The Chicago Red Stars game vs the Houston Dash on Sunday night was strange. Houston scored all three goals and lost 2-1. The game’s most memorable moments were non-calls by the referee in the first half: a clear foul on Red Stars captain Vanessa DiBernardo inside the penalty area, and a handball that was not given as a penalty.
Earlier this season, also against Houston, Red Stars coach Rory Dames said the following about the refereeing in that game:
Here are Rory Dames's full comments on #NWSL officiating tonight. #mkot pic.twitter.com/AQrww9YBMR— Claire Watkins (@ScoutRipley) May 30, 2021
Earlier Saturday, Gotham FC midfielder Allie Long had these thoughts:
I asked Allie Long after Thorns vs. Gotham today if players feel like they can rely on the refereeing in #NWSL and if they don't, does that alter the way they play.— Steph Yang | Horrible Soccer Goose (@thrace) July 11, 2021
Long: "You cannot rely on the referees."
Full quote: pic.twitter.com/spK0gCCRYs
Hot Time asked Dames if there was any recourse beyond hoping for better luck aside from voicing concern in post-game press conferences.
The following is his response in its entirely, only lightly edited for formatting.
“The same handball that happened in the box happened three times outside the box and got called every time. Vanessa was clearly fouled, I don’t know if she was in the box or not in the box, I’ll have to go back and look at that it was close. But was it a foul?
Since I said my thoughts on the referees, whenever that game was, we’ve had four clear claims for penalties we haven’t gotten and we’ve had two red cards. I think it would be foolish to say it fell on deaf ears, because it’s obviously been heard, but I don’t know what’s been done about the actual problem that was stated.
A majority of the referees in the league are actually very good people. They’re quality people. The issue that exists is every one of those referees that did that game today probably go back in to whatever their full-time job is tomorrow, right? They’ve got a Monday-Friday job, refereeing soccer games isn’t how they feed their families out of the NWSL. I think what’s frustrating, and since I last stated my thoughts, every coach we’ve played has come up and [pause] we’ll just say hasn’t disagreed.
I think what’s been frustrating for us as coaches, is if you get two or three bad results in a row where the referees directly impacted it you lose your job. As players, you lose your spot on the field. But the same referees keep showing up week after week after week after week.
That’s not a personal thing with them as people, but as coaches it’s frustrating because what’s the accountability? What’s the standard? In the game Danny got sent off the first foul was on a ball she won clean and she got a yellow card. And then in the 55th minute she’s sent off. How is there a card in that game in the 10th minute when what happened to Vanessa at the top of the box is a play on?
It’s hard to have consistency week to week, game to game. There’s nothing cohesive to bring all the referees together and I get it. It’s not the referees full time gig here for the NWSL. So these referees that are here tonight will shower, get packed up, go back to where they live and get ready for work tomorrow. I think that’s where a lot of the frustration comes in, and it is what it is. I said what I said after the game four or five games ago and I stand by it. But I think we’ve also just got to the point where we can’t do anything about it. You can talk and talk and it is what it is. If the league wants to do something about it they will, if PRO wants to do something about it they will. But in fairness to everybody, I don’t know what you do when those guys are showing up to ref a game and then they’re working 9-to-5 with whatever they have to do to take care of their families. So it’s hard, where I think a majority of the MLS referees are full-time referees. It’s just a very different setup, and I could be wrong I’m not positive on the MLS referees.
Until as a league we can get to that point where our referees are full-time referees and that’s their job, the emotions obviously kick in [during] the game but none of the referees are coming on to the field and purposely getting calls wrong. And I think the coaches all know that, I think the question is when they do get calls wrong how is that communicated to them? How is it shown? What’s the level of accountability for it? Do they not get to do games the next week? Do they have to do games the next week? Do they fall a level? I have no idea at all how that works.
But I think from a coaching standpoint, that’s where the frustration comes from. Not if somebody gets it wrong in a game. Coaches get it wrong, players get it wrong, the refs get it wrong. But just some sort of level of consistency would certainly be better for everybody. There’s absolutely no question the players deserve that, and the fans deserve that too.”
Have officials been harsher on the Red Stars because of Dames’ comments from the end of May? That’s impossible to say, and I don’t watch every NWSL game from every team to have a good sense of if refereeing errors/questionable calls are distributed equally.
But between my experience and anecdotal evidence and reporting from games I haven’t watched myself, it feels as if such controversies are an every-game occurrence.
I think Dames’ perspective that this is not referees full time job is a good point. He gets it; you can only expect so much. But even at the supposed highest level of the US Women’s National Team, the refereeing simply isn’t good enough (see the offside call on one of the most beautiful team goal I’ve ever seen):
Dames said he isn’t sure if there’s any referee review process, or what it looks like. He’s been a coach in the league since its inception, so if he doesn’t know what that process is like then that’s incredibly poor communication by the league to its teams and coaches.
Referees are required to turn in a match report to the NWSL and give reasoning for cards. There is (or at least has been in the past been/is supposed to be) a reporter or reporters who cover each team designated as pool reporters to submit questions to the referee.
Whatever mechanisms are or aren’t in place, the bottom line is pretty simple: the refereeing in the NWSL is holding the league back. Full-time officials, better review processes, better training, there are plenty of possible fixes. I don’t have any answers, other than that the status quo simply isn’t sustainable for a league that sees itself as apex of women’s club soccer.