don’t just think about Kansas City. Obviously I have to because of my position, but I also think about the growth of the league. I’ve always said that I think one of the biggest things is that, what kind of league do we want to be?
Peter Vermes isn’t alone in these thoughts. Sporting KC midfielder Ilie Sanchez was quick to point out after the game that while neither the loss, nor the season, were the fault of referee performances, there are still frustrations with how the games are managed by PRO.
This is something not about this season. Since I’ve been here, this is my third season, it has always been like this. It is what it is no matter if we play on the road or at home.
Vermes’ biggest problem with PRO has always been consistency. He’s previously called their performances “consistently inconsistent.” Whether it comes to on-field calls or VAR, there seems to be a lack of clarity as to what is allowed and what isn’t.
Sometimes I think maybe I don’t know the game, because sometimes I don’t know what a foul is, I don’t know sometimes what a yellow card is, I don’t know sometimes what’s going on in the game anymore. I don’t know. Maybe I have to go talk with somebody and find out about some of these things because I really, really don’t understand some of the calls that get made.
Vermes did say that clubs have a chance to talk with the league and PRO to provide feedback regarding referee performances, but nothing really changes.
Ilie felt the same way.
We have meetings in preseason. They come to talk to us, explain new rules for the season, and then we always have a chance to talk to them. It doesn’t matter. It’s a lost cause with them.
Unfortunately for Vermes, Ilie, Sporting KC, and the rest of MLS, it’s unlikely any of this changes any time soon. While PRO has slowly become slightly more transparent in their decision making processes, the league and PRO tend to keep the details of how decisions are made relatively secret. Fans are never told when or how referees are disciplined for poor performances, something that could go a long way toward building back some good will between fans and PRO and MLS.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has previously expressed his desire to grow MLS into one of the top leagues in the world. While leagues like the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, and more have their share of referee controversies, none of them seem to have the weekly problems that MLS has with PRO.
Until that changes, Garber’s vision of MLS becoming a world-class league will only continue to be a far off dream.
Watch Peter Vermes full press conference with his quotes about PRO: