There has been plenty of talk as to referees essentially dictating style of play. Not just of one game, but on entire leagues and at all levels. The implication is that this has direct influence on a coach’s player selections and the style of play he implements. So generally:
- Spain has more possession, skill-based play because refs call a tighter game.
- English and US Soccer is more “route 1” because of a “play on” stance by the refs.
- Collegiate soccer here in the states is terrible because refs allow players to get away with murder.
Catch the drift? The argument is shared by many, if not most. And why not? There’s a seductive logic to it.
It has come up here in comments as well.
Now to be fair, it’s stated that referees are secondarily responsible and not as important as the coaches and players themselves.
But there remains a strong implication that if refereeing was different, we would play differently.
First Things First
I think the topic of referees, in general, repeatedly surfaces because it’s easy.
It’s an easy talking point for everyone – match casters, bloggers, supposed “experts”, fans, kids, etc. Video replay of offsides, penalty kicks, questionable goal-line decisions, dives, and fouls of all flavors are easily accessible for demonstration of one’s point.
No video? No problem. One can still easily point to and discuss a specific referee event (whistle/no whistle), or an aggregate of events.
It is also a simple and convenient scapegoat.
Can referee decisions influence the outcome of a match? Certainly. Everyone’s team has benefited, or been screwed here and there.
But can and do they influence what type of player a coach chooses for his roster, or how a coach chooses to train and have his team play? That’s really the question.
If the answer is yes, then I contend the root problem we have here is not the referees but the coaches. A truly elite coach can have his team play “good soccer”. His philosophy isn’t affected by referees. And his implementation is primarily a function of his capacity for player selection and set tactical work.
What the hell kind of coach gets his entire philosophy of the game influenced by referees?
The extrapolation being made that; “it’s because of the referees that we play long ball, chaotic, and generally garbage soccer” is nonsense.
Playing an effective possession-centered attacking style is the hardest thing to do in all of soccer! There, I’ve said it. It’s the hardest thing to do!
It takes tremendous understanding and an attention to detail on a scale few can appreciate. And on top of that “knowledge”, you have to have the capacity to implement it. Even fewer are in that group.
That is why in all my years in the Southern California club scene, I can count on one hand the coaches who are capable.
That is also why there is only one Caleb Porter at the collegiate level, with a few others that I know of trying with some success, and then the rest of the clueless horde.
But the fact that Akron exists in spite of the referees – which by the way are worse in college than MLS – should say something.
Can someone please explain to me how Akron manages to play “the right way” in an environment supposedly so hostile that it’s claimed to be a reason why the beautiful game is not possible?
I keep bringing them up because for years I’ve had to endure our college soccer colleagues tell us: “Gary, Brian, you guys are able to have your teams play a la Barca because they are at the youth level. College soccer is different [too physical].” And what was I suppose to say to that? Well, now Akron has shut their fat pie-hole on my behalf .
Arsenal also plays this way in the EPL and is a regular at the top of the table. Yes, they haven’t had silverware for years, but does someone really have the balls to say the league’s officiating is to blame? The fact remains they’ve played possession-centered, attacking, attractive, and creative soccer.
And the day will come when an elite coach finally gets the reins of an MLS team , and shows that the refs have little bearing on the type of soccer we play.
That “it’s because of the referees that one chooses players more in the image of Brek Shea than Andres Iniesta” is also nonsense. 
It is because our coaches have no clue how to use an Andres Iniesta! Knowing how to wield a player’s brain and technical attributes is infinitely more difficult than wielding strength, height, and speed.
A player like Brek Shea, my sock-knitting grandma knows how to use: “Hey Brek, go gallop like a horse up and down the sideline, serve up some crosses, and get stuck in”.
That my friends, in a nutshell, is the main reason why we play the way we do at all levels. It’s easy. It takes little skill on the coach’s part to play that way.
99% of our coaches are hacks!
But maybe I’m not being fair to the argument
Let’s step back a bit. I guess the presumption goes that if games were called tighter, it would foster a more friendly, nurturing environment for coaches to try and play better, more skill-based soccer. That many of these poor “hacks” as I call them, would now have the nudge they’ve always needed to build their own OSC Rage, Akron, or Barca-lite team.
You think Brek Shea, Marvel Wynne, Brian Mullen, Conor Casey, Omar Gonzalez and company would start riding the pine? That their respective coaches would all of a sudden say: “Oh, now I can put my skilled players on the field”.
So Michael Farfan, Anthony Ampaipitakwong, Amobi Okugo, Roger Torres, and players in that image – the skilled, intelligent one – would be the cherished regular starters instead? 
That our youth coaches would start putting on 10, 15, 30 touch displays virtually every game like we and only a handful of others have done? And win!
Come on …
We know a lot of these guys – youth to pro. That’s just not the way they think. They don’t believe in it! They are Man United fans, not Barcelona fans. They are EPL fans, not La Liga. They admire Lampard, not Busquets.
Their fundamental philosophy on the game and what’s possible just aren’t compatible.
Here’s a couple other thoughts:
How come MLS teams don’t play “the beautiful game” when competing in CONCACAF Champions League?
International refs officiate USMNT games. So how come Sampson, Arena, or Bradley didn’t select and play “skill-based” soccer? And how has Klinsmann in a few games already shown more on that front than his predecessors?
My experience and anecdotes all point to referees not being much of an issue.
It’s never stopped or influenced us at any age group at the youth level (it’s never even been a topic of discussion actually), it hasn’t stopped Caleb Porter at the physically ruthless college level, and it wouldn’t stop a truly badass MLS coach either.
Unfortunately, until that badass coach arrives I’ll have to endure the naysayers.
For now my position is; yeah it’d be nice if a tighter game was called. But I think the adoption this argument seemingly boasts is not commensurate with its importance. Nevertheless, like everything else, it should be discussed. So let’s discuss …
 Not to worry, our college buddies have other excuses for Akron’s success. But at least now they can’t claim the physical nature of college soccer is the reason they play like crap.
 Apparently there’s a lot of talk about Jason Kreis as being that guy. I don’t know, maybe I should watch more RSL games. But I think it would have been obvious by now if he’s the badass I’m talking about.
 I’ve been quite hard on Brek Shea leading up to his participation with Klinsmann. To date he has demonstrated 1-dimensional vertical play. In other words, the typical American robot. We’ll soon find out how tactically malleable he is with Klinsmann.
 I’m not picking out the Philadelphia Union here intentionally. The players I listed were off-the-cuff. The last couple seasons I have at least given Nowak some praise with respect to player selection.