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MLS is treating fans with contempt as the referee strike rumbles on

<span>MLS is using replacement referees from <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/spain/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Spain;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Spain</a>, <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/italy-women/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Italy;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Italy</a>, Turkey, <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/brazil-women/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Brazil;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Brazil</a>, <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/jamaica/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Jamaica;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Jamaica</a>, <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/poland/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Poland;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Poland</a>, <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/mexico/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Mexico;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Mexico</a> and the lower levels of US Soccer.</span><span>Photograph: Bruce Kluckhohn/AP</span>

Managers are known to talk about referees. In Major League Soccer, though, the discussion around officiating has entered a new realm. The league’s regular referees are sitting at home amid a lockout that shows no sign of ending anytime soon. Games are being refereed by replacement officials drafted in from the lower levels of US soccer, Turkey, Poland, Jamaica and other leagues, and people are starting to notice.

CF Montréal head coach Laurent Courtois had a long list of complaints after watching his team lose 4-3 to the Chicago Fire. “Twenty-two added minutes, red card on the [Chicago] goalkeeper that isn’t given, their third goal came from a corner that shouldn’t have been, their first goal was offside,” he reeled off. “Something was taken away from my guys.”

Dean Smith also had something to say about “a stonewall penalty” Charlotte FC were denied in a 2-1 defeat to Nashville SC, while LA Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney vented about the questionable officiating in his side’s 3-3 draw with St Louis City, which saw Martín Cáceres sent off in stoppage time.

Related: What the MLS referee lockout means for North America’s top soccer league

By and large, managers and players initially stayed out of the ongoing labour dispute between MLS (via the league-funded Professional Referee Organisation) and the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), but more and more are now speaking out. As a product, the league is poorer for having substandard referees. At a time when more eyes than ever before are on MLS thanks to Lionel Messi, it’s become a problem.

Don Garber is doing his best to insist it’s not. MLS, according to the commissioner, is “more than prepared” to use replacement officials for as long as needed. MLS vice-president Nelson Rodriguez was reported to have written in an internal memo that the replacement referees are just as good as the striking PSRA officials and have “[maintained] consistency in officiating quality.”

The evidence, however, contradicts that. There have been more overturned calls using VAR per match so far this season than in 2023. PRO GM Mark Geiger said in an interview with ESPN earlier this month that, using PRO’s own points-based system, the replacement referees have failed to meet the standard set by the usual referees in 2023.

“Officiating is not an exact science,” Garber told the Athletic. And he’s right. But Garber is treating managers, players and fans with contempt by pretending there hasn’t been a noticeable drop in refereeing quality. Everyone can see it. There has been a gamechanging blunder in almost every week this season.

On the opening weekend, Mark Delgado was incorrectly sent off for the LA Galaxy just minutes before Inter Miami scored an equaliser. The following week, a throw-in awarded to the wrong team led to the Philadelphia Union snatching a point against Sporting KC. Then there was the Chicago Fire’s first goal in Saturday’s comeback win over CF Montréal which should have been disallowed for offside, but was allowed to stand without a VAR check.

By installing replacement referees and arguing they are just as good as their predecessors, MLS has only succeeded in highlighting the value of good officials. Of course, errors are also made by PRSA officials, but absence has made the heart grow fonder. Even fans – traditionally the harshest and most vociferous critics of referees – are chanting and showing their support for the locked out officials.

MLS hasn’t exactly shown itself in a positive light so far this year. On top of the officials’ lockout, the league pitted itself against the wider American soccer fraternity by unilaterally withdrawing its teams from the US Open Cup. Supporter outrage prompted a rollback, but only to the extent that eight senior MLS teams will participate in this season’s tournament. The end result: MLS killed the US Open Cup as it had been for over a century.

Related: Do Apple’s MLS broadcasts merely exist to promote the league’s agenda?

That was a controversy played out in the public eye whereas the lockout has been a behind closed doors drama. The relationship between the PSRA and PRO has soured to the point that the standoff is now about more than just money and working conditions. “[The dispute] has unfortunately devolved into an issue of emotion and ego,” PRSA president Peter Manikowski told the Verde All Day newsletter.

It would take $95,000 per team for MLS to reinstall its regular referees. Garber, however, argues PRO’s latest offer would have made PRSA’s membership “among the highest-paid officials in the world.” Instead, the offer was rejected by 95% of voting members. No further negotiations have taken place since 5 March and it’s not clear when the two sides will meet again.

Even if MLS is right to consider the financial implications of agreeing to the PRSA’s demands, the rhetoric from Garber and others has aggravated the situation. Not for the first time in 2024, MLS finds itself on one side with the people who make the league what it is – managers, players, fans – on the other. The longer the referee lockout continues, the longer the 2024 season is undermined.

  • This article was amended on 22 March 2024. An earlier version called the officials’ lockout a “strike”.