MLS in Focus: Red Cards on the Rise



For years, Major League Soccer has had a reputation as a physical league. In the past, referees have often allowed cynical and even dangerous fouls to go unpunished.

If early signs are anything to go off of, the era of leniency has come to an end in 2016. Compared to this point last season, red cards are up 48 percent, with 16 players already having picked one up through 42 games.

The newly punitive refereeing came into clear focus last weekend, with another four reds added to the tally. There was a healthy dose of controversy attached to some of the red cards given out, notably the one received by the Red Bulls’ Felipe.


Particular focus seems to have been given to these sorts of “studs-up” tackles. Felipe doesn’t go flying in, it’s not a two footed challenge, and he is going for the ball here. But by virtue of exposing the bottom of his cleat, Mark Geiger didn’t hesitate to show Felipe a straight red.

An argument can be made that in years past, Felipe would have gotten off with a yellow for a foul that in real time looked fairly innocuous. Keith Costigan, doing commentary for Unimas, opined that Geiger got it all wrong.

Matias Laba, meanwhile, has less room to complain about his early departure on Saturday night.


That is, in a modern interpretation of the laws of the game, worthy of a red card. It’s the sort of challenge that MLS and the Professional Referees Organization are rightly trying to clamp down on. But is it any more dangerous than, say, this?


After lengthy deliberation, the referee gave Ronald Zubar a yellow card, and the league took no further disciplinary action. That was just 5 months ago, in last year’s playoffs.

Players and fans who demand consistency now cry foul because their memories stretch back to 2015. But it is clear that the fouls of 2016 are not being judged by the same standards as in years past.

In theory, calling the game more strictly will help the cause of the attacking players who are so often stopped by these challenges. Beyond making for a more attractive product, there are obvious concerns about player safety at hand, too.

But the players themselves have been critical of the red-happy refereeing.

Coaches, and not only those whose teams were affected, have also voiced their complaints.

Despite the sense that red cards are flying everywhere, on multiple occasions already this season, the league has suspended players for incidents that resulted only in yellow cards on the field.

Most recently, Brek Shea earned a suspension for this challenge made in Sunday’s game:


The suspension probably won’t be much consolation for the Timbers; Shea went on to score the second goal in a blowout victory anyway.

The need for the Disciplinary Committee to take action shows that gaps remain between where the league is and where it wants to be on this issue. These sorts of trends usually come back towards a sort of equilibrium. Adjustments will certainly be made. Either refs will once again show leniency, or (more likely) defenders will learn not to go into tackles with their studs up.

But in this transition period, expect more games to finish 11-on-10.