Confusion and frustration are often the result when one is forced to measure the fairness of the competing notions of doing what is right and doing what is demanded. No more has that struggle played out than within MLS headquarters this week in the aftermath of events in the match between visiting San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake. In one cringe-worthy sequence of player action and officiating reaction, RSL forward Alvaro Saborio appeared to dive in the penalty area, earning himself a spot kick, and relegating defender Bobby Burling to a straight red card ejection. Coming at a time when the hosts were being stymied on offense by the Earthquakes to the tune of a scoreless game, the ensuing penalty kick goal opened the floodgates for RSL and they went on to win the game 4-0.
While the immediate reactions of the Earthquakes to the awarded penalty — most notably goalkeeper Jon Busch using an inappropriate one-fingered salute in the direction of Saborio after he converted the penalty — and the defensive capitulation that allowed three more goals to be leaked in were regrettable, the unlucky Burling reluctantly retreated to the locker room knowing he would face his second one-game suspension of the season. A disputed second caution against New York earlier this month marked the first time in his career Burling had been ejected from a match; his red against RSL was number two.
Despite the outcry from supporters and league observers in the wake of Saborio’s embellishment that Burling was innocent of any wrongdoing, the Quakes defender will automatically receive a one-game suspension and a fine of $250 for the offense. MLS does not even allow for an appeal — only a case of mistaken player identity will be considered for reversal — even though they punished Saborio for “actions determental to the game” as anticipated. Per their relationship with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which supplies officiating crews to all league games, MLS has a policy that does not allow for referee mistakes to be overturned. No amount of handwringing prevents Burling from missing a crucial match against DC United this weekend and finding his wallet a few hundred bucks lighter.
Where the league is unable to act, a group of ardent Earthquakes fans are stepping up. The Casbah, a Quakes supporters group that was founded in 1996 to cheer on the San Jose Clash — thus the reference to the eponymous musical group’s 1982 hit record “Rock the Casbah” — has initiated a fundraising drive to offset the fines incurred by Burling. Starting in mid-week, the group began accepting donations through their website for the cause, and had already raised over $500 by Friday evening. On Saturday afternoon, during The Casbah’s pre-game tailgate party, they will continue their efforts with a raffle offering various Quakes-related prizes with all the proceeds being added to the total.
While the group understands that their efforts will not erase the one-game suspension to Burling, they do hope MLS pays attention to their frustrations with the current system. Donald Rickard, member of The Casbah since the group’s inception and organizer of this week’s fundraiser, hopes the success of their efforts will pay dividends in getting the league to reevaluate its policies.
“We are just trying to show our support and prove our point that MLS should have something to prevent this from happening,” explained Rickard to Center Line Soccer. “Whether they let us pay the fine or not, the donated money will go to charity. We hope this will be a good way for all Quakes fans to show that this is wrong. I thought it would be a great way for all Quakes fans to show solidarity.”
In addition to the automatic fine given to Burling, midfielder Brad Ring is also suspended for Saturday’s game due to caution accumulation, and goalkeeper Jon Busch was fined for his obscene gesture and language immediately following the Saborio penalty kick. In total, the three Quakes players were fined a total of $1000 by MLS; a figure that may sound like chump-change to an NFL or NBA star, but constitutes a considerable sum for MLS players on the low end of the pay scale. Rickard expressed that the goal of the fundraiser is as much to send a message to MLS about its policies as it is a way to give financial boost to the players.
“I think it is a combination of both,” said Rickard. “Yes, we want to help out Bobby and Brad, but we also want to call out attention to what is wrong with the system. Earlier this season, people called out the league for the referees not calling late tackles that resulted in some serious leg injuries. They followed up with suspensions, which was the right thing to do, but what about when the referees get it wrong. Shouldn’t they rescind the suspensions that are unwarranted?”
While many supporters are quick to point a finger at the league whenever an officiating controversy arises, the simple truth is that MLS is powerless to correct any perceived errors by virtue of their relationship with the U.S. Soccer Federation. This standard of policy comes courtesy of FIFA, which mandates that red cards can only be rescinded for cases of mistaken identity. MLS is free to increase the level of individual fines and suspension as they see fit, but lessening the punishments is not an option.
“If we can come together as a fan base and rally to raise awareness of the injustice of the system,” said Rickard, “that will speaks volumes. People might say they already spend their money and don’t want to do anything more, and that is okay. But, if we can do this successfully and raise the money, I think that it would be a huge statement to the league that they should listen to the fans.”
When it comes to cleaning up their product of unnecessary embellishment, MLS is listening, as the suspension of Saborio for diving strongly indicates. Also, the league has consistently acknowledged their desire for a better class of officiating, and has reportedly asked for more cooperation from U.S. Soccer on ways to improve referee training and standards. A transformation of the system most certainly will take time, but through efforts like that of The Casbah, perhaps expectations for improvement from both the league and the USSF will be accelerated.