Women’s Sports: Refereeing in NWSL a stark reminder of how far the game still has to go

Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons summed it up perfectly when he said: “The NWSL is a training ground for referees.”

Refereeing in women’s football, in general, is an issue the needs to be addressed across all leagues and, as we saw even at the World Cup, it still has an awful long way to go. 

But the NWSL is arguably home to some of the worst officiating in the game.

PRO – the Professional Referee Organisation – provides officials and there hasn’t been a season gone by when they’ve not come under scrutiny.

The NWSL is home to elite athletes at the top of the game, many of whom represent their country on the international stage and deserve to be protected by referees on the pitch.

Two examples from last season come to mind when you think of officials miscalling things on the pitch and leaving players at risk.

In one instance, in a game between Portland Thorns and Seattle Reign, a struggle between Thorns’ Meghan Klingenberg resulted in her violently kicking out at Reign’s Allie Long. Not only was it dangerous and high, but between the referee standing yards away and the linesman close to the incident, all it received was a yellow card.

In the same season, a game between Portland Thorns and Utah Royals saw Thorns’ Margaret Purce on the end of a brutal, studs-up and potentially leg-breaking challenge from Royals’ Diana Matheson. The official, standing head on to witness the challenge, decided a yellow card was a fitting punishment, despite the tackle sidelining Purce for some time.

Both incidents were red card offences, and the fact that both were missed by the officials in charge is, unfortunately, the standard of refereeing the league has become accustomed to. 

While both players were subsequently suspended – albeit for one game – the safety of players is worth more than an afterthought, they need to be protected there and then without having to count on post-game reviews to correct clear and obvious errors.

Last week’s game between North Carolina Courage and Houston Dash may just be one of the worst all-round refereeing performances in the NWSL. From a blatant boot the face and a suspect penalty call, the officials were straight up not having a good time.

The first incident came while Houston were defending deep in their half and as Alyssha Chapman attempted to clear the ball in her own area she was met by the boot of Kristen Hamilton.

The wild challenge left Chapman down for a few minutes but was subsequently cleared to continue – a free-kick was awarded to the Dash while the referee saw fit not to punish Hamilton. The NCC player kicked another player in the jaw and – in what was so clearly a red card offence – walked away from it unscathed. 

Is getting away with kicking someone in the face mid-game becoming an NWSL trend this season? Because Tobin Heath exhibited the same sort of challenge against Chicago Red Stars defender Casey Short – although arguably worse considering Short got a face full of Heath’s studs. In any normal situation, to any professional and well-trained referee, that is a straight red card. No brainer.

Instead, Heath walks away from it with a yellow – we can say “hey, at least she was punished in some way!” but that would be admitting defeat and accepting the horrific officiating this league has to offer.

Back to the Dash game from last week and the most controversial call of them all – a penalty call in NCC’s favour. It was gutting for Houston, who mostly had all of their hard work undone because of the penalty. After the game the officials stated their reason for awarding the penalty was because Dash’s Kristie Mewis impeded Crystal Dunn’s progress towards the ball. Isn’t that, you know, the point of defending?

Mewis does exceptionally well to shield the ball back to her goalkeeper while Dunn does her best to sell a foul to the referee, who buys right into it.

This was less of a penalty than Sofia Huerta’s claim in the 60th minute which the referee happily waved way. 

That particular display from the officials was yet another reminder of the officiating this league has to put up with because not enough investment is going into training referees professionally and ensuring they have all the knowledge necessary to apply the rules of the game while also protecting players on the pitch.

Officiating across all leagues has to improve, but quite frankly what’s going on in the NWSL is a sorry state of affairs, and the longer this continues, the more players will be inclined to play elsewhere.
This is a professional league for professional athletes, back-to-back World Champions and the future of the sport. Amateur refereeing just won’t cut it anymore.

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