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Seattle Sounders vs. 2021: End-of-season referee ratings

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This year saw more than its fair share of head-scratching calls.

It wouldn’t be a complete end of the year recap without including the referee crews. I rated them individually, but it’s important to take into account the entire crew: the center ref, linesmen, 4th official, and VAR teams. It’s more difficult to rate the center refs when many of the hardest decisions are handled in the review booth, but there were some trends that were easy to follow.

Overall Cumulative Rating: 6.00

Community Cumulative Rating: 5.00

Playoff Cumulative Rating: 7.00

Community Playoff Rating: 5.61

Most Center Referee Appearances:

7 – Dickerson

3 – Stott

Best Single Match Rating:

8 – Dickerson (LAFC 5/16), Chilowicz (@Austin 7/22), Chilowicz (Minnesota 9/11)

6.37 – (Community) Marrufo (LA Galaxy 5/2)

Worst Single Match Rating:

3 – Elfath (SKC 10/23)

1.52 – (Community) Elfath (SKC 10/23)

Top Cumulative Rated Referees:

8 – Chilowicz (2 appearances)

7 – Unkel (2), Chapman (1), Saghafi (1)

6.5 – Bazakos (2)

6.02 – (Community) Marrufo (2)

Bottom Cumulative Rated Referees:

4.0 – Elfath (2), Toledo (1), Gonzales Jr. (1)

4.5 – Fischer (2), Kelly (2)

3.61 – (Community) Elfath (2)

3.74 – (Community) Toledo (1)

What I liked: My overall ratings averaged, well, average, which is a bit higher than prior years, but it’s always nice when things make sense. In 2021 there were good and bad matches from team and referees alike, and overall, the Sounders averaged out to receiving fairly good refereeing. Much of that was due to Seattle having Joseph Dickerson refereeing one out of every five matches (including the playoff match) and doing a pretty good job. Other than a rough match in July versus San Jose where he allowed way too much physicality, Dickerson was average to well above average for his matches. Whether he lives nearby during a pandemic or it’s just luck of the draw, he reffed a massive seven Sounders matches. Perhaps gaining familiarity with the team over so many games gave him more insight into temperament and allowed some leniency, but whatever it was, he ran the center for a ton of Seattle games and did well. His best outing was an 8 rating during a physical match versus LAFC in mid-May, presiding over a 30-foul match and keeping excellent control. Dickerson only showed three yellow cards, but was efficient in his use of VAR and advantage play.

Also outstanding in lesser frequency were Unkel, Chapman, Saghafi, and Bazakos. These guys all refereed two or fewer matches, but were above average and effective in their adjudication of Seattle games.

While Dickerson was steady, and those four did above average in their combined six appearances, Seattle fans should have been especially excited to see Alex Chilowicz on the lineup sheet. He refereed twice for the Sounders (@Austin 7/22, MINN 9/11) and earned 8’s both times. Chilowicz was the highest rated referee for the Sounders this season and I pulled a comment from both of his write-ups:

VAR was used multiple times quickly. Advantage was played. Fouls were fouls. Cats and dogs, living together.

I barely thought about the referee in this match, which means he did a good job.

The theme was this referee’s ability to adjudicate the game quickly, fairly, and without being a subject of conversation. He did this by keeping the match clean, giving appropriate cards to control the match, allowing advantage when warranted, and refusing to make the match about him or vying with the players for authority or screen time. He wasn’t perfect, but almost all of the calls he made added up to a sensible equation that fit the game he was refereeing. Chilowicz hasn’t done many Sounders matches in his career (four total in my ratings), but he set the bar high this season in his multiple appearances.

What I didn’t like: There were plenty of stinkers this year, but of special note is the consistently awful refereeing by Ismail Elfath. He is almost always bad for Seattle and in his two appearances dropped a 5 and a 3. The 3 was a generous rating after he officiated the absolutely insane SKC match that saw them get away with one of the most blatant red cards I have ever seen. After getting a prime view of Tim Melia literally body slamming Cristian Roldan, Elfath ignored both logic and VAR and gave a yellow card. This was such a blatantly bad call that I will revisit the words I wrote in the moment:

“Elfath doesn’t deserve many words here, and it’s emotionally draining for me to write about, but I can’t help it. He (and his team) got that call so, so wrong. It’s not that my team would have benefited playing up a man for 40 minutes and likely won. It’s that it is completely indefensible to allow any player to physically body slam another player. There are rules designed to protect players, rules about what’s legal and what isn’t, and to ignore them so blatantly is just infuriating. Because Roldan didn’t get a neck injury or stay down, it’s not “brutal” enough? Brad Evans got a red for pantomiming a headbutt.”

Tim Melia was suspended and missed a game after subsequent review, but after the fact is not good enough. It’s a shame Elfath isn’t mentioned in the next section of this article.

Retirements:

Four referees retired in this offseason: Alan Kelly, Dave Gantar, Ted Unkel, and Baldomero Toledo.

Alan Kelly was the highest rated referee who hung up his whistle in 2021. He was the 5th most prolific referee for Seattle since I started keeping track of ratings, with 15 appearances, and he earned an excellent 6.90 cumulative rating over those appearances. Although this season he had a bit of a ratings drop, Kelly should be remembered as one of the all-time best referees for Seattle. He ends as the 4th highest ever cumulative rated referee.

Dave Gantar was a solid referee for Seattle over the years, having had five center assignments and earning a cumulative 6.63 rating over those appearances. This included a number of stellar 8-rated matches and a low of 4 in one 2019 match. Gantar was generally good to excellent. He is not very notable, which is ideal for a referee. He ended as the 7th highest referee cumulatively on Realio’s Ratings.

Ted Unkel is likely more familiar as someone who has been involved in some high-profile Sounders matches over the years. He had nine rated Sounders matches since 2015 and averaged 6.20. Unkel was the kind of referee who on a good day earned 8’s in his appearances, but was prone to a USL-level 4 on his bad days. His wife Christina continues as a FIFA referee.

And finally, we say goodbye and good riddance to Baldomero Toledo. Toledo is the worst referee the Sounders have ever had. Over 19 appearances (2nd most ever for Seattle) he earned a cumulative 3.93 rating. That is the worst rating for any referee since I started doing ratings. Earning multiple 2’s over his tenure, this referee somehow got worse in the playoffs than his cumulative average, averaging a 3 for his Sounders postseason refereeing career. In a 2017 playoff match against Vancouver, he missed two blatant red cards and a clear penalty that he looked at VAR for and still didn’t give.

No one else even comes close to his enormous body of terrible refereeing in both number of matches and depths of rating failure. Known for allowing way too much physicality to everyone involved in a match, Toledo managed to increase the brutality of matches into permanent injury levels due to negligent blindness, and to combine that with rampant card-waving after the fact. From his last Sounders match ever (YAY!!), earning a 4 (USL level) rating: When Toledo refs, you know he is going to let a lot go, but this was a terrible effort that was somehow both too strict and too lenient and altogether a mess. Toledo seemed to be refereeing to the scoreboard late, allowing the match to become chippy and frustrating for both sides.

Baldomero Toledo’s ability to trash soccer matches and make them all about himself is unrivaled over the history of my ratings, and that’s more than enough words about this terrible referee.