MLS's Original (Dave) Gantars: A Look at MLS Officiating / by McG

By McG (@fwjmcg)

Referees in soccer are the most necessary evil in the game, we can all agree on that. Without a referee who would call the fouls? Can you imagine Will Johnson calling his own foul? Neither can I. What about Alvaro Saborio? Hahahaha, everything is a foul to that guy. Robot refs? Not likely for another few decades, but one can hope. No, today we all agree that referees are the worst, absolutely the vilest invention to curse our beautiful game, besides every other method of governing a game that has been attempted.

Now that we've all established how much we hate refs, let’s have a real conversation about officiating in MLS. The professional soccer referees association gave way to PRO in MLS in 2012 with legendary FA/FIFA ref Peter Walton leading the way. In actuality they have likely improved the quality of officiating in MLS. Just tune into their Snapchat channel to see the latest and greatest in training, testing, and qualification that North America has to offer. I won’t extol their virtues long, but realize that they are not just bumbling idiots, laughing their way to the proverbial bank with a wheelbarrow full of our emotional strain in tow.

I’m not a referee, nor a referee expert. I have never had the chance to ask any PRO referee who their favorite player to red card is, and why it’s Blas Perez. Nor have I once been privy to the chance to ask them to point to their arse, then their elbow, and smile knowingly as they can’t seem to tell the difference.

What is going on here then? Well, in classic ASA fashion I’ve taken the opportunity to dive into some numbers to figure out a few things about referees that might not be intuited by a single or many viewings of the average MLS game. Some of you (frankly about a dozen) might have seen my series of referee previews prepared for the venerable PTFCollective website that fawn over every backheel of Vytautas Andriuškevičius. Feel free to check them all out here. If your most or least favored referee isn't on the list of articles there, I’m sorry, I only bother to investigate the refs of the team I lose so much sleep over (WHY CANT WE SCORE AGAINST CD DRAGON?!).

With all those biases established, and a little bit about my weird self out of the way, let’s talk about refs. The “PRO pool” as I have coined it is the 20 refs in MLS which have gained the most assignments over the last three years and are still active. Shout out to Kevin Stott, MLS OG, going 21 years strong in this league. There is a hierarchy in PRO, and although they are graded on some cool stat called Key Match Incidents (KMI) which I have exactly 0% insight on, the number and quality of assignments the refs get is a clear indication of how well they are rated. In the top 19 there are three tiers based on assignments.

Tier 1: Ismail Elfath, Baldomero Toledo, Alan Kelly, Allen Chapman, Jair Marrufo – Marrufo is probably in the lead on that tier

Tier 2: Kevin Stott, Ricardo Salazar, Ted Unkel, Mark Geiger, Chris Penso, Armando Villareal, (Hilario Grajeda should be here or maybe even tier 1, but missed most of 2015 due to injury)

Tier 3: Silviu Petrescu, Edvin Juresevic, Juan Guzman, Fotis Bazakos, Drew Fischer, Hilario Grajeda, Jorge Gonzalez, Dave Gantar

There’s a whole other tier of refs who only get spot assignments, or are actually doing pretty well but have a dozen games or less because they are just coming up.

So here we are, six paragraphs in and we’ve barely touched stats even though they were implicitly promised the moment you clicked the link. Well strap in because it’s about to get wild. 

Referees differ pretty radically in how they manage a game. Within the PRO pool the average number of fouls per game per ref across three years (672 games in the data set) varies wildly from 21 to 29 fouls per game. Yellow and red cards have even higher levels of variation, from two to four yellows per game, and less than one red every 10 games to nearly a red every other game! And this is just for the top refs!

When you dig in a little more you look into things like the ratio between fouls and yellows to get an idea of how “rough” a referee is. You can define rough in the sense that a ref hands out a lot of yellows (rough on the players committing the fouls) or very few yellows (rough on the players taking the fouls) relative to the amount of fouls they whistle. You've probably guessed by now that Marrufo is easy on Ozzie Alonso, and Chris Penso is hard on him. No surprise, Penso used to be an Ohio State Patrolman. Those guys don’t mess around.

Nobody hands out as many red cards per game as Edvin Juresevic, but Dave Gantar and the aforementioned officer of the law come close. Despite the reputation, Redcardo Salazar is barely top five in the category, and more average than anything, as he’s closer to the bottom four than the top four in that department. Kevin Stott is of course perfectly average in that department, like most others. Cool as the other side of the pillow, that man.

All of this is background for what I really came here today to talk about. Through the generosity of ASA and their ability to supply timing of cards which I’ve previously not been privy to, and inspiration from a Champions League referee preview article I read months ago, I’m here to figure out who the harshest ref in MLS is. But you think I already covered that in my stat about yellow to foul ratios right? Well, sort of. One thing that doesn't capture is weird games. Weird games have lots and lots of cards. Sometimes weird games aren't weird games, but weirdly officiated games. So which referees hand out the most 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th… you get the idea. Who goes gonzo?

Ted Unkel goes HAM. Seriously. More than a third of the cards he handed out in 2015 were the 5th card of the game or more. Ricardo Salazar, despite his reputation, apparently makes those first and second cards count. And players listen. Salazar hands out a 3rd or more card about as often as Unkel hands out his 5th or more, and he rarely offers a 5th or more. That’s a pretty wild discrepancy in game management from two of the better refs on offer. I wonder how that disparity affects a players psyche before a game (if he’s even aware of it), or in it once the proverbial feces hit the rotary device.

Of course Salazar is the 5th slowest ref to hand out his first card in a match. Drew Fischer is quick to the pocket, but he has the second fewest cards in 2015, only deferring to Gantar in that department. Obviously this isn’t a cards per game measure, only total cards, so the small sample size probably comes into play here. That all being said, there’s a handful of refs who are also quick on the draw, beating the league average of the 34th minute for the first card considerably. Stott is another quick to get a grip on a game by letting the players know who’s in charge.

Looking at the total cards given, it’s no surprise that Officer Penso is at the top of the pack, and at this point it’s no surprise that Salazar isn’t nearly as card happy as he’s made out to be, and Stott is middle of the pack as he is in most categories.

So who is the harshest ref in MLS? I think that based on the number of cards given, number of cards given in a game, and the time of earliest card it’s clear Ted Unkel is our man. Who knew Jeffery Spicoli would grow up to be such a hardass? Follow the link for more information about everyone’s favorite uncle Ted.

So next time someone pulls out the “Redcardo Salazar” trope, tell them to chill out on Kiki and educate them on the most aggressive man in PRO.

Thanks to American Soccer Analysis for all the hard work they put forth to make our soccer viewing more enjoyable and more objective, and for allowing me to fill these intertubes with my mescal filled ramblings for the first, and likely the last time.

See you all in The North End, for some soul.

McG out.

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