One of the less appealing side effects of the (now somewhat tarnished) Beckhampalooza has been the renewed opportunity for all those dimwitted, lock-step marching American sportswriters to dash off a column - on their way to the daily "Media Conference" at their local major university or pro sports franchise (they have to make sure they get there before the shrimp puffs are all gone) on the topic of "The Future of Soccer in America". At least 2/3 of the BigSoccer membership could write that column for them while on the tenth day of a two week grain alcohol, peyote and ether binge; we've all read the same "article" so many times from so many different sources that we know the thing by heart: they all start with a Beckham reference, make a snarky comment about his wife, mention youth participation numbers, and then get around to the point, which is usually that since they don't like soccer, then clearly nobody likes soccer, and anyway, there's no room for "another major sport" in America. (An aside: I don't mean to get particularly defensive here, but how come all these guys feel free - even obligated - to make snippy, sarcastic side comments about Victoria? Have you ever seen the kind of cheap, air-headed, bleach-blond, arrogant clothes horse a lot of American professional jocks are married to? When will we see them take cheap shots at, say, Roger Clemens' wife, or Peyton Manning's or Alan Iverson's? One sentence I guarantee you'll never read in an American newspaper is "All Star first baseman Bennie Bigbat hit a monster shot over the right field fence while his cheap-looking, jewelry-encrusted wife, looking like she applies her makeup with a cement trowel, clapped politely in the stands". Most likely it has something to do with the fact that Bennie Bigbat will find you in the locker room, rip off your leg and jam it up your ass if you make fun of his wife. Maybe Becks should pick one of these guys out and kick crap out of them. "Beckham Puts Sportswriter in Hospital for Insulting His Wife" is a headline I'd sure love to see) Now there are a lot of reasons why soccer is not a "major sport" in the US, and I have no intention of opening that whole discussion. Not enough hours in the day and all that. However, I am going to pick out one of them: the referees. At the moment, of course, nobody much is watching and so most American sports fans aren't aware of how truly putrid MLS officiating is. But on those rare occasions when soccer may get their attention it would sure be nice to not have to explain why it is our game officials seem to, well, stink. I can hardly think of a single MLS game this year where the guy in he center didn't make some completely inexplicable, mind-blowing, glaring, game-altering decision that left you shaking your head in disbelief. All of us probably have one particular incident that stands out in our minds: for me, it was when Barros-Schelotto was dribbling into the center of the box, about to go one-on-one with the keeper, and a defender came from his left side, slightly behind, went for the tackle, missed badly and chopped Schelotto down. The referee blew his whistle and signaled a foul. On Schelotto. If this was an isolated incident, fine. It happens in all sports. (Calling Don Denkinger) But we all know it happens with alarming regularity in MLS. Often three or four times a game. Absurd sendoffs, phantom PK's, inexplicable cautions and standards which range from "no-autopsy-no-foul" to "illegal breathing". The players are frustrated. The coaches are tearing their hair out. The fans feel cheated after having an event they paid good money to see get ruined by some pompous moron with a whistle. And it's not like the league isn't trying to fix it: Every single MLS game has a USSF National Referee Assessor (called an "In-Stadium Observer", or ISO) in the stands and another National Assessor - called a coach/mentor - either watches the game on live TV or is also there in person for "hands-on" coaching. The ISO meets with the referee immediately after the game to go over his performance. Then the ISO calls or meets with the Coach/Mentor and they discuss the referee's performance. In addition, the "MLS office" and the US Soccer staff will often contact the Coach/Mentor with "input" The Coach/Mentor then writes a final evaluation and gives the referee a grade. Each referee gets a videotape of the match and is required to watch it and write a self-evaluation of his performance. (How some of them keep from shooting themselves during this stage I cannot imagine) The report is submitted to USSF electronically and can be viewed by the Coach / Mentors, US Soccer staff and MLS officials. The referee is also contacted by a member of the US Soccer staff, and they review the game together and evaluate his performance. And of course, MLS now employs some of the referees full-time, so they can focus completely on being "the best they can be". So