"The referees in this league are the worst in the entire world. The situation is terrible and getting worse. I don't know where they get some of these people." - Bobby Stokes
"How can you play the game when you haven't any notion what the referee is going to do? They're incredibly inconsistent. The referee tonight cursed at me, then he threw Bobby Stokes out for cursing at him. I've never seen a worse referee in my life." - Alan Green
"If I say anthing about the officials I get fined. But if I had my way I'd have a complaint after every game. Maybe 25 percent of the referees in this leage are competent. At most." - Gordon Bradley
The complaints of the Washington Diplomats, from Coach Gordon Bradley through all 27 players on the roster, about officiating in the North American Soccer League are not unusual.
"It's simple, actually," said General Manager John Carbray. "The officiating in this league just isn't of the same caliber as the play."
The Dips will conclude their regular season at 7:30 tonight against the Cosmos in Giants Stadium. Originally, Marco Dorantes was scheduled to referee the game. But after Dorantes gave Stokes a red card and yellow cards to three other Diplomats in Wesnesday's 4-0 loss to Atlanta, Bradley requested that Dorantes be removed from the Cosmos game. His wish was granted.
"Normally we don't change referees," said Ted Howard, the league's chief administrator. "But in a situation like this one where the request is made early enough we see no reason to create a confrontation. Why throw the guy right back into the lion's den?"
The Dips carry a 19-10 record, good for 169 points, into tonight's game. They still are fighting with Minnesota (175 points) and Vancouver (164 points) for playoff position.But the Cosmos, 23-6, have won seven straight and are playing at their peak while trying to equal their record (24-6) of 1978 after strugging early.
With starters Stokes, Jim Steele and Don Droege serving league suspensions and midfielder Joe Horvath and defender Robert Iarusci doubtful because of a flu bug that has hit the entire team, the Dips, who have lost in New Jersey, 8-2 and 6-1 the last two seasons, could be in for a long night.
But with the playoffs starting Wednesday (either in Los Angeles or Dallas for the Dips) Bradley's main concern is having a healthy team ready by then.He also is concerned about the role the officials may play in the playoffs.
"The league has worked very hard to try and improve the quality of the officiating, but it still has a long way to go," he said. "One of the problems is that this league may be the hardest in the world to be a referee because you have players of so many different nationalities and so many different personalities.
"In some countries, like Italy or even England, it's common to turn around and argue with the referee, at least for a moment. But in a place like Mexico (where Dorantes is from) one word to the referee means a (yellow) card and two words means you're out. It's hard for the players to figure out what the referee wants and hard for the referee to figure out what the players want."
Howard is quick to admit that the league has only recently become concerned about the quality of its officiating. "We've worked very hard on it the last couple of years," he said. "But let's face it, for a long time our main concern in this league was survival. We didn't have time to worry about anything but that. Now we have time to worry about improving the officiating."
Keith Walker, an urbane Englishman and a former official, prior to this season was put in charge of worrying about the officiating. Walker, working with a larger operating budget than ever was given to league officiating before, has instituted a number of innovations which he hopes eventually will improve the quality of the refereeing.
Among those innovations are an assessment by a former player or referee of each referee's game performance including 36 criteria for judging; a massive recruiting program in the United States and Canada, and the training of linesmen and former players to move in as referees.
Although Walker will not talk specifics, he says that a number of the 24 referees working the league this year will be gone next year, replaced he hopes, by young and eager Americans and Canadians.
"Don't forget that 85 to 90 percent of the players in this league are foreigners and most of the referees are Americans or Canadians." Walker said. "It's very hard for the homebased people to rise to the level of the foreigners quickly, just as it's hard for the young American players to rise to the foreigners' level.
"The difference, though, is that if a young American player is having a rough go his coach can pull him out. If one of my young Americans is having trouble he has to stay out there anyway."
Walker says it will take time for North American referees to reach the level he wants them, but he is determined to stick with them.
"We had four guest referees from overseas working in the league this year but I see no need to increase that number," he said. "I have the support of referees all across the continent and I don't want to lose it by bringing in officials from overseas.
"The problem is basically the same as with American players. They don't have that second level, the one right below the NASL, to train at. They have to do their learning by sometimes being over their heads. Obviously, that isn't an ideal situation."
Bradley, admittedly frustrated by what he has to deal with, says he understands that he and other coaches must be patient.
"It's like everything else in this league," he said. "It's going to take time. But when I look out there sometimes I just wish I could go over and say "come on man, use some common sense!" It's enough to drive one bananas."
And there is no fast solution in sight in the near future.