If it seems like there has been an inordinate number of red cards being shown this year, that's because there are. Just four weeks into the season, MLS referees have sent off 16 players, a rate of roughly .44 per match. This past week alone, there were two games where three players were sent off and another in which two were ejected. During those nine matches, referees issued 54 cards.
At the current rate, referees would end up issuing about 135 red cards, which would be nearly twice as many as the previous record for ejections in a MLS season. Even considering the fact that the schedule is 56 games larger than it has ever been, we're talking about a significant leap.
Last year, for instance, there were just 56 ejections, a rate of about .23 a match. Two years ago, when the current record for ejections was set, 79 red cards were issued for a rate of .35 per match. The historical MLS average is about .25 red cards per match.
I was only able to find historical records of yellow cards for the past three years, but we're also seeing a significant uptick in those as well. There have been 144 yellow cards issued this year, a rate of 4 per match, a trend which would result in more than 1,200 cards being issued. The previous high in the last three years was 2009, when there were 869 cautions distributed.
As I referenced in a previous piece about penalties, this is a not-so-surprising side effect of asking referees to clamp down on physical play. Referees only have so many tools at their disposal and cards are definitely one of them. We're seeing seemingly innocuous fouls becoming cardable offenses, and we've been told that the so called "hard yellow" has been replaced by an explicit red. There also seems to be less reluctance on the part of referees to leave a team down to nine men, which happened twice last week.
There's no question that some of these calls have seemed extreme. On some level, we'd all like to allow the players to decide games, not the referees. But if we are serious about turning this league into one where skill is valued over strength, this might just be a necessary evil. If the short-term cost is some ugly games in exchange, maybe this isn't such a bad thing after all.
It should be noted that scoring is at least slightly up form last year. The average MLS match features about 2.53 goals, up slightly from last year's record-low average of 2.46.