Peter Walton, the general manager of the Professional Referee's Organization, said the incident that led to Columbus Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurst being mistakenly sent off against New York City FC on Saturday was "disappointing," but also called it "a perfect storm."
In the 85th minute of Crew SC's 3-2 victory, Crew defender Tyson Wahl committed a foul on NYCFC attacker Kwadwo Poku that resulted in referee Ted Unkel calling a penalty. Yet it was Parkhurst, Wahl's teammate, who was issued a straight red card for the infraction. Earlier in the sequence, Parkhurst had tried and failed to tackle the ball away from Poku, but was nowhere near Poku when he was fouled.
Unkel issued a written statement after the match that was made available to the MLS pool reporters through fourth official Jorge Gonzalez, stating that he sent off the wrong man. On Monday, MLS rescinded the red card issued to Parkhurst, and applied it to Wahl instead. Crew SC has said they will appeal Wahl's red card.
"Of course refs make mistakes, that's part of the game," Walton said by telephone. "It's disappointing that we made a mistake, but for every mistake we make, we learn from it and hopefully get better as a group."
MLS referees have been under fire in recent weeks for a series of contentious decisions, most of them involving whether red cards should or shouldn't be issued. But there have been a spate of penalty-area incidents that have drawn the ire of coaches and players as well.
In Sunday's 2-2 draw between the New England Revolution and Orlando City, referee Baldomero Toledo incorrectly called two separate penalty-area incidents, both of which resulted in goals. But Unkel's mistake was easily the most embarrassing of the weekend.
So how is it that Unkel made the call, and neither the assistant referee nor the fourth official corrected him?
"In terms of the challenge that was made just before the penalty decision, the referee was focused on Parkhurst and his challenge rather than the decision of the penalty kick," Walton said. "Then when the penalty kick came, the sending off was a secondary decision after the penalty kick was given.
"The focus then wasn't on the player. Then when [Unkel] came back and said, 'It's a sending off offense,' the player [Wahl] was lost. The fourth official was dealing with a technical issue in the technical area, he wasn't alert to the [sending off]. The AR [assistant referee] was looking infield at two players who were sort of getting on with one another. That was another factor. All of these things came about simultaneously and we get what we get."
PRO is currently working with the International Football Association Board -- the international body that handles proposed rule changes -- to implement a system of instant replay. The third-tier USL has been offered up as a testing ground for this season, though Walton believes the first tests might not happen until 2017. That said, he believes this is an area where replay would have helped.
"With the advent of video replay, you take the human element out of it, and that's an example of a wrong decision that would be righted straight away without anybody realizing it," he said.
Walton stated that this is the first case of mistaken identity since PRO was formed in 2012, though it turns out that then-Real Salt Lake defender Carlos Salcedo was a victim of mistaken identity in 2013, when he was issued a second yellow card for handball committed by teammate Tony Beltran. By comparison, the English Premier League has had at least three such instances since the start of the 2013-14 season.
"These things happen," said Walton. "I've spoken to the match referee, I've spoken to his assistants, and I understand the perfect storm that came about that made him do what he did. [Unkel] will never ever do that again. I don't suppose we'll get another case of mistake identity for another two or three years."