Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards is not ready to give up on his crusade to improve refereeing in U.S. Soccer.
After watching his club fall 2-1 to the United Soccer League’s first-place FC Cincinnati in the rain at Al Lang last Saturday thanks to two penalty goals for the visitors, Edwards was ready to let loose in an interview on what he views as a season full of atrocious refereeing.
“What I witnessed Saturday night was total incompetence, Edwards said. “Incompetence in not identifying critical games and putting better and more solid referees into the game. It’s incompetence from all four refs with game management. They just lost control of this game and they didn’t manage the game properly. It’s total incompetence from the center referee on these critical plays.”
Cincinnati’s first penalty was awarded two minutes into the match when one of its players went down after minimal contact from Rowdies midfielder Afrim Taku. A unusual decision then went in Tampa Bay’s favor as center referee Kevin Broadley showed Cincinnati’s Blake Smith a second yellow card for time wasting in the 62nd minute. The result, though, was decided when Rowdies defender Pape Diakite was shown his second yellow for a seemingly clean tackle inside the box in the 85th minute that paved the way for Emmanuel Ledesma to convert the winning goal.
“I wouldn’t be bringing up this conversation if it was the first time. To me, it’s been happening over and over,” Edwards said. “My fellow owners and their teams and I have pleaded with the league and the referees. This is on and on and on and on. It’s not something that’s just starting. I went to the league meetings and I talked about this at length. The bottom line to it is I’ve been talking about it for five years now and it doesn’t seem to be getting any traction.”
It’s not the first time that Edwards has taken aim at Professional Referees Organization (PRO), the independent entity that provides referees for matches. In 2016, when the Rowdies were still in the North American Soccer League, the club posted a now infamous “mixtape” video of poor calls along with a statement from Edwards.
“A couple years ago I put out a film which I got a nice fine for. I put out a film showing all their incompetent calls and it went viral and it was all over the place. (PRO) finally sent me a letter saying, ‘We’re doing our best. We’re training our guys. We’ll try better. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.’ That was the last time I heard from them and it was probably about three years ago. They don’t want to hear nothing. They don’t want to hear nothing from the coaches, nothing from the management.”
Given his history of past remarks, some will understandably dismiss Edwards’ comments this week as sour grapes from an owner whose club is struggling to find results on the field and is in danger of missing the postseason. However, Edwards believes there’s frustration about the level of refereeing throughout the league and he’s just the only one willing to air his grievances publicly.
“It’s not just me. It’s constant, it’s everywhere. It’s not just the Rowdies. It’s just that I got a big mouth,” he explained. “I’m at an age where I don’t care. I speak my mind. To me, if somebody doesn’t stand up and be counted, then you’re not counted. Whether you like it or you don’t like it, I have no hidden agendas. My agenda; I know it, you know it. We all know it because I just say it.”
In Edwards’ mind, the lack of accountability for referees who consistently mismanage matches or perform poorly is a root cause of the problem. Players and coaches are judged by what happens on the field, but referees are not taken to task for their errors in any meaningful way, according to Edwards.
If the issue is continually ignored, he believes it could be harmful to his club’s bottom line as well as the image of the league.
“This is not about bad calls anymore. This is about incompetence. It’s totally about incompetence. When this kind of incompetence is displayed on a regular basis, it can wreck the players’ futures, a coach’s career, the fan experience especially, and the business of the team. Basically what (referees) do is they make the game about themselves, and people came to watch the players. They came to watch the teams. They came to watch a great game of soccer. In the meantime, the referees make it so it’s their game. It’s all about them.
“The fans spend their hard-earned dollars for the enjoyment of the sport. They’ve told me as they walk out of the stadium, ‘I won’t be back unless something changes with these refs.’ That’s a serious consequence. On the other hand, there’s no consequences for these poorly trained referees. There’s no consequences. It’s the end of the game. They move on. My question is when does it end. It has to end. It can’t just continue like this year after year after year.”
Instead of “sweeping the problem under the carpet” like everyone in U.S. Soccer has been doing, Edwards would like to see referees start to be transparently evaluated on their performance. There’s only so much the USL can do on its own considering PRO is an independent organization it relies on to supply its growing league with referees.
“I can’t speak for the USL, but I think they’re trying. They’re caught in a catch 22 because there’s a lot of teams, there’s a lot of games,” he said. “If you’ve got these critical games where there’s championships on the line and you’re getting ready to go the playoffs, you’ve really gotta have somebody overlooking this thing.
“My suggestion is you get an unbiased committee. They can work with the league and PRO to address the concerns of the teams and map out a plan to improve the quality of refereeing in the game because I think it’s so important right now.”
Complaining about referees is nothing new. It has been done and will continue to be done at every level of the sport. The question for the USL, PRO and U.S. Soccer is whether the current complaints are more of the same or a sign that real reform is needed.
However, one thing that is safe to say at this point is that, as amusing as they are, it’s going to take more than mixtape videos and public statements from one owner to instigate any sort of change in the way refereeing is overseen in this country
“I can show film all day showing how bad this is, but it’s not gonna change the calls. Once the calls are made these refs go into the locker room, they change, they shower and they go home. The point is it doesn’t matter to them,” Edwards opined. “They’re gonna get paid their rate. They’re gonna get their airfare. They’re gonna get everything they’re supposed to get. They’re on to the next game and they don’t really give a rat’s patootie, in my opinion. What makes them care? There’s gotta be something. We all have consequences and they have none. What’s the consequence for a bad ref? What’s the consequence for someone being constantly incompetent? These are questions I’ve got no answers for. I’ve just got questions.”