Salazar, Seattle, and Fate

The narrative after last night’s Seattle-Salt Lake match was the crowd response, Sigi Schmid’s response and even Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer’s response to the early double-yellow issued to acting center back Zach Scott.

Ordinarily it would be an “I think that was a bit harsh” complaint, but the larger issue has been the presence of referee Ricardo Salazar in some of the most infamous moments in Seattle Sounders history. An exasperated Schmid, who knows full well he’ll be fined by Don Garber for it, saw fit to say this on national TV:

“We have our 12th man which is the fans. They have theirs, which is Ricardo Salazar.”

Later, GM Adrian Hanauer joined in with a deeper complaint:

“I’m not at all happy that Salazar was assigned this game. The league was well-aware of my feelings after the Open Cup game. I think his decisions lost us the game in Kansas City, and I think his decisions tonight possibly took two points from us. I don’t know what it is, but I’m not comfortable.”

The fact is, either by deed or by fate, Salazar has been behind some of the most critical decisions in Sounders history. He’s issued the last three red cards Seattle has received in all 2012 competitions — accounting for over half their total of reds.

In the 2012 US Open Cup final, Salazar set the tone after whistling an early foul to Osvaldo Alonso. Angrily admonishing Alonso, it appeared he was simply issuing a warning…a warning that seemed to go on for some time. As Alonso turned away, Salazar grabbed his arm. Alonso shook off Salazar’s hand — and that’s when a yellow card came out.

Later he controversially ordered a re-take of a Michael Gspurning save during the tie-breaking shootout, claiming the keeper was off his line. Despite video evidence that it was no more egregious than what both goalies had been doing (and continued to do) the entire time, no other calls were made.

Salazar also made a difference in the first Cascadia Cup match of the year in Portland, where he ejected Fredy Montero with four minutes of stoppage remaining, for a light shove and, quite frankly, a David Horst dive. The ejection snuffed out Seattle’s hopes at a time when they were pressing for an equalizer, and Montero was suspended for their next match, which ended in a draw in New England.

The connection goes back years. In a 2010 match against Chivas USA, Salazar, as a fourth official, recommended a red to Leo Gonzalez in 2010 that ref Alex Prus later publicly apologized for, with Salazar “seeing” an “strike above the shoulders” foul that didn’t actually occur.

Think about that: Salazar’s own colleague called him out on it.

The Problem

I believe Salazar is actually a good referee, and when he’s operating with maximum professionalism there may be no better in the USSF. That’s why he gets assigned to big matches. However, I also believe Salazar lets his emotions get in the way at times. And we should accept that from a ref even less than we do from a player.

I agree that riding herd on an MLS match is worse than herding cats; it’s more like herding wild baboons. And an average MLS defender, of which Scott is the epitome, walks a thin line between heroics and ejection, often employing frantic tactics to deny ever more skilled attackers a clear chance. In isolation, almost all of his calls might well have been made by another ref (even the error on the Gonzalez red).

However, in MLS a yellow card could well be pulled every time a club moves quickly toward goal. Control, or what can be called control in MLS, is a matter of picking your spots. Those spots seem to come early and in favor of Seattle’s opponents when Salazar is on the pitch.

Like it or not, Salazar is linked to these incidents in an almost consistent manner. Do I think he “has it in” for Seattle? While his inconsistent goal-line calls during the US Open Cup penalties or his reaction to Alonso may make it seem so, I don’t think he’s trying to crack down especially hard on them. Is it possible that in some way, Seattle pushes his buttons? Sure, but I tend to discount that on the grounds that a top MLS/USSF referee should be much more professional than to allow that to happen. He probably wouldn’t have gotten this far if he was prone to that.

None of these is even the worst prominent call Salazar has made: that may be the Thierry Henry “neck pat” straight red last year against Portland. (Henry may be a master of the subtle hack, but still…)

This all may in fact simply be fate: Ricardo Salazar is in the wrong place at the wrong time, refereeing matches where another ref would have made the exact same calls…but having the bad luck of being forced to play that role over and over again, like a soccer version of “Groundhog Day.”

However, the fact is that during pivotal moments for Seattle, Salazar has been there, and usually he has made a borderline call somewhere along the line that has severely crippled the Sounders’ chances of winning the match. No other club seems to have a single referee so deeply linked to their lowest moments.

The Solution?

One Northwest-based blog posted an op-ed blasting Schmid for being so upset at Salazar, essentially claiming he’s inciting fans and should just “man up,” and others on Twitter rabidly defend Salazar as “one of MLS’ best refs.”

And that all may be, but when bad things happen consistently, it’s important to try and change what’s consistent about them. Salazar has been fairly consistently the man blowing the whistle in some very pivotal moments, and doing it almost entirely in the favor of Seattle’s opponents.

Even if it’s simply fate, it might be time to stop tempting it further. There are plenty of other matches to referee, and plenty of top USSF refs to assign to matches involving Seattle.

It’s time to make this a non-issue, and that’s within MLS’ power.