You could build a compelling history of MLS around a narrative of the league battling to be taken seriously both domestically and internationally. It's a battle that MLS has, for the most part, won. Today, you can call soccer a mainstream American sport with a straight face. Average league attendance grows year-on-year and is comparable to France's Ligue 1 and the Netherlands' Eredivisie. But some of MLS's legitimacy problems remain, and the most damaging of these has to do with the league's referees. They're not just bad; it's as though they've been sent to America to destroy soccer.
This is not a stance I take alone:
"The people at the MLS office in New York, when they talk about wanting to improve the league, the first thing that needs to be improved is the refereeing," U.S. Men's National Team and Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley said in July. "Bottom line."
As if to drive that point home, Sunday's Western Conference finals matchup between Seattle and Los Angeles—the league's two best teams—took MLS's typical bad refereeing and turned it up to 11. Easily one of the year's most hyped matches, Seattle and LA went 1-1-1 in the regular season. Together, they feature a half dozen of the league's marquee players. As it that weren't enough, the match might have been Landon Donovan's final home game before retirement.
The match didn't unfold in a way that was particularly notable. It featured 25 fouls, average for a 2014 regular season MLS match. Some of referee Kevin Stott's calls (or non-calls) were head-scratchers for sure, but that's to be expected. What emerged afterward, however, changed things entirely.
"The officials have made it clear that no one's getting sent off," Donovan said in the post-match press conference. "We have to make sure we're aware of that next weekend. And we'll play with that in mind, and I'm sure they will too."
Here's Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez: "You know, it's tough when Stott says to one of your players that he's not going to give another yellow because he wants the best players playing in the next game. It's not his job to focus on the next game. It's his job to focus on the game tonight, the game at hand, and so for him to say that to one of our players is pretty ridiculous."
That's not just ridiculous, Omar. That's a referee willfully manipulating a match to achieve a specific end. Normally, when a referee is accused of such manipulation, we're talking about match fixing. Here it's just, what? Stott wanting a "good game" in the next round? His job is to enforce the rules of the game, not to arrange an outcome so it fits some subjective measure of quality.
It should be noted that Stott apparently didn't speak directly to either Donovan or Gonzalez, but nevertheless, this is not a good look for MLS. Gonzalez went on to suggest Stott's comments were in reference to persistent fouling from Seattle's Zach Scott, who was yellow carded in the 37th minute and went on to commit three more fouls, all of which were against substitute Galaxy striker Alan Gordon.
"Zach Scott's got to be extremely careful," ESPN's Taylor Twellman noted during the broadcast. "Persistent infringement. Two of his tackles you could easily argue were deserving of second yellows." When Scott fouled Gordon again, Twellman said, indignantly, "you've got to be kidding me." After the match, Scott's own coach admitted he would have been sent off "in most games."
If true, Stott's behavior is troubling for a number of reasons. For one, the players in the Eastern Conference final were not shown the same latitude as those in the Western Conference. The league's top goalscorer, Bradley Wright-Phillips, will miss New York's second-leg match against New England because he picked up a yellow card in Sunday's game, meaning he's now suspended.
But just imagine for a moment what would happen if Zach Scott takes the field this weekend and scores. Imagine his goal knocks out the Galaxy. How will Kevin Stott look then? Like a referee who just wanted a good match, or like a referee who arranged a certain result?
The MLS has always had a referee problem. Now it has a new legitimacy problem. They both need sorting out. Bottom line.