New rules put players on best behavior

The Albuquerque Tribune
Sept. 5, 2007

They’re still not much bigger than a Post-It, probably too small to hold some of Mom’s recipes.

But this soccer season, penalty cards could feel heavier than a stack of cinder blocks — too many piled up will crush a team’s eligibility for the state tournament.

The yellow and red papers gained power in the offseason when the New Mexico Activities Association, the organization that governs high school athletics in the state, adopted a new set of guidelines regarding penalty card accumulation.

The big one? According to rule 7.17.5 of the NMAA’s soccer bylaws, any team that collects 32 cards during the season will be prohibited from state tournament play.

“Most coaches don’t like it,” said Albuquerque High coach Art Sandoval, whose Bulldogs will compete in the APS Tournament this afternoon. “I don’t like it either. I’m just trying to get my players not to get dumb yellow cards. We’ve gotten two in three games for tossing the ball after a call.”

NMAA spokesman Robert Zayas says the goal of the new bylaw, called the “misconduct progression rule,” is to curtail the number of cards handed out in a season.

“We’re losing officials, and a lot of them are telling us they no longer want to deal with the behavior of some of the (players and coaches),” Zayas said.

The NMAA’s rule, which is in effect for two years, is nearly identical to a Wisconsin policy. It’s just a bit more lenient. In Wisconsin teams are allowed 30 cards per season.

No matter the origin, the most worrisome aspect of the rule, coaches say, is the natural inconsistency between officials.

Said Eldorado coach Walt Witkowski: “They all do a good job, but they’re all a little different.”

As in any sport, some referees lean heavily on the letter of the law, some the spirit.

Some officials are open to constant communication with players, some are closed.

Some are quicker to pull the cards than others.

“It depends on the refs and how they respond to this,” said Highland coach Andy Legant. “Sometimes each side gets seven or eight (cards). I’ve been in those games. If you get one of those, it’s going to be very difficult. Hopefully (the officials) understand the rule so they temper how they call the games.”

Legant’s example of a team receiving seven cards in a match may be extreme, but what’s certain is the wide variance and unpredictability involved. The heat of the competition, the style of play, and the combination and experience of officials can sway how many cards come out on a given afternoon.

In a sample of 27 boys’ and girls’ box scores published by The Tribune on two random dates last season, there were nine penalty cards given. It should be noted that not all coaches reported stats from the matches on those dates, and some who do chose not to disclose information about cards.

Last week, in separate matches, referees slapped the Albuquerque Academy and West Mesa boys with four cards apiece.

None of the coaches interviewed for this story knew exactly how many cards their team received in 2006. Legant estimated 25. West Mesa coach Eric Chavez guessed six.

But thanks to another part of the rule change, coaches shouldn’t have to worry about intentional cards.

In past seasons players had to sit a match after their third yellow and every odd-numbered yellow card after that. With a big game looming, some coaches had players seek out cards — in a gentlemanly fashion, Witkowski notes — so they could serve the suspension before the important match.

Under the new rule, players will not be suspended until receiving a fifth card. After eight cards, a player will be suspended for two games and, most likely, unspecified further punishment by the NMAA.

“That’s better for the individual because it allows for some of the fluctuations and inconsistency with officiating,” Witkowski said.

Chavez, unlike many of his peers, likes all aspects of the new rule. He lost a player for a significant portion of last season after a hard foul in the box, which Chavez viewed as intentional.

“This controls the game more,” he said.

Such a harsh team penalty could, in theory, entice others to try to gain control.

It seems unlikely coaches could hide cards their team has received because officials must file game reports to the NMAA. But, if one team was approaching 32 cards, would another team try to egg them on to send them over the edge and out of the playoffs?

“I wouldn’t say it couldn’t happen,” Sandoval said. “I don’t know if a coach would do it, though.”

If anything, they will almost certainly be more mindful of their own behavior.

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