By Glenn Crooks
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What happened to Mark Geiger?
In 2013, he retired as a math teacher at Lacey Township High School in New Jersey to become a full-time referee with the Professional Referee Organization (PRO).
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In 2014, Geiger became the first American in 12 years to referee at the World Cup in Brazil. There, he became the first American to ever officiate an elimination game, France vs. Nigeria.
He has twice been named the MLS Referee of the Year.
Geiger, who was chosen for the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching in 2009, has not been placed on that sort of pedestal in his 13th season with MLS. Instead, he has been vilified by players and coaches.
New York City Football Club supporters will have their opportunity to evaluate Geiger on Sunday at Yankee Stadium when he officiates City’s match against the Chicago Fire.
According to FIFA, Geiger was selected along with the other World Cup referees based “on their personality and their quality in football understanding by being able to read the game and the teams’ tactical approaches towards each game.”
It is that keen tactical awareness that New York City FC coach Patrick Vieira says is absent from some of the critical decisions that often dictate the outcome of a match. While not referring to Geiger specifically in a chat with reporters Thursday, Vieira did not hesitate to question the abundance of red cards issued in the league this season – which includes Geiger sending off New York Red Bulls midfielder Felipe in their recent 1-0 loss at New England.
“Some of the red cards I saw last week were very harsh,” said Vieira. “The referee is making the decision too quickly. They need to take a look around, look at the reaction of the players and take a few moments before making the decision.”
“It would seem that referees are the flavor of the month and that is something I don’t want them to be,” Peter Walton, general manager of PRO, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
Walton disagreed with Vieira’s assessment and the general criticism around the league pertaining to red cards in the first five weeks of the MLS season.
“Last year, we got 72 percent of our red cards correct (in MLS) – that means we missed 28 percent,” said Walton. “We observed poor positioning and poor movement on the part of the referees in those cases. We were not punishing the offense, as it should be. In many cases the referee saw the play, but the result was a yellow when it should have been a red.”
Sixteen red cards have been issued this season through through 42 matches – an increase of two from 2015 and five from two seasons ago.
“Now, our referees are detecting and punishing, as they should, in these sort of challenges,” said Walton, who stressed that the percentage of missed red cards in 2016 has decreased to 15 percent.
Back to Geiger, whose reputation was marred last summer at an international event before over 70,000 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta – the Gold Cup semifinals between Mexico and Panama. After Mexico defeated Panama, Geiger admitted that “officiating errors had been made that impacted the outcome.”
Although specific calls were not identified, the Panamanians were incensed by two decisions– a first-half red card plus a late penalty that enabled Mexico to equalize in added time.
Panama Federation president Pedro Chaluja said that he felt the game was fixed while the players stood with a banner that called CONCACAF “corrupt thieves.”
The Gold Cup event followed a favorable World Cup review for Geiger in two group matches. However, he was disparaged by the Nigerian coach, Stephen Keshi, in the knockout round.
“This is the first time I will speak about the referee in my life as a coach,” said Keshi. “It wasn’t good.”
Then there was the incident in last year’s MLS playoffs that resulted in a six-match suspension for New England’s Jermaine Jones (now with the Colorado Rapids). The Revolution were eliminated from the playoffs. An apparent hand ball in the area by United’s Sean Franklin was waved off by Geiger, and Jones erupted, making physical contact with the referee.
“So if you are a referee who cannot handle it, and you have D.C. say they have a problem with him, we say we are not happy with him, so something is wrong there,” said Jones, who claimed that Franklin told him it should have been a penalty.
In 2016, Geiger has drawn frequent criticism, most notably a week ago when Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch disputed the management of the game.
“The referee had such a huge impact on this game by having a bad performance,” said Marsch.
Marsch was equally incensed with the Revolution for their “shameful” display of sportsmanship, failing to knock the ball out during the Rev’s game-winning sequence while Kemar Lawrence lay prone with a knee injury just outside the penalty area.
Vieira saw the play and was quite clear on how he would expect his team to respond in that scenario.
“I hope my players watched that episode because it will happen again,” said Vieira, who won a World Cup with France and an EPL title at Arsenal FC. “The referee didn’t give the whistle, so the game has to be played. You have to focus and keep playing until the referee stops the game.”
Play until you hear a whistle! We have all heard our coaches bark that command.
Chicago head coach Veljko Paunovic recalled a situation as a player at Partizan Belgrade when he initially faulted the opposition for advancing to goal.
“In my first year as a pro, I was knocked down and was laying in the 18-yard box and the opponent scored, so I know how it feels,” said Pauno. “Looking back, I think I could get up or find another way to help my team and not stay there laying down.”
I have two words for NYCFC supporters: Javier Calle.
• Although City killer David Accam is questionable with a knock, expect Vieira to play four at the back to deal with the pace of the Fire. Vieira has favored the 3-2-2-3 shape in three home matches that followed the opening day win at Chicago. The 4-3-3 provides more immediate cover for the fullbacks — it was also the system utilized in Chicago. From left to right, I presume a back line of Andoni Iraola, Jason Hernandez, Jefferson Mena and Ronald Matarrita. The midfield triangle features Andrea Pirlo, Tommy McNamara and Mix Diskerud. Other than David Villa up top, there are no certainties for the other two positions.
“What’s good for me is that I have players who can play different positions,” Vieira said. “We played David on the left today (Thursday) in training, tomorrow (Friday) we will do the same with Khiry (Shelton) and (Steven) Mendoza has played the No. 9 at times this week.”
• Jack Harrison, Connor Brandt, Frank Lampard – that is the predicted order of return from the injured list for New York City. As for Lampard, I tweeted on Thursday that he may not return to full training for another three weeks with a calf injury.
The reaction was predictable.
The club wants to be vigilant and avoid a repeat from last season when Lampard returned prematurely from a similar injury which resulted in a relapse. Over two seasons, he has played in 10 of a possible 23 regular matches for NYCFC.
For all things futbol, please follow Glenn on Twitter at @GlennCrooks. For more from Glenn Crooks, visit empireofsoccer.com.