MLS has long been a league witha reputation for physical play. Some would even call it a league that rewards thugs. Commissioner Don Garber has heard the complaints, and is at least saying all the right things about addressing them. On Friday during a conference call with reporters, Garber announced the technical and competition committees' formal instructions to referees to "reward attacking soccer."
To do this, Garber is not suggesting that the league is making formal rule changes, but rather instructing its referees to basically adhere more closely to the rules as written. Here are some of the key areas where referees will be instructed to change the way they call games:
- The off-side rule: Referees will now be instructed to only call off-side if a player is clearly off and involved in the play.
- Protecting players: More attention will be paid to studs-up tackles, physical contact with players on the ball and challenges in general.
- Repeated victims/aggressors: Fouls that might otherwise not be caution worthy on their own, will now be considered in a greater context. Referees are being asked to pay attention to players being targeted for fouls, as well as players who repeatedly commit fouls.
- Free kicks: Referees will be more diligent about marking the spot of a free kick and enforcing the distance that defending players can stand. He mentioned the possibility of using aerosol cans the way they do in Mexico. Garber also said the league wants to cut down on the pulling and tugging that goes on in the penalty area during free kicks and that referees are going to be more likely to award penalties on these kinds of transgressions.
How effective any of this will be will obviously have a lot to do with how serious MLS is in enforcing it. Will the league be willing to live with a spate of penalties and cards that are sure to be issued early in the season? The league has promised similar kinds of efforts in the past, but there's been little proof that anything changed.