Ismail Elfath and Refereeing in the Red Bulls-Montreal MLS Match

Red Bulls faced off against Montreal in the Olympic Stadium on Saturday night.  The refereeing team for the game was Ismail Elfath, Peter Manikowski, Craig Lowry, and Terry Vaughn as the center referee, two assistant referees and fourth official respectively.

Elfath was in charge for a match that will likely serve as an educational tool for referees in the future.  He called a penalty against Marcus Holgersson for a handball, even though the ball was behind the defender and hit the back of his upper arm after bouncing off of a Montreal attacker.  Then Elfath referred to his assistant referee to award a penalty in the Red Bull’s favor not long after.  While a penalty was probably the correct call upon replay, at the time it reeked of a make-up call.

His first action as referee, however, was to book New York’s defensive midfielder Victor Palsson in the fourth minute of the game.  The tackle in question was horrible and stupid.  I’m not criticizing the yellow card on the play, as it was probably warranted even on the first offense of the game.  Setting a tone early as an official is not necessarily a bad thing, but Elfath let tackles as bad off without so much as a warning.  For me, the worst thing a referee can be is inconsistent.  He may have tried to control what looked to be a physical game from the outset, but by booking one foul and all but ignoring another of equal caliber, Elfath left players unsure of what tackles were admissible in the game.

As Shep Messing and Joe Tolleson mentioned multiple times during the game, this was Ismail Elfath’s first MLS match as a center referee.  So who is this guy and why does he deserve to be an MLS referee?

Ismail Elfath has been involved in officiating three other professional matches this season.  On April 14, Elfath was the fourth official in a match between Dallas and Montreal.  The following week he was the center referee in the North American Soccer League (NASL) when Tampa Bay Rowdies visited the Atlanta Silverbacks on the 21st.  Then on May 4, Elfath was once again a fourth official for the Seattle-Philadelphia match.

I’m all for bringing in new officials in line with the Professional Refereeing Organization’s mandate (which I wrote about two months ago here), but I don’t think this guy necessarily qualifies for the fast track development program.  PRO was partially designed to promote experienced referees from the lower divisions and to give new referees experience by splitting work between officiating NASL or USL games and acting as a fourth official in MLS.  This is the same idea as developing a player in the reserve league and making late game substitution appearances with the first team; it gives the referees quality match experience in a lower competition while also exposing them to MLS in order to acclimate them to the style and pace of the league as a fourth official.

The rest of the officiating team, including the AR who made the penalty call for the Red Bulls, are more experienced.  Manikowski and Lowry have each been assistant referees 6 times in the league this season before the NYRB match in Montreal.  This year Terry Vaughn has been a center referee once in MLS, a center referee in NASL once, and has twice been a fourth official in MLS prior to Saturday’s match.

In his defense, as the center referee Ismail Elfath successfully managed an NASL match with the Atlanta Silverbacks.  Of the 7 games Atlanta has played in NASL this season, 4 have featured sending offs and 2 of those were straight red cards.  Prior to Saturday’s match, the Silverbacks averaged 14.7 fouls per game (during the match Elfath officiated they had 16), 3 yellow cards per game (Elfath issued 1), and .86 red cards per game (Elfath didn’t send anyone off).

That doesn’t necessarily mean he prevented the game from getting out of hand, but that’s the only officiating job he’s had all year. It’s the only measuring stick we have to go by.  Based on the numbers, he seems to have controlled a match with the bad boys of the NASL better than other officials have.  However, should exceeding (or at least performing above average) at one match in the second division be the only criterion used to determine which up and coming referees are fast-tracked to the MLS?

I don’t think so and the farcical officiating in the match between the New York Red Bulls and Montreal stands to support my view.

This does also have wider implications for US Soccer aside from the fans of the two teams who had to suffer through that comedy of errors.  Ismail Elfath was targeted over a year ago as a strong up-and-coming refereeing candidate for MLS.  US Soccer released a press report in June 2011 tracking Elfath and propping him up as the poster child of the new referee development program.

Ismail Elfath provides a great example of a young referee who, through his hard work and dedication, is taking advantage of this process.

Elfath became a registered referee in Texas South in 2006 and began in the Academy two years later. In just three years, Elfath has officiated more than 100 games and was quickly identified within the Academy for his efforts.

“The Development Academy has tremendously helped me move along and be exposed to different teams and higher levels of professionalism,” said Elfath. “You also get close to the U.S. Soccer referee program and learn from their philosophies and leaders.”

The press release continues, singling Elfath out once more:

Because of his impressive performance, Elfath quickly rose on the referee grade scale, now as a Grade 3, and was then integrated into MLS. He received his first assignment when he refereed a scrimmage on Jan. 29, 2011, in Houston, Texas. He then refereed an exhibition game on Feb. 2 between the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas. He also went on to referee three more preseason games. During the regular season, Elfath has been the fourth official for two games and refereed a MLS Open Cup play-in game on April 6 between Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo.

“All the credit goes to the mentoring program and the education from U.S. Soccer at the local level in the South Texas organization that I was a part of, and also at the national level when we go to the tournaments and learn from the staff that accompanies the showcases,” said Elfath. “There is also the dedication on my part.”

The gem of the US Soccer write up, in light of Elfath’s horrible performance in charge of his first MLS match, has to be the following line:

“While the number of U.S. officials in FIFA is currently decreasing due to a lack of experienced professional referees, this next generation of referees will be well-equipped and easily identifiable to fill those roles.”

I don’t want to put a target on Mr. Elfath for abuse from fans.  What I do want is for draw attention to the ongoing failure of referee development in this country.  Elfath has been the star pupil of the new refereeing program for over a year. He’s a young referee working his way through the ranks and levels, heck, he even has a mentor coach. All of that comes straight from the guidelines released during the hullabaloo with the new Professional Referee Organization.  But even with all that, the poor guy was very clearly dreadfully out of his depth, and the blame for that lies squarely on the shoulders of US Soccer.

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4 thoughts on “Ismail Elfath and Refereeing in the Red Bulls-Montreal MLS Match

    • Thanks for reading, I’m glad you liked it. Hopefully this guy won’t be in charge of any other games this season after that performance. Unless, of course, it’s a D.C. or Philadelphia game..

  1. This guy recently centered the Dynamo v RSL game last Thursday and was quite possibly the worst ref I have seen at any level of soccer. Put aside the fact that he made an abundance of questionable calls against both sides. The biggest issue I had with him was that he was clearly trying to make his mark on the game. To me the best refs are the ones you don’t talk about. This guy was grandstanding throughout the game.

    • There is (almost) never positive commentary about a ref after a game. So if someone is talking about a ref, it’s usually a bad sign. This guy has been a fourth official in MLS for over a year so he has to be acclimated to the pace and style of the league. There is really no excuse for not improving upon his horrible debut performance over the last four months.

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