This weekend, Tony Tchani became the latest victim of one of the dumbest soccer rules on the books.  After scoring his goal for a Toronto franchise that is probably at its lowest point, he ran off the pitch and jumped up to the stands to celebrate with the fans.  Already sitting on a yellow card, the referee gave him a second and sent him off.  Columbus took advantage and grabbed an equalizer, keeping the Crew’s unbeaten streak alive and denying Toronto a valuable three points.

This is not the first time something like this has happened this season – Eric Hassli was given a second caution when, after a goal against New England, he stripped off his jersey to reveal….another jersey.  Regardless, he was sent off for two cautions.  The issue of goal celebrations and harshness is receiving a lot of thought in soccer circles this week not just because of the Tchani celebration, but because of an EPL incident as well.  When Tamir Cohen scored the game-winning goal for Bolton against Arsenal, he raised his shirt to show a picture of his father, also a professional soccer player who had died recently in a car accident.  Referee Mike Jones issued a celebration yellow as Cohen was crying and honoring his father.

First, let’s establish the fact that by now players should know a simple fact – if they do anything besides a small dance or celebration on the pitch with teammates, they will receive a yellow card.  Tchani and Hassli should have known this and they deserved their punishments knowing that officials crack down on these things.  That said, officials should not punish goal celebrations, but especially in MLS.  In fact, I’d encourage MLS and USSF to have a chat with their officials and encourage them to let celebrations slide.

For my explanation, read on….

The FIFA Laws of the Game state that “reasonable celebrations are allowed, but the practice of choreographed celebrations is not to be encouraged when it results in excessive time-wasting and referees are instructed to intervene in such cases.” FIFA rules note (pg 133) that an official may must caution a player if:

  • a celebration includes inflammatory gestures
  • he climbs onto a perimeter fence
  • he removes his shirt or lifts his shirt, regardless of if a shirt is on underneath
  • he covers his face or head with a mask.

Obviously officials take these rules very seriously despite the fact they are only guidelines.  In Tchani’s case, he did jump onto a perimeter fence but it was in his own fan section at home.  The rule is in place for players in hostile arenas to prevent inciting opposing fans by taunting them and to prevent unnecessary delay of games.  In this weekend’s incident, neither happened.

In their defense, MLS has said Tchani should not have received the yellow, but I’d encourage them to take it a step farther.  I want MLS to come out and say that if a player has a creative or unique goal celebration that does not unnecessary delay a game or taunt fans, then they encourage the player to show their creativity.  Why should they do this?  Exposure.  What drives Sportscenter and sports highlight shows more than creative celebrations?  Those are the type of things that get MLS attention.  What was the main highlight in the DC United-LA Galaxy match?  It wasn’t Magee’s goal, it was Charlie Davies trying to drive a locked VW.  One of the most viral soccer videos of the past year was this incredibly funny goal celebration from Iceland; fan interest in MLS would be peaked if they saw videos on ESPN of funny celebrations or teams creatively honoring a goal.

Obviously there would have to be some limitations.  Celebrations away from home do have the potential to incite opposing fans, so referees should have the leeway to take that into account when deciding to issue yellow cards.  And of paramount importance is the clock; any celebration that goes on for too long or wastes too much time should be a yellow card.  The question is how long is too long, but I am ok with that being a subjective call as long as officials err on the side of allowing too much celebration.  Officials always have the leeway to add on time at the end of a half to make up for celebrations; I would say anything that takes a player away for over a minute is excessive.  And if the league is still concerned with what celebrations will do, Graham Poll has an excellent suggestion: fine a player for any goal celebration that includes removing a shirt (or I’d suggest jumping into the stands) and give the money to charity.

MLS is missing an opportunity to increase its media presence when in the modern media anything that goes viral on the Internet is picked up by major networks and cable stations.  Hits, as in web hits, are the name of the game and MLS should allow its players to show their creativity which consequently will attract attention to the league.  The league should want snippets of their games to be spread on Facebook, You Tube, and Twitter, and the best way to do that is to allow attention-grabbing celebrations.

Let the celebrations continue!