Peter Walton, the general manager of the Professional Referee Organization that manages and administers referee assignments in North America, refused to back down in the face of criticism that MLS referees have been too harsh this season.
So far in the current campaign, 16 red cards have been handed out, which is a record pace for the league, up slightly from last year's mark of 14 at this point in the season. There have been numerous complaints from players and coaches that some of the ejections should have been yellow cards.
But on a conference call with reporters, Walton indicated that MLS referees had identified and correctly punished 85 percent of the incidents that it deemed to be red cards this season -- up from an accuracy of 72 percent last season -- and that PRO and MLS referees wouldn't alter their view of what constitutes serious foul play.
"If players continue making such challenges, referees will continue making such decisions," Walton said.
Walton added that there are a number of factors when judging serious foul play. These include whether a player lunged at another player, the speed of the challenge, the force behind the challenge, whether a straight leg or two-legged challenge was made, a leg was off the ground, and where on the body contact was made.
Walton added that attempting to punish serious foul play is nothing new and has been in effect since 2011, when a spate of serious injuries to the league's top attacking players at the time -- including then-reigning MVP David Ferreira of FC Dallas, and Javier Morales of Real Salt Lake -- took place.
"It was then that it was felt that perhaps we had to act on some of those challenges that would impact the game and would impact individuals," Walton said.
Walton added that in looking at games from last year, the 28 percent of red-card incidents that weren't called correctly were down to poor positioning and poor movement on the part of the referees. Thanks to the use of GPS data, as well as other feedback, the referees are now in better position to punish serious foul play. In Walton's eyes, the bar for what constitutes a red card hasn't changed, but rather the referees are calling the games correctly.
"What we see now is the referees are applying the law as it was written, and looking at the challenges, and that's one of the reasons why red cards are increasing because our referees are detecting and punishing those type of challenges," Walton said.
Walton added: "I think over a period of time, players and coaches will modify their behavior so they are in sync with the laws of the game ... and what we'll see I think is a leveling off of discipline in matches, and in fact a change in the way and the style that we see MLS being played in."
Walton went on to state that the referees' performances are scrutinized heavily through a combination of technology and independent assessors. Included in the criteria is the distance covered, sprint distance, how far away they are from fouls they call, and whether they are properly positioned.
The accuracy of calls, especially as it relates to key match incidents (discipline, penalty kicks, offside, etc.) is also tabulated. If a referee performs poorly, they will get fewer match assignments, which means a loss of revenue for the referee. If a referee performs poorly enough, they run the risk of losing their employment with PRO.
"There's not many jobs in the world where one is appraised or assessed as much as my referees," said Walton.
Discipline of poorly performing referees isn't instantaneous, however. Walton noted that per the collective bargaining agreement with the Professional Soccer Referees Association, assignments are made a month in advance, so if a referee has a bad game, he may well find himself back on the field the next weekend.
Walton also said that the release of referee performance metrics wouldn't be made public, and that fans could infer who was performing and who wasn't by observing which referees were getting assignments.
"In terms of the assessment itself, it's a very personal thing for the referee, because it goes into his development points as well as his good practice points," he said. "What I don't want to do is provide data to a wider audience that can be misread."