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A referee weighs in on Tim Melia’s body-slam

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One of our readers asked to give his perspective on what might have been going through Ismail Elfath’s head when he decided to give a yellow card.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Seattle Sounders FC Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Being a referee is HARD. My resume includes: hundreds of games, being verbally assaulted, running over sixteen miles every Saturday, almost getting heat stroke, annual exams on the laws of the game, and calling the cops on a high school fan who asked me how much I got paid by the other team and to never ref a game again as he wouldn’t let me get in my car after my worst ever varsity match.

But I love it! The grass and colors of the perfect fall match (I am in the Leavenworth area), the whistle’s piercing bite, being able to game manage like no other sport, and experiencing some “juego bonito” from a few feet away are all my favorite parts.

Saturday’s match gets tricky. I am a guy that has a need for perfect justice baked into my DNA. I want a ref to be a perfect deliverer of justice, which is impossible. But when things happen that are contrary to the laws of the game I get frustrated. As a fan, I get emotional because I let my guard down trying to just enjoy things (I was given pitch-side tickets for the Chad Marshall red card that got rescinded and went ballistic with 30,000 other “refs”). As a ref I want to help the ref. There is a brotherhood, a sisterhood, a deep bond that binds the referee community together. We are on a journey together toward something that is unachievable as humans: perfection. Yet we seek it out through things like”consistency,” “game management,” and “positioning”. The center referee is only as good as his team (2 assistant referees and sometimes a fourth official). At the professional level VAR has consistently raised the level of consistency and accuracy of calls. Missed calls happen no matter what, but we hope it’s on a midfield throw-in, not a penalty or red card offense.

Let’s take a look at Saturday’s non- call. One thing to know is that I am a dry-sider and not at games in person. The TV broadcast isn’t made to follow referees but I will do my best with the shots I’ve seen. It’s also SO important to watch the ref’s positioning on this call. Was he close enough to see things? Was his vision blocked? After rewatching things at speed he did perfectly. From his angle just inside the penalty box he saw it all. He saw Christian Roldan make a challenge on Tim Melia. He apparently deemed that a foul. His angle on the contact made by Melia was not the best, however. From the front it’s probably a yellow-card offense. I then saw the side angle on replay and I waited for VAR to stop play for a review. “Surely they have that angle as that’s a red,” I thought. Heartbeat. Heartbeat. Then he put his hand to his ear as expected. The “play on” from Ismael Elfath was not. Somehow a red card offense wasn’t even formally reviewed.

Besides DOGSO, there are two main red-card offenses, Violent Conduct and Serious Foul Play. SFP is a “tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent.” It involves challenges that are “during play” and with “force.” If Elfath stopped play for the Roldan foul before the contact by Melia (which is what was claimed), this would no longer apply as it’s not a challenge for the ball during play. So that brings us to Violent Conduct. This is when “a player uses or attempts to use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball.” There is some subjectivity, but the referee crew didn’t see this as rising to the level of brutality needed to warrant a red card.

Live, I can totally understand this, but on replay (one tweet has been seen over a million times) the level of brutality only increases. If this was to happen at say a car dealership it would warrant a call to the police. If it was to happen in one of my high school games, or select, or even a rec game, I would hope all referees send a message that there is no place for this garbage in the beautiful game. Somehow the VAR system broke down. I don’t know if it was the angles they had or inexperience in the booth, or the speed at which they saw it, but somewhere there was a broken piece in the system that needs to be fixed by professional referees. We will see if we get the chance to watch the review they do every week, but sometimes this is handled in-house on a blown call. The part to this is that blown calls make better referees. We need refs to fail in order to learn. My worst game as a center was followed by my best game ever because I learned to referee inside myself.

If I’d have been the center that day I would have yellow carded Cristian Roldan for a reckless challenge on Melia. I also believe that this was part of the same play and shouldn’t be judged separately for violent conduct. If I had the same position as the center referee, I would have shown a yellow to Melia for the reckless challenge he made to Cristian Roldan as that angle doesn’t do justice to the force used. Then if I had seen this on replay from the side angle, I would have gone to the monitor and delivered a red for SFP as that was a challenge with force around the neck of his opponent that endangered the safety of Roldan by throwing him to the ground and almost hitting Roldan’s head into the goalpost.

Granted, I am just a grassroots ref with not much experience in adult soccer, but I want to steadfastly defend this sport that I love. This sort of thing ruins the spirit of the game and must be eliminated. As a Sounders fan, I rue the 1-3 points we lost on Saturday. At the same time I feel for Elfath. Somehow the system or his own judgement let him down and now it’s gone viral. This is his livelihood and passion. How could you not feel for him?

Ian Ross is a referee in the Leavenworth area. He’s been a Sounders fan since 2009. He fell in love with soccer as an adult and can’t play at all, so he decided to referee to give back to the sport. He’s done hundreds of games of all levels and abilities in his career. When he isn’t pastoring or teaching, he likes to fly fish, snowshoe with his family, and play computer games.