If it’s not broke?

When it comes to soccer, the term “casual fan” probably best describes me.  

Growing up, I liked football and basketball a lot but loved baseball the most. As I grew older, I became a fan of hockey and golf and would watch the tennis majors.

I did not become mildly interested in soccer until the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994. Even then, I didn’t really begin paying attention much until NBC Sports Channel started airing English Premiere League games on Sunday morning. At that point, I started to pay attention to teams like Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea.

I began paying a little more attention when Orlando City jumped from the United Soccer League to become a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in 2015. Since then. I’ve been to maybe six games in person and have watched many more on television.

Which brings us to the point of this article, soccer is broken to me.

I know a lot of non-fans point to low scoring as a reason they hate soccer and I will never agree with that notion. If you go to a professional game and watch the incredible skills of these athletes moving the ball, you will get an appreciation for what they do. I have caught myself being riveted to my seat on a lot of 0-0 and 1-0 games.

No, my problem with soccer is with the Red Card.

When a player commits a particularly egregious foul, he is flagged by the official with either a yellow card (a little less serious) or a red card.

If given a red card, the player is immediately ejected from the game and no substitute is permitted and the offending team must play the rest of the game a man down.

That happened the other day when I took my friend Sean Cobb, a non-soccer fan, to an Orlando City game. With the score tied 1-1 late in the first half, Lions defender Robin Jansson had a late tackle on Fafa Picault that earned him a well-deserved yellow card. But the match referee decided to review the play on video and determined the Jansson foul denied Picault a goal scoring opportunity and changed it to a Red Card and sending Jansson off and forcing Orlando to play down one man for the remainder of the match.

That quickly led to a 3-1 Philadelphia lead, until the 67th minute when Orlando’s Sacha Kljestin was sent off for stepping on an opponent’s ankle – also earning a red card. For the rest of the game, Orlando was playing 11 men against nine.  Immediately after the call, Philadelphia basically played keep-a-way with the ball causing my friend Sean – who I could tell was totally bored with the proceedings – to suggest it was time to go with 15 minutes of game clock to go.

The whole sequence got to me to thinking. Is there another sport in the world where a hard foul not only gets you kicked out of the game but forces your team to compete the rest of the game with fewer players than your opponent?

Think about that for a minute.  

A flagrant two foul in the NBA in the first quarter on Klay Thompson and the Warriors would have to play the rest of the game five on four? Or a chop block on the New England left tackle and the Patriots would have to play the rest of the game with only four offensive linemen to protect Tom Brady?

The Red Cards and its results essentially made the Orlando – Philadelphia game boring and unwatchable.     

I contacted former London native and soccer aficionado Michael Preston, who has worked several World Cup events, with a thought.  

“Is the Red Card in soccer broken?” I asked.  “Wouldn’t it make more sense to send an offending player off until the offended team scored or even give them a penalty kick and keep the game 11 on 11? It just seems to me that sending a player off for the rest of the game is way too severe of a penalty.  The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

Surprisingly, Preston (this guy is a soccer traditionalist) did not scoff at my notion. Although he felt they would never change the rules that drastically, he did shed a different light on the subject.

“There are two things going on here,” he began.  “Twenty years ago, Red Cards and Yellow Cards were seldom called. In fact, when I was growing up back in London when a player was given a Red Card, word of it would spread and millions of soccer fans would tune in to the weekend highlight show to find out what the player did to deserve a Red Card.  It rarely happened. As time has passed, and mostly because of player safety, officials started issuing a lot more yellow and red cards then they used to.”

Preston then added that the MLS had a bigger problem with their refereeing than they did with Red Cards.

 “I don’t think any fan – experienced or not – likes watching 11 on 10 soccer or 11 on nine soccer.  The officials need to do a better job of not issuing red cards unless they are absolutely necessary.  In the MLS a lot of that has to do with the officials themselves.  They are not experienced enough.  In England, there is the Premiere League and maybe three or four professional levels below that.  An official might have to work 300, 500 or 1000 matches before he is promoted to the Premiere League.  In the United States there are just one or two professional minor leagues.  I just think that sometimes officials get promoted to the MLS before they are really ready.  It’s not a lot different than baseball umpires having to work their way up from rookie to class A to class AA to AAA before getting a call to the majors,” Preston said.

Preston pointed out that while my idea wasn’t crazy it presented its own set of problems.  “If you allowed a substitute, why not just start a scrub and tell him to take out the other team’s best player?” he said. “I think what it really comes down to is that players actually like idea that if someone does something dangerous he should be removed from the game.   The most important thing to remember is that in the big picture, players getting red cards simply does not happen as much as you think it does.”

I guess if it’s not broken it doesn’t need fixed but it doesn’t mean I need to enjoy watching it.