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Red card rules in MLS preseason: is it an exhibition or scrimmage?

Mar 22, 2014: Colorado Rapids midfielder receives a red card from referee Mark Geiger after a collision with Portland Timbers midfielder Will Johnson (4) in the second half at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. The Rapids won 2-0. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)

In Major League Soccer’s preseason affairs, it turns out a scrimmage match and an exhibition match are not the same thing.

New York City FC took a cross-country journey recently to meet 2018 expansion side Los Angeles FC and then take on the L.A. Galaxy the following night. NYCFC played the nascent L.A. franchise to a 1-1 draw, but the Galaxy blanked the Boys in Blue 3-0.

That shutout match was marred by a straight red in the opening half to NYCFC fullback Ronald Matarrita. 

That the Matarrita dismissal was questionable when he accidently toe-poked Romain Alessandrini in the shin was not at issue here. The response from both technical areas was similar – a demonstrative request to allow a substitute for Matarrita and keep the preseason affair 11-a-side.

Both teams had a strong desire to keep level numbers on the field, with plans in place to not only work on their shape in attack and defense but find time for players who endeavor to earn a place on the first team.

“It makes it much easier when they’re down one player, so that doesn’t give us too much confidence,” Galaxy midfielder Baggio Husidic said.

The request was denied.

But a day earlier, LAFC had a pair of players — including goal scorer Marco Urena — sent off versus NYCFC and the referee did approve the coaches’ request to retain 11 versus 11.

Why the difference? And why would the referee prevent a substitute in any match where preparation for the regular season trumps the result?

MLS has an explanation, and it is a matter of semantics.

The LAFC-NYCFC match was a scrimmage. If both coaches consent, then a player dismissed for a violent tackle in a scrimmage can be replaced. In these scrimmages (which are usually closed door) substitutes are unlimited and, if the coaches are in harmony, there can also be re-entry.

The Galaxy-NYCFC game was termed an exhibition. According to the league, an exhibition has is a gate for entrance, spectators can attend and the FIFA Laws of the Game apply – but not really. While players who are shown red cannot be replaced, unlimited substitutions are in effect, per the MLS Competition Committee. The Galaxy changed 11 players in the second half.

The exhibition mandates also apply to any preseason tournament, according to MLS, unless exceptions are written into the competition rules.

During the 2018 Mini Sun Cup preseason tournament Wednesday in Arizona, Portland Timbers fullback Vytas Andriuškevičius was ejected for a nasty foul on Houston Dynamo forward Alberth Elis in the 65th minute.

Veteran referee Chris Penso was clear with his decision.

As the tweet suggested, Vytas was replaced and the match remained on level playing terms.

On the same day and at the same tournament, New England midfielder Wilfried Zahibo made his preseason debut against FC Dallas only to be sent off in the 9th minute. In order to keep the teams at full strength, Diego Fagundez entered the match and scored the 2-2 equalizer in the 85th minute.

A Dynamo official said, “I believe it’s a gentlemen’s agreement rather than a written rule.”

MLS told Pro Soccer USA that the Mini Sun Cup wrote the red-card substitution policy into their rules this year for the first time in the event’s eight-year history.

However, a long-time preseason tournament in South Carolina hosted by the United Soccer League’s Charleston Battery remains strict in its applications of FIFA Laws and red cards.

“I remember coaches running to me and telling me that we have to play with 11 after a player was red carded,” said Joe Machnik, who was in charge of officials in MLS prior to the emergence of PRO Referees. “I had to tell them, ‘Not only will you play with a man down, but you won’t have that player for the next scrimmage.'”

You mean exhibition, Dr. Joe.

What about yellow card accumulation? According to PRO, it does not exist in the preseason.

And when the Canadian MLS teams go south of their border to face another MLS side, it’s an international game so officials are assigned by U.S. Soccer and a maximum of six substitutes is permitted.

The solution for MLS may be to simplify and unify preseason rules – if both teams agree that an ejected player in ANY preseason match can be replaced, then referees acquiesce – especially in the early stages of competitions.

Or call them all scrimmages even if patrons must pay for admission. If you paid money to view a preseason match, wouldn’t you rather see both teams at full strength?

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