It has been a brutal few weeks for MLS referees.
There seems to be less consensus with each passing game on exactly what constitutes a red card offense, and recent matches have been rife with controversial incidents. Baldomero Toledo, as experienced an official as MLS has with more than 200 league games as a center referee, got two penalty-area incidents wrong late in Sunday's 2-2 draw between the New England Revolution and Orlando City.
The forgettable weekend run was topped off by Ted Unkel, who mistakenly sent off Columbus Crew defender Michael Parkhurst instead of Tyson Wahl after Wahl was judged to have conceded a penalty against New York City FC. (Parkhurst's card was rescinded after the match and given to Wahl.)
Such incidents are by no means unique to MLS. English Premier League referee Jon Moss found himself at the center of several contentious decisions in last weekend's 2-2 draw between Leicester City and West Ham United. England's top flight isn't immune to the old mistaken identity problem either, with three such incidents since the start of the 2013-14 season.
All of this goes to show that bad refereeing isn't an MLS problem, it's a soccer problem. However, as the controversy in MLS circles has intensified, so have the number of suggestions as to how to raise the standard of refereeing. More training and more accountability have been offered up, even as the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), which oversees the development and assignment of referees in North America, has taken steps to that end with increased training camps and more full-time referees.
Orlando manager Adrian Heath suggested to FourFourTwo.com last weekend that bringing in more experienced referees from Europe would help, but this has been tried before in MLS. Back in the late-1990s, MLS instituted a referee exchange program that saw foreign referees brought in to oversee MLS games while American referees were sent overseas. The results, at least on this side of the pond, were mixed to say the least. Back in May of 1999, D.C. United lost 3-2 to the Chicago Fire, and then-D.C. United GM Kevin Payne wasn't impressed by referee Stuart Dougal of Scotland, who whistled 42 fouls, issued 11 yellow cards and ejected three players.
"I don't understand why we need to go 4,000 miles to get a referee that poor," he told the Washington Post after that match. "I've kept my mouth shut for the most part, but I've had it. I don't really care if I get fined because someone has to stand up and talk about this stuff. We had the two best teams in America and the referee shows no respect for the game."
Payne was fined $15,000 for the outburst, which at the time was the second biggest fine in league history.
Not that MLS has ceased looking abroad for refereeing help. Former Premier League referee Peter Walton was hired as PRO's general manager in part so he could lend his experience and guidance to North American referees. Former UEFA referee Alan Kelly was brought in by PRO along similar lines, though his role has morphed into one that sees him actually referee games, and last year he was named MLS Referee of the Year.
That said, if the goal is improve the standard of North American referees, that means at some point getting them on-field experience. Replacing them with referees from Europe won't help them get more calls right.
"One of our big issues here is that the depth of soccer in this country is still not what it is in other countries," said Walton. "We don't have a depth of quality to expose our referees to gain experience. The last thing I want to do is to take away opportunities for North American referees to referee quality games in this country. While in the short term, that may be an ideal opportunity to get perceived better referees into the league, long term we'll be back to square one.
"That was always my mantra from the start, not to have this as a breeding ground for people who are retiring or people who are coming across for a quick buck. It was looking at what we've got in North America and in conjunction developing the depth of standard that we're trying to reach."
Walton says that PRO has looked into continuing referee exchanges, and mentioned that MLS refs were sent to the Indian Super League the past two years. He's generally in favor of such programs, but as of now there isn't a mutually beneficial arrangement.
"What I've found is that people [from other leagues] want to come over here and referee but then don't want our referees to go over there and referee. Or I send my guys over there to referee and I don't want their guys to come over here and referee," said Walton.
So if more training, more accountability and more experience aren't the answer, at least taken by themselves, then what else might be done? Having more eyes on the field is one potential, albeit partial, solution. The question is whether those eyes are are of the human kind or of the technological variety.
A proposal to institute instant replay in the third-tier USL is being examined, but its implementation requires approval from FIFA and the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which approves all rule changes. While Walton remains hopeful that some form of video replay will be instituted this season, his expectation is that such changes won't be instituted until 2017.
So why not take the same route as UEFA has in Champions League matches and have additional assistant referees on the end line? It would help the center referee deal with goalmouth incidents, like the one that saw Orlando's Kevin Molino score against New England with the help of a handball that went undetected. Another pair of eyes may have helped Unkel avoid the embarrassment of sending off the wrong man.
Since adding two more assistant referees on the end line has been implemented at the game's highest level, the result is that many of the kinks in the system have already been worked out.
Such a change would require an addendum to the CBA that PRO negotiated with the Professional Soccer Referees Association, the union that represents referees, though it's hard to imagine the PSRA being against more referees working games. But for Walton there are other impediments.
"The issues that we face is finding a further 20 officials a week to officiate MLS games," said Walton. "And I'm more looking at spending the resources and the time looking at real-time refereeing in terms of video replay. I think that will add much more to it than the guys standing behind the goal.
"[Additional assistant referees are] still part of the thinking process of PRO to see if maybe that's the way we should go. At the moment, I will say it is on the back burner pending the video trials that we're looking to implement shortly."
While it's too late for MLS to institute such a change in 2016 given that the season has already started, the league ought to at least take a look at making the change for next year.
Granted, this approach is by no means a cure-all to what is currently ailing MLS referees. A referee's work is oftentimes subjective, and that goes for decisions such as red cards and penalties. But every little bit helps, and having more eyes on the field might serve as a bridge until instant replay comes along.