HARRISON, N.J. – Mike Petke received a bit of a shock on the sidelines during the New York Red Bulls' clash with Chivas USA last weekend – the fourth official admitting to him that MLS has told its referees to keep a close eye on physical Red Bulls center back Armando.
Speaking to reporters on Friday ahead of the Red Bulls’ visit to Montreal (4 pm ET, TSN/RDS in Canada, MLS Live in US), Petke was asked about Armando’s aggressive style of play and responded by sharing the story of his conversation with the fourth official in last Sunday’s 1-1 draw.
Petke said he was informed that MLS wants to crack down on Armando’s penchant for aggressive play, which has already led to an undisclosed fine and one-game suspension for the Spanish center back.
The RBNY coach said a couple of weeks ago when Armando – who is in his first year in MLS after spending most of his career in Spain – was given the sanction by the MLS Disciplinary Committee that he had no intention of asking his 29-year-old defender to change his style of play. But Petke has reluctantly changed his stance on that.
“Every little challenge or every challenge that could be questionable that perhaps another player would walk away from, he might be targeted now,” said Petke. “It’s about telling him without losing his bite we need him to adjust to the game in MLS. I don’t want him to adjust, but it’s becoming apparent that he’ll have to a little bit.
“It’s going to be a fine line because we don’t want him to lose that bite that he has and that aggression, so we’ll see.”
When contacted by MLSsoccer.com, Professional Referee Organization (PRO) general manager Peter Walton clarified that it was PRO and not the MLS league office that highlighted players and tactics for the New York game against Chivas USA as part of the normal course of referee preparation ahead of a match.
Walton says the conversation between Petke and the fourth official occurred after an early foul by Armando in the opening minutes.
"Like teams and coaches, PRO also do their homework on players and team tactics and we discuss potentials for any conflict or any history so our referees are fully aware of the environment in order to be fully prepared for the encounters of a weekend's game," Walton said. "It's just being professional.
"We had recognized that there were trends and patterns within the game that we wanted to take into consideration for the protection of the players," continued Walton. "The referee took an opportunity to talk to an individual player, to settle him down and make sure he plays within the law. When Petke asked about it, the fourth official told him that we're trying to look after the players and protect the players. Yes, it's a PRO initiative and we had no input at all from the MLS. PRO wants to make sure that the players stay within the confines of the rules of the game.
"Part of refereeing is to be proactive rather than reactive," concluded Walton. "If we can stop players from making challenges that may get them into trouble, it's all the better for the game. We actively pursue a proactive style of refereeing to keep players in a calmer manner for their own protection."
Armando was not available for comment on Friday, but fellow veteran Péguy Luyindula was asked about the difficulty of having to alter one’s style after spending your entire life playing like that. Luyindula did not mince words in his reply.
“It’s impossible. It’s just impossible,” said Luyindula. “You cannot change your style of play just because the league asks you to. It’s just impossible. You cannot say to Bradley [Wright-Phillips] to run less fast, and it’s his way to play.
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“I guess [Armando] understood that he’s on the eye of the referees so maybe he’s going to calm down, but it’s his game. We cannot change him.”
Luyindula also said that the MLS Disciplinary Committee will change its opinion on Armando the more he plays.
“They will know that is his game,” said Luyindula. “He’s not trying to kick everyone just on purpose. He’s just playing like this and sometimes he’s got too much energy, and it’s just energy. It’s not something bad. They will adjust their look on him.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.