Red Card Appeals Process: MLS

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a closer look at refereeing in the MLS. In that spirit, I’d like to welcome guest blogger Alex of Soccer Translated. Alex reviews the MLS system in place for clubs to appeal a red card, which is quite different from the Premier League’s Wrongful Dismissal Claims process.

By Alex, Soccer Translated

MLS is just weeks away from entering its 19th season, and though it’s widely acknowledged that the quality of play and the players themselves have improved exponentially since the inaugural 1996 season, MLS fans will be quick to tell you that the referees’ development has lagged behind.

Perhaps because of that attitude, MLS has been fiercely protective of its referees – and of their decisions, only introducing a red card appeals process two seasons ago.

Up until 2012, all referee decisions were final and appeals could only be made in the case of mistaken identity. (In fact, the Disciplinary Committee Principles and Parameters document available on MLS’s website still claims that “Cards issued in MLS games may not be appealed, except in a case of mistaken identity”).

What changed?

In 2012, MLS tacitly acknowledged that perhaps the refereeing standard wasn’t as high as it could be when the league and U.S. Soccer jointly created the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) with the primary stated goal of “[increasing] the quality of officiating in U.S. and Canadian professional leagues.”

That same year, MLS introduced the appeals process.

Not that MLS has made it easy for teams to take advantage of it:

  • To appeal, teams have to post a $25,000 refundable bond with the league
  • If teams make two unsuccessful appeals, they lose the right to appeal for the rest of the season
  • If an unsuccessful appeal is deemed to be frivolous, teams lose the $25,000 bond and the right to appeal for the rest of the season and the entire following season
  • In the case of a frivolous appeal, the player’s automatic suspension is also doubled (from one game to two).

For teams willing to risk appealing, written notice must be sent to the League Office within 24 hours of the end of the game with the reason for the appeal and any evidence, be it video, photographic, written, etc. that supports the appeal. The appeal is looked at by an independent review panel consisting of a representative from the U.S. Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association, and PRO.

The review panel is given very little wiggle room in making decisions. MLS has adamantly stated that the review process is not meant to “re-referee” the game; if the panel cannot reach a unanimous decision, the red card is upheld by default.

In accordance with MLS’s stance that the review process is only meant to rectify obvious errors, the panel is simply asked two questions:

  1. Did the referee correctly identify the offense in accordance with the Laws of the Game?
  2. Is the disciplinary sanction applied appropriate to the offense?

MLS has done its best to take subjectivity out of the process. The panel has two yes-or-no questions. There is no room for “maybe” or for nuance. A mistake was made or it wasn’t.

That is a key point: by creating the appeals process, MLS finally acknowledged that its officials, like all others, do make mistakes. The appeals process allows at least some of those mistakes to be corrected and learned from – and it has shown that perhaps the referees aren’t as error-prone as the fans like to think: only five appeals have been made since the process was begun in 2012, and while three of them were upheld, two were rejected.

As much as fans are loathe to acknowledge it, MLS refereeing has improved over the years, and it will only continue to improve. By both requiring more accountability from referees and providing teachable moments when errors are made, the appeals process should help referee development in the U.S. and Canada.

One tangible sign of that improvement will be seen when the 2014 FIFA World Cup rolls around this summer. American MLS referee Mark Geiger (above) and assistants Sean Hurd (U.S.) and Joe Fletcher (Canada) were chosen as one of the 25 refereeing trios for the World Cup in Brazil.

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