On Tuesday, the MLS Extra Time Podcast hosted Peter Walton, General Manager of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), to provide a beginning of the season update on officiating in the league. PRO is an independent company responsible for administering professional referee programs throughout North America…with MLS being a major client.

Highlights of the interview include:

First, Peter pointed out that a number of changes to the international soccer Laws (rules) of the Game, introduced on June 1, 2016, are only now being implemented in our domestic leagues. Despite these rules being used in international tournaments in the U.S., such as Copa America Centenario last summer, MLS elected to wait to implement these new Laws until the beginning of the 2017 regular season to avoid mid-season disruption last year. Peter highlighted four of the new changes to the Laws that he considers the most significant for fans.

  1.  If a goalie or defender makes an attempt to play the ball while taking down an attacking player in the penalty area (denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity)…he will not be issued a red card and automatically sent off like in the past.  Instead the player committing the foul will be issued a yellow card and, if necessary, a penalty will be awarded to the attacker who was fouled.
  2. Kick offs can be handled by a single player (instead of two) and the ball can now be kicked directly backwards.
  3. If a player is injured on the field, and as a result of that injury, the opponent committing a foul leading to the injury is issued a card, the injured player can now receive treatment on the field.  Previously, the injured player was forced to leave the field to be treated…leading to his team playing short handed until the player returned or was substituted.
  4. He also pointed out a subtle change to the location on the field where a restart will occur on certain offside calls.

There are also other Laws of the Game changes that were not covered in the Podcast by Peter.   A full explanation of the new Laws can be found at the International Football Association (IFAB) website: http://www.theifab.com.

Second, Peter highlighted the 2017 Points of Emphasis (specific game situations which will have special attention from referees this year) that PRO has communicated, and will continue to share, with officials and players this season.   (indicates my opinions)

  1.  Holding and Pushing in the Penalty Area…that has nothing to do with playing the ball. (Good luck with this one since a literal reading of the Laws of the Game would award a penalty on virtually every corner kick).
  2. Cracking down on visual dissent from players when they feel wronged.  He cites players running towards referees and waving their arms and gesticulating as examples of things PRO wants to quell before they become habitual.  (My perception is that these actions happen dozens of times a game and are already a lot more habitual than Peter is publicly willing to admit).
  3. Persistent infringement.  Peter describes these as habitual non-reckless small fouls that are designed to break up the pattern of play or flow of the game. (There are a number of players-mostly defensive midfielders-who have made a good living in the league craftily and persistently fouling attacking players routinely).
  4. Deliberate tactics that delay the restart of games.  He cites examples of players standing in the path of a player attempting to restart the game after a foul or kicking the ball far away from the restart point.  (This kind of time wasting is egregious unless your team has a one goal lead late in the game…in which case it is simply brilliant tactics).

These points all address hot-button issues that I (and most soccer fans) abhor.  PRO has introduced these types of emphasis points every year, however, and it seems frequently that there is a focus for a few weeks and then things go back to the way they have always been after players and managers complain enough.  Hopefully, these 2017 Points of Emphasis have a little more staying power.

Finally, he discussed that fact that MLS will be implementing a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) replay system during 2017. VAR has already been used in the preseason and will be tested, behind the scenes, in all MLS stadiums during the first half of the regular season. Current plans are for VAR to be fully implemented after the All-Star game break in early August.  Peter emphasized that the intent of VAR is to get match-changing decisions right, not to be used on every corner kick, throw in, etc.

As a note, the Houston Dynamo have already benefited from this technology as an opponent had a Yellow Card offense turned into red, and the resulting expulsion, after use of the video replay technology.