Speaking on a conference call with reporters on Thursday afternoon, Professional Referees Organization general manager Peter Walton defended his charges and called on players to adjust to a stricter style of officiating.

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Major League Soccer referees have come under criticism from both coaches and players in recent weeks for the high number of red cards shown so far this season. But speaking on a conference call with reporters on Thursday afternoon, Professional Referees Organization general manager Peter Walton defended his charges and called on players to adjust to a stricter style of officiating.

“Nothing has changed in law,” Walton said. “Nothing has changed in the way that PRO wants the game to be played or officiated. What has changed is that our referees are much more consistent in the law that we want them to apply.”

There have been 16 red cards in 42 games to this point in the campaign, up from 14 over the same period of last year and 11 the season before that.

An emphasis on cracking down on what the league deems dangerous play that endangers the safety of opponents dates back to the 2012 season, Walton said. He also referenced those “poor days in 2011″ — the formative fortnight during which Sounders attacker Steve Zakuani, Dallas’ David Ferreira and RSL playmaker Javier Morales all fell victim to serious leg injuries.

By Walton’s count, the league’s referees missed 28 percent of the tackles that should have earned a red card last season, most often showing yellow cards instead.

“We are now punishing the offense as it should be,” Walton said. “We are applying the law as written. That’s one of the reason why red cards are increasing.”

Walton, more pointedly, also provided a five-point checklist as to how referees should be judging the legality of tackles:

  1. Speed of the challenge
  2. Force behind the challenge
  3. Whether the tackle is made with a straight leg or both legs
  4. Distance of leg off the ground
  5. Where on the opponent’s body contact is made

“If players keep making these challenges, referees will continue making these decisions,” Walton said.

PRO is also cracking down on dissent, punishing players who too vehemently protect calls over the course of the match. Sounders midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz was yellow carded in last Saturday’s 1-0 win over Montreal for frustratedly gesturing at referee Baldomero Toledo.

“I’m going to have a strong word with (Ivanschitz) on that,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said afterward. “Obviously he’s unhappy with what he’s seeing out there on the field. A lot of times, guys are getting fouled and the referee is maybe not stepping in, in his opinion, but he’s got to keep that opinion (to himself). I know Baldomero made eye contact with me and he was upset with Andreas because he was talking to him in a very agitated manner.”