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September 17, 2014 at 1:26 PM

Referee head talks video review, the changing style of MLS

Peter Walton is in his third year as the general manager of the Professional Referees Organization in North America, the governing body in charge of the referees and their assistants in both the United States and Canada — in everything from MLS to USL-Pro to the Open Cup. Walton was a referee himself for nearly 20 years, including a stint in the English Premier League.

Walton sat down with me for a half hour this afternoon at the MLS offices in New York City, holding forth on everything from goal-line technology to cutting down on violent challenges.

Below are some of his excerpts from our conversation:

– On the physical play of MLS 

“What we’re about at PRO is that we want to allow players to express themselves within the laws of the game. Physicality is part of the game. It always will be, it always has been. … Our tolerance for high, studs-up challenges is much lower than it has been in the past. If you look at the stats from this season, the send-offs for those type of challenges have increased. The sends a message out to the players and to the coaches – and to the fans – that that type of play is not allowed within the boundaries law.”

“In doing that, sometimes you’ll have people look at a decision and go, well that’s a bit harsh to send him off. Maybe it was. But there’s always going to be casualties if you embark on such a program. Over a period of time, you will see a change in styles of play that will enable the physical challenges to still occur, but not in such a careless or reckless sort of way.”

“In American culture, sport is about physicality. Sport is about the macho. … Soccer isn’t. Soccer is a much more cultured game.”

“There’s a space where players need to be allowed to express themselves. And there needs to be a space for physical play. It’s up to the referee to find that balance.”

“We’re also looking at handling and pushing in the penalty area. We’re not on a crusade, but we are making clubs aware.”

“The ownership group of the teams of Major League Soccer have asked me to be strong on physical challenges.”

– On adding technology, such as video review

“I think the advent of new technology should be looked at more seriously. Goal-line technology, I think that’s a good start.”

“We could have an opportunity to look at play reviews. … I’d love to see us looked at as innovators in that area, for a system that doesn’t disrupt the flow of the game. But when there are crucial decisions to be made, whether it’s a sendoff or a penalty kick, because the game is stopped. You could review that just to make sure.”

“If we were to be asked to be a testing ground, then the answer would be yes.”

– On changing negative perceptions

“(The league) had advanced in infrastructure and player pool, rosters, the coaching staff, the facilities, the media aspect, the fans. In nearly every aspect – the fan base, everything was expanding. Where we the officials in all this? We had two referees that were salaried full-time on the books of U.S. soccer. The rest were pay-as-you-go-amateurs. … Was the refereeing program advancing at the same time as the (rest)? No.”

“If you talked to any fan in any country whose team had just lost, they would say the referees sucked. … What I’m trying to do is to ensure that those situations that give that fan base the opportunity to suggest we were not to par, that those continue to be reduced. We are actively reducing those. … We analyze every play of every game. We can see how we’re improving in general decision making, how we’ve improved our fitness and our instincts.”

 

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