The joke was on those watching and playing the game between Houston Dynamo and New York Red Bulls on April Fools’ Day: Fotis Bazakos was the center ref, and he produced a display of remarkable ineptitude even by his own standard of consistently baffling officiating.
When the complaint is made that refereeing in MLS is a joke, too often the punchline is Bazakos. But the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) persists with a man who inspired The Bent Musket’s Jake Catanese (as far as Once A Metro is concerned anyway; if Bazakos has done one thing right in his career, it is to inspire some of Jake’s best work) to coin a hashtag back in 2013: #WTFotis.
The April 1 match at BBVA Compass Stadium was just the latest low-point in a refereeing career littered with mistakes and infuriating misinterpretations of events and the laws that govern the game of soccer. Critically, Bazakos mis-read not one but two goal-scoring plays that ultimately ruined the game by handing Houston a 3-1 lead it looked quite capable of earning without assistance from the match officials.
Bazakos called Damien Perrinelle for a penalty that wasn’t, and allowed an Erick Torres goal to stand despite the fact offside Andrew Wenger had to duck out of the way of the ball to let it pass into the net. That Luis Robles’ judgement and reflexes were such that he looked as though he’d flubbed a save on a shot he couldn’t see until the last second is an achievement that deserved better than Bazakos’ inadequate understanding of the rules of the game he works in. There was nothing passive about Wenger’s offside: he was actively screening the ‘keeper.
Not that Bazakos indulges in favoritism. He victimizes the soccer rulebook with evenhanded impunity, frustrating both sides with a fascinating consistency. In his epic April Fool in Houston, he enraged Dynamo fans by failing to acknowledge an early foul by Robles on Torres.
The replay showed that Robles did catch Torres from behind inside his area - and it looked like the RBNY ‘keeper did get away with what would have been a penalty-inducing foul in the games earliest exchanges. Of course, Bazakos made up for that oversight by whistling Perrinelle’s fair tackle on Mauro Manotas as a foul in the box later in the first half.
As if to demonstrate his blown call on Perrinelle was no mistake, Bazakos later whistled (former MetroStars draft pick) Ricardo Clark for a phantom foul on Daniel Royer. As with the Perrinelle tackle, Clark got all ball. He remonstrated vigorously with the referee but had as much success as Sacha Kljestan had done in trying to get Bazakos to see sense (or at least talk to his assistant referee) over the Perrinelle not-a-penalty.
At some point, one has to stop blaming Bazakos and start blaming the institution that manages MLS referees. Time and time and time again, he shows himself incapable of officiating a match with a clear and rational understanding of the rules of the game - and the fact this habit has not been fixed is surely the fault of PRO, not Bazakos. He’s calling the game as he sees fit, and PRO seems to think he’s fit to call games despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Let’s go back to last summer at Sandy, Utah towards the end of the Red Bulls’ match at Real Salt Lake. RBNY lost that game all by itself, but it also lost Aurelien Collin for no better reason than Bazakos just doesn’t know how to judge a clean tackle.
Aurelien Collin was sent off for an all-ball tackle that also happened to see Joao Plata hit the deck after he’d been set stumbling by an earlier challenge from Sean Davis.
Bazakos saw the man going down, ignored the specifics of the event, and sent Collin off for a foul that never happened. Worse, the MLS Disciplinary Committee was unmoved by RBNY’s appeal and Collin was forced to serve a suspension for having the misfortune to have done his job in a match controlled by #WTFotis.
Still, PRO sticks by Bazakos and his compulsive blundering. Maybe having a referee who can be relied upon to ruin a game or two every year is one of the mechanisms MLS leans on to generate its treasured parity. But Bazakos routinely stretches the patience of fans and players and should have been taken out of the spotlight a long time ago.
Yes, every referee interprets the game per their understanding of the rules as applied to specific events. Yes, it’s a tough job that requires heat-of-the-moment decision-making without recourse to replay or even much time to pause for thought. Mistakes happen. But that is also why top-level referee’s distinguish themselves: they’re better at the difficult task of managing a game of soccer than most. Bazakos is not.
No match or league is safe with Bazakos making the calls in the middle of the pitch as the first official. His name on a game is a near-guarantee of controversy. There has to be some form of recourse here. The top division of the USA and Canada is not the place for slow learner to pick up the laws of soccer.
The Video Assistant Referee is coming to MLS and one of the primary concerns about the use of replay technology on the regular in live matches is that it will disrupt the pace and flow of the game. Given Bazakos’ tendencies, he could single-handedly sabotage the VAR experiment in MLS: the frequency and significance of his errors are such, there will be reviews every two to three minutes.
The Red Bulls aren’t the only team in the league to have suffered at the whistle of Bazakos. He has surely unbalanced a game for or against every team in MLS by now. But PRO needs to earn its keep and show it has measures in place for the management and training of referees who aren’t meeting the required standard. Every time Bazakos fails to make a call correctly, fails to consult with his assistants, or compounds an error by making it over and over again (we praise refs for consistency, but consistently being wrong isn’t really the same thing) - he is bringing American soccer and those that oversee it into disrepute.
Simply, this is not good enough. We need officiating to improve just as much as the product on the field in Major League Soccer needs to improve as well. And the former holds the latter back.