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).