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It Seems To Me . . .

MLS should lead the way by using second referee.

By Robert Wagman

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (Sunday, May 28, 2006) -- I've always thought soccer was the most difficult of sports to officiate. There is a huge field and continuous action with a single man or woman expected to be everywhere at once and to make instant judgments a hundred times per match.

Yes, center referees have help, at least theoretically -- two assistants on the lines and a fourth official in the bench area. But it's been my experience that too many officials seem to consider it a sign of weakness if they go to confer with them.

I've never criticized an official for getting a call wrong when one has to look at five slow-motion replays before it is evident the he or she got it wrong. The referee has to make an instant judgment.

However, there are times when the referee just gets it wrong. Take a couple of instances this weekend in Major League Soccer.

In the Colorado Rapids visit to Real Salt Lake, a ball came up off the wet Field Turf and struck Colorado defender Mike Petke in the hand and arm. Referee Colin Tait gave a penalty kick which Salt Lake converted, tying the game at 1-1.

Replays clearly showed that Petke was at least three feet outside of the penalty area when the ball came up and struck him. Later, Tait gave a close-in free kick to Salt Lake when he ruled that Colorado keeper Bouna Coundoul had handled the ball outside of the box. Replays showed the ball never fully crossed the line, so was never outside of the box.

In both cases Tait missed the calls because, quite simply, he was behind the play and not in a position to make them. Also, in both cases, the assistant did not volunteer any information, nor did Tait make any motion to confer with him.

Later, in the D.C. United-Kansas City game, while players battled for position in front of the net on a corner kick, a Kansas City defender grabbed United striker Alecko Eskandarian and rolled him backwards into K.C. goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi. All referee Terry Vaughn apparently saw was Eskandarian knocking Oshoniyi down, so he rushed in and showed a yellow card to Eskandarian. Again, the assistant should have had a view of what transpired, but he did not signal he did and\or Vaughn did not call on him for help.

All other major sports have gone to multiple officials. Baseball and football have long had a horde of on field officials. Years ago, basketball went to three, while hockey added a second referee to go with the two linesmen. Soccer has a much larger field of play than basketball and hockey. Isn't it time for soccer to follow their lead?

Currently, there is a fully qualified fourth official on the sideline essentially not doing much more than some bookkeeping and providing a shoulder for coaches to cry on. Isn't it time to move that fourth official onto the field where one referee would be in front of the action and the other behind it? Yes, there will likely be more whistles in a match and that probably is not a good thing. Then again, with an official in closer proximity, players might be less inclined to try to get away with much of fouling that now goes undetected.

Yes, the officials will have to learn to work together, but basketball and hockey officials have learned to do this. In the long run, there will probably be more accurate calls.

As for instant replay, the argument has been it will slow down a continuous action sport and thus should not be allowed. Yes, that's true. It has also been argued that replay is often inconclusive, which is also true, but in a game such as Salt Lake-Colorado, it would also have helped prevent two obvious errors that clearly affected the outcome of the contest.

World governing body FIFA has been wrestling with these issues for some years now. In addition to multiple referees and instant replay, FIFA is trying to find a way to definitively rule whether a ball crossed the goal-line. It tried an electronic chip implanted in the ball, but that proved non-conclusive. Now, FIFA is playing with multiple goal-line cameras, a system the Italians have developed which will resemble instant replay.

One thing FIFA has done is to try to facilitate a better exchange of information between the center referee and his two assistant, and the fourth official on the sidelines. FIFA's answer is to put all four on a headphone-microphone communications system so they are in constant contact.

Isn't MLS in a position to take the lead on these matters? It could petition FIFA to allow both two officials and at least limited instant replay. FIFA would likely be delighted someone was stepping up and experimenting. So MLS, get your fourth official off the sideline and onto the field.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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