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MLS Red Card Overturned?
MLS Red Card Overturned? | Major League Soccer, New England Revolution, Fernando Cardenas, Real Salt Lake, Jamison Olave

MLS News: New England Revolution Make First Successful Challenge under New MLS Red Card Procedure

In March, the U.S. Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer (MLS) announced the creation of a new Professional Referee Organization (PRO). The new organization was designed to take over the management of professional soccer league referee programs in the United States and Canada, under the direction of Peter Walton, a veteran referee with the English Premier League. PRO is governed and funded by U.S. Soccer and MLS with support from the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and oversees officials in the MLS, MLS Reserve, North American Soccer League, USL PRO and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

One element that came out of the creation of PRO is a new procedure in MLS that allows teams to challenge red card decisions if they feel the referee was in error. The first positive decision on an appeal has now come through, and professional soccer – and refereeing – will never be the same.

For the 2012 season, Major League Soccer (MLS) instituted a new procedure by which a team could challenge a red card given on the field if they felt it had been clearly in error. Now the New England Revolution have become the first club to successfully use that appeal process, with the announcement that Fernando Cardenas’ suspension and fine have been rescinded by the independent review panel. (See: Appeal to Review a Red Card Decision)

The decision to create the procedure came about along with a number of other initiatives designed to improve the level of officiating at multiple levels and in several leagues. Each MLS team posted a $25,000 bond at the beginning of the season, which gave teams the right to make two unsuccessful appeals during the season. This was to prevent teams from abusing the new procedure and clogging the system. A second level of “persuasion” was also instituted for this.

The new program also created a three-member independent panel made up of one member each from the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) and U.S. Soccer. The panel is charged with reviewing the decision by the referee, the claim by the team and any documentation – including video of the incident. While it would seem there would be only two decisions – uphold or reject the appeal – the system adds one more level: reject the appeal and deem it frivolous.

In upholding an appeal the panel has to determine that the referee did not correctly identify the offence according to the “Laws of the Game” and that the disciplinary sanctions were not appropriate to the offense. The decision of the panel must be unanimous on these two counts for the appeal to be upheld and the red card overturned. If there is not a unanimous decision, the panel is given a second opportunity to review games tapes together; however if the decision remains split the appeal is automatically rejected.

If the panel rejects the appeal, then a third question must be answered: “Was the appeal frivolous?” The MLS provides guidelines for the panel to weigh the value of the appeal:

A frivolous appeal is one that does not contain any objective rational basis.  In other words, an appeal is not frivolous if a reasonable observer with knowledge of the Laws of the Game would find that there is a rational basis for arguing that the red card should not have been issued. (MLS Appeal to Review a Red Card Decision)

If the panel decides that there was some merit to the appeal, even if it was denied, the team is not penalized for its decision. In the case of a split decision, the answer to the question of being frivolous is also “No.” However, if the panel unanimously decides that the appeal had no merit or “objective rational basis,” then the club loses the opportunity to appeal any red card for the remainder of the season and the next season and forfeits the bond. In addition, the players punishment is then doubled. Clearly good reasons for a team to make sure that it has its “ducks in a row” before making an appeal. (Kyle McCarthy has a good explanation on what “objective rational basis” means in his column on

The incident in question happened during the Revolution’s match on Saturday, May 5, against Real Salt Lake. Cardenas had challenged RSL’s Jamison Olave for a ball, successfully breaking up the attack but also catching Olave’s ankle in the process. RSL’s Will Johnson had been sent off earlier in the match on a similar play, and that could have had an influence in the referee’s decision to throw the red on Cardenas. In the broadcast by RSL, the announcing team even had trouble agreeing if it was red card-worthy or not (watch the clip on MLS).

After the match, a 2-1 RSL victory, the Revolution staff and administration decided that this was worthy of a challenge, and so they sent off their appeal and evidence to the league office. On Tuesday, May 8, MLS made the announcement on the panel’s decision:

“[A]n independent review panel – consisting of representatives of the Canadian Soccer Association, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), and U.S. Soccer – unanimously determined Cardenas was incorrectly shown the red card. After examining the play, the panel determined that the referee made an obvious error in the disciplinary sanction, and MLS has rescinded the one-game suspension and fine for Cardenas.”

After the ruling, Revolution coach Jay Heaps told, “We felt, out of principle, that we really should fight this one.”

Revolution general manager Michael Burns agreed with his coach on the importance of filing the appeal. “We knew going into it that there was no guarantee that we would win the appeal,” Burns told “We were the first team to do it, so there hasn't been any precedent set. We weren't sure, but you're never sure. We felt that we had a pretty good case to make in this regard. We're certainly glad the panel agreed with us.”

While this was the first successful appeal through the new process, it will probably not be the last. However, as McCarthy points out in his column, there will not likely be many appeals other than grossly apparent mistakes for most of the season. He suggests that the use of appeals could increase as the season winds down towards the playoffs. If a team has an unsuccessful appeal left and was in danger of losing a key player to a marginal red card call, they would likely chose to move at that point.

Time will tell whether this appeal process serves its purposes – to protect teams and players from inappropriate calls and improve the quality of refereeing by providing an independent analysis of questionable decisions. After a few red cards are overturned, will some referees begin to second-guess their own decisions? Might we see some flagrant penalties receive yellow cards, which are not subject to the same review? And if so, will some referees decide to throw more yellows to make up for their reluctance to show the red? Again, only time will tell.

Related Article: Professional Referee Organization Announced by MLS and U.S. Soccer

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