there's really not much excuse for how lousy some of them are; it's not like the errors aren't being pointed out to them. Frankly, if you're getting all this professional help and you're still not getting it, then maybe - just maybe - THEY SHOULD FIRE YOU. Speaking of firing, since the day MLS began, the guy who's been in overall charge of all things referee has been Director of Officiating Joe Machnik. Now Joe is a member of the American soccer good-old-boys network, a former player and coach who now runs a very successful goakeeper camp, a former MISL indoor ref and probably a very nice guy. But if, after twelve years on the job, you were turning in results like Joe's, I'm thinking your boss would wonder if maybe you ought to pursue another line of work. Let's give Joe a gold watch and a nice luncheon and then turn his job over to somebody else, someone willing to take some drastic steps. To start with, the league simply has to crack down on dissent. Immediately. Every single foul call seems to draw a crowd of players, yelling in his face. And they aren't there because they think they can get the guy to change his mind. They're there to intimidate him out of making the next call against them. Let's have a group of retired refs and players review game tapes and every time you run over and yell at a ref it costs you $500. Secondly, they have to crack down, somehow, on the theatrics. All the diving, all the rolling around in pain, all the bullshit. It's not soccer, it's not sportsmanlike and it's very tough if not impossible to call on the spot. Again, review the tapes, fine the players and get it stopped. Then you've cleared the decks. Instead of a Soap Opera, you're running a soccer game, and then we can see how good you are or aren't and go from there. I'm told that in Italy there used to be, maybe still is, a wildly popular TV show wherein every week a panel of ex-officials would review and discuss referee calls from the previous weekend. Now I don't think we need to worry about a bidding war between American networks for the rights to that one anytime soon, but the point is that consistently weak officials are pretty quickly exposed. Maybe they can make the referee evaluations public: post them on that now-indecipherable mlsnet.com. If nothing else, it would let the fans know that the league at least noticed when the guy blows it. Because right now, we have no idea. Bottom line, you can't aspire to be a "major league" sport with spotty-to-terrible officiating, and the time to get serious about it was ten years ago. Now that MLS is going to have to struggle on Without Further Adu, the "Pele of the Potomac" having sprinted off across the seas, you have to wonder if he'll ever really come to terms with what happened here in MLS. We all talk about "development" as if it was something that someone else gives you, but in soccer it is largely what you do for yourself. It's tough to be a 14 year old who makes commercials with Pele, and few of us could come through his experiences with both feet firmly on the ground. Hopefully when the next Freddy comes along - and he will - ALL of us, fans and league alike - will have learned some lessons. I've noticed lately that - either by design or coincidence - many MLS coaches are leaning toward a more formal attire. Coach Kries has worn a suit since day one, although he looks like a guy who borrowed the thing from his roommate to go to a wedding. Sears makes a lot of great stuff, Jason, but men's clothing isn't their strong suit. Curt Onolfo and Tom Soehn both look like they tried to dress up but then succumb to he fact that it's 105 degrees down there on the bench and end up sitting there in long sleeves. Of course Fernando Clavijo has always gone for the "boating regatta" look with open collar and tasteful blazer, and Moe Johnston is trying, but everything he wears looks like he slept in it. For a week. At the bus station. Of course some guys, like Arena and Kinnear, are gonna wear what they want, and Sigi - well, let's just acknowledge that even the Big and Tall shop has it's limits. Many people seem to want the coaches in suits because it's usually what they wear overseas, but November in London is a bit different climate than Houston in August, and accommodations have to be made. Besides, nobody in MLS makes the kind of money it takes to dress like Arsene Wenger, in impeccably tailored, understated merino wool and school ties right out of fleet street, let alone a Jose Mourinho, whose stylishly cut Italian silks and perfect accessories worn with a continental dash would look a bit odd on Frank Yallop anyway. Perhaps MLS coaches should use a guy like Alan Curbishly as a model. He's hardly a clothes horse, and sometimes it looks like he got dressed in the back seat of the car on the way to the stadium, but it's a more American take, overall, than what some of his peers can pull off. And a lot cheaper, too.