It's easy to look at yellow and red cards, point at them and say they should or shouldn't have been awarded. This season, or at least since the regular referees came back, there have been questionable card after questionable card. In fact there have already been twenty red cards issued just seven games into the season and two of those have been against Houston Dynamo players. There have already been over 193 yellow cards issued this season.
Foul averages have gone up this season considerably. Since 2007 no team has committed over 500 fouls in a season until last year when SKC committed 511. Foul commitments have been trending upwards after bottoming out in 2010 with a high of 391 fouls committed by the New York Red Bulls. This year's current foul leader Chivas USA is averaging 18.2 fouls a match. That's a foul every five minutes. Last season they were second in MLS for fouls committed but averaged just 13.7 a game and the team with the most fouls last season Sporting Kansas City averaged 15.
So far this season the Houston Dynamo are averaging 12.8 fouls a game and have already suffered two red cards. The first was a questionable straight red to David Horst in the game against FC Dallas and the second this past weekend in an even more questionable second yellow to Kofi Sarkodie. If you were living under a rock this past weekend Sarkodie was issued a yellow card in the first half of the match for an ill-advised tackle. The referee Armando Villarreal decided to issue Sarkodie a second yellow 82 minutes into the match for time wasting. Yeah he got kicked out of a match and will miss the next one because of time wasting.
So what has changed since last season? Well, not the referees. All of the PRO Referees who worked in MLS last season have once again refereed games in MLS this season. However, there have been an additional eleven referees this season who worked the first two weeks of the season because of the referee lockout. But fans preferred the non-PRO referees who kicked off the season, for the most part, feeling they made fewer mistakes and had less bias. Two of those referees Ioannis Stavridis and Alan Kelly have each refereed a match since the end of the lock out and outside of those two there has been no change in head referees since the 2013 season. Last season was also the "first full MLS season with PRO involvement" after being created in 2012 by MLS and US Soccer.
But what does the increase in fouls, yellow and red cards mean? It means referees are changing the game. Not in the 'my team just got issued a yellow card' sense but in the 'a player won't make that tackle again' sense. An increase in fouls means that players are forced to change the way they play.
Play in MLS is already very different from what it was just a few years ago. Players like Eddie Robinson would be hard pressed to survive the first half of a game without a red card. Ticky-tack fouls are increasingly being called and players will eventually be forced to stop committing them putting defensively minded teams at a greater disadvantage.
As players are forced to change their style of play to avoid fouls will it create a better product on the field? MLS hopes so. Take away hard-nosed soccer and players are forced to improve technically. With an increase in technique and hopefully skill it would stand to reason it would translate to a better product on the field. The means to get the desired product MLS may be risking the fans it already has. Mickey Mouse calls and inconsistent officiating will drive fans away.
How many times are you willing to see your team get screwed on the field before you decide to jump ship altogether for another soccer league or another sport entirely?