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Breaking news: MLS officials are human, not dastardly devils out to hose Orlando City

Orlando City SC and Columbus Crew SC players clash at MAPFRE Stadium. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

After a far-reaching investigation following a blown call against Orlando City last weekend, after extensive conversations with Major League Soccer officials and following an exclusive interview with the head of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), the Orlando Sentinel has come to a ground-breaking conclusion.

According to multiple sources close to the situation, the Sentinel has learned that MLS officials are, in fact, “human.”

“Mistakes happen with everybody involved in the game – by  coaches, by players and by our officials as well,” confirmed Howard Webb, the general manager of PRO, an independent organization that trains and supplies officials for MLS and many other soccer leagues throughout North America. “The game is being officiated by human beings, and sometimes we don’t get it right.”

Webb made this radical, revolutionary announcement to me shortly after PRO came out with a public statement earlier this week acknowledging officials erred by calling a penalty on Orlando City late in Saturday’s match against the Columbus Crew. Referee Silviu Petrescu awarded a penalty kick after contact from Orlando City defender R.J. Allen on Crew forward Patrick Mullins. Columbus converted the kick to tie the game 2-2 and went on to win 3-2 in stoppage time.

According to Webb, this wasn’t an error in the Video Review system; it was simply a human error in the booth by Video Assistant Referee (VAR) Jon Freemon, who should have seen the minimal upper-body contact was not serious enough to warrant a penalty. Instead, Freemon let stand Petrescu’s original call when he should have assessed the call was “clearly and obviously wrong” and recommended Petrescu review it. 

“The VARs are there not to ask whether an on-field official’s call was right, but to ask if it was clearly and obviously wrong,” Webb explained. “A lot of times, calls on upper-body contact are subjective and we don’t send the on-field official to the (video) screen for review. We only want to send the on-field official to the screen for ‘clear and obvious’ errors. This was one of the exceptions where we feel there clearly and obviously wasn’t enough contact to be worthy of a penalty and the VAR should have recognized that fact and called for a review.”

Give Webb credit for owning the mistake, calling the error “egregious” and suspending the officiating crew from working MLS games this weekend. Of course, this mea culpa won’t be nearly enough to appease the many fans who are convinced MLS refs have a vendetta against Orlando City.

 Of course, these are the same conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landing was faked and the FDA is withholding a cure for cancer. As if it makes any logical sense for league officials to get together and decide, “Hey, let’s do everything we can to keep one of the hottest soccer markets in the country out of the playoffs.”

Honestly, I feel for sorry for MLS refs, who seemingly take more abuse and criticism than any sports officials in this country. NBA officials miss dozens of calls per week and it’s business as usual. MLS officials miss one and they get publicly castigated, suspended and treated as Public Enemy No. 1 by  an entire fan base.

Look at what MLS officials have had to endure this year in Orlando alone. They’ve had trash and debris thrown at them by irate fans during the Atlanta United game. They’ve listened to recently-fired coach Jason Kreis essentially accuse them of being anti-Orlando City. And after the blown call against Columbus, team CEO Alex Leitão took to Twitter and called the officials “incompetent.”

Now multiply that criticism by 23 teams and perhaps the most petulant set of players of any American sports league. Not even LeBron James and his NBA brethren whine as much as MLS players, who gripe and complain about every call and constantly flop and dive in an attempt to deceive officials (see: Columbus’ Mullins, whose acting job is what caused the on-pitch ref to call the controversial penalty against Orlando City in the first place Saturday).

“The game matters to people and stirs emotions,” Webb said. “Of course I don’t like when our officials are publicly criticized, but I’ve got broad shoulders and thick skin and people are entitled to their opinion. We hope the public criticism is fair — sometimes it is; sometimes isn’t.  Sometimes people react with a knee-jerk when their team loses. It’s not always fair criticism, but it’s part of what we do. We’re in a performance industry. We’re out there to be judged on how we do.

“People tend to remember the things that go against their team and don’t necessarily remember the things that go in your favor.”

You mean like the ball that went off the arm of Orlando City defender Will Johnson against Columbus? That could have easily been called a penalty, but wasn’t. Of course, Leitão didn’t go on social media after that non-call and tweet, “Man, we sure got away with one there! Thank you, ref, for giving us a break!!!”

Why is it we never hear team officials, coaches, fans or players commend the officials for a job well done? Did you know that video review and VARs have corrected dozens of crucial calls this season – 61 to be exact? I’m guessing there hasn’t been nary a coach, player or fan who has made the effort to congratulate VARs for making the game better and fairer.

No matter what sport they’re working or how good a job they’re doing, officials and referees will always be accused of being biased.

As the old limerick goes:

“There once was a ref whose vision,

Was cause for abuse and derision,

He remarked in surprise,

‘Why pick on my eyes?

It’s my heart that dictates my decision.’ ”

Mike Bianchi is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel and Pro Soccer USA contributor. He can be reached at mbianchi@orlandosentinel.com or @bianchiwrites on Twitter.

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