COLUMN: As Riverhounds, Steffens Challenge Kerr’s Suspension, Officials Having Trouble Keeping Up

It’s been a rough start to the 2016 season for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, as they’ve started with two home losses and a road draw.

Compounding things, they’ve been mostly without the services of key returning players Kevin Kerr and Lebo Moloto.  Moloto’s been dealing with hip flexor injury, and the team’s captain, Kerr, had to deal with not having his green card — as he couldn’t make the team’s trip to second game at Toronto (a 2-2 draw), then getting sent off with a straight red card in the 35th minute for a slide tackle into the side of Orlando City B’s Tyler Turner, that perplexed the Riverhounds coaching staff and players after their 2-1 loss at Highmark Stadium on Friday.

“The foul, the supposed foul, changed the whole game,” Riverhounds coach Mark Steffens said. “I know I’m not supposed to talk about bad calls and the referees, so fine me. It was a terrible call. We chased the game because of it. It took the game out of our hands, simple as that.”

It was a bizarre sequence, as the card issued by referee Sorin Stoica went unseen by nearly everyone in attendance, including the Highmark Stadium announcer.   Eventually most everyone noticed that the Hounds were shorthanded by the end of the half.  The official announcement didn’t come until halftime.

Another black eye for officiating.

More on that in a bit.

Facing the prospects of two tough road games at USL Eastern Conference front runners Louisville City FC on Wednesday, then at Charleston on Saturday, Steffens will see if he can get both returning players back right away.

Steffens said he would appeal the ensuing automatic one-game suspension on his captain.

There is some recent precedent with USL overturning one-game suspensions as officials continue to struggle with getting calls correct.

Orlando’s Tony Rocha, who was sent off the previous week during the team’s match against the Harrisburg City Islanders, successfully appealed his red card as it was rescinded by the league. Rocha played against Pittsburgh on Friday.

What Steffens and the Riverhounds will be hoping for is that the league officials will see the replay of the challenge (see below about 10 seconds into the Hounds’ Inside the Box) -that shows that Kerr’s tackle didn’t appear reckless in any way.

 

While criticism of officiating is something that is as old as the game itself — and will always be in some way part of the game.   The USL — and competitive soccer at most levels are dealing with a continuing problem that Steffens, a USL Hall of Fame coach specifically noted.

“The level of officiating right now, doesn’t match the level of play we have in our league now,” said Steffens after the game.

That’s a very astute observation by Steffens.

I have noticed this in lower levels of soccer, where officials are simply not qualified or understand the game enough — particularly at the high school level where modified rules and multiple whistle formats are utilized.   Yet, while youth players and coaches in club and cup competitions are playing by closer to FIFA and one-whistle referee standards, they’re being officiated in high school play by state-sanctioned officials who simply have to pass a test and spend much of the rest of the year officiating other sports.

Officials that are reaching pro level are generally the exception, but still, are they good enough?   At this rate — it doesn’t seem like it.   As the game continues to grow, the heat will be on officiating to improve.

Steffens’ point cuts right to issue about how the speed and skill level of the game is has improved in the U.S. by leaps and bounds  — and officiating has not been able to keep up.

It’s a tough line for coaches to walk though.  They have to be careful — because at the end of the day it always looks bad when complaints about officials happen to coincide after losses.

Respect for the officials has to still be prevalent, otherwise continued hits at the legitimacy of referees in USL or any other pro leagues prompts bad thoughts that go bad places.

MLS coaches were much of this at end of last season — as well-respected and long time coaches like LA Galaxy and former USMNT coach Bruce Arena were rumbling about standards of officials.

MOLOTO TRAINS, STATUS UNCERTAIN

As for Moloto (who had six goals and seven assists last year) — he was training with the team over the weekend after the loss.   He was only able to play 45 minutes in the team’s opener against Rochester, and Steffens admitted he wasn’t as effective and not 100%.

HOUNDS ON ESPN 3 AGAIN

The Hounds match with Louisville City will be broadcast on ESPN 3, with a 7 p.m. kickoff.
I’ll have more on Wednesday morning in a mid-week installment of “Breaking Down the Hounds.”

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