Boys’ soccer in Utah is on probation for three years. Here’s what coaches said about the UHSAA decision

The Utah High School Activities Association says there were 164 total ejections in the sport during the 2022 season. Coaches are upset by the resulting penalty of having schedules reduced by two games.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davis’s Elliott Pehrson (23) collides with Herriman's Jason R. Dunham (4) during their 6A State Soccer Championship title game at Rio Tinto Stadium, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Herriman defeated Davis 1-0 with two seconds left on the clock.

The Herriman High School boys’ soccer team knew it had to clean up its act.

During the 2021 season, the Mustangs accumulated more yellow and and red cards than they were comfortable with. Coach Marcello Gasperini, who was an assistant that year before taking the head job in 2022, said that team averaged about two or three yellows per game, and totaled between 12 and 15 reds.

“Feedback I get from the admins and the athletic director is that we were the most hated school to ref because the players were just out of line,” Gasperini said.

But Herriman turned it around. In 2022, the team accumulated less than 10 yellow cards and only two red cards, Gasperini said. He credits the turnaround to pressure and higher expectations from the school’s own administration to improve the team’s conduct on the field.

So when an email came June 9 from the Utah High School Activities Association putting the entire sport of boys’ soccer under probation for three years and reducing its schedule by two games across the board starting in spring 2023 due to a rise in ejections, Gasperini reacted with “immediate frustration.”

“This is not the way to teach and develop players or coaches or even parents,” Gasperini said.

The UHSAA, in an email obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, said that out of the 21 sports sanctioned in Utah, 50% of all recorded ejections came from boys’ soccer, and called that figure “unacceptable.”

“Sportsmanship has been a huge emphasis for the UHSAA, with an increased focus the past [five] years,” the email states. “Boys’ Soccer has been in direct conflict with the goals, direction, and mission of the UHSAA.”

Seth Wallace, coach of the Morgan High boys’ soccer team, disagrees with UHSAA’s characterization of the sport.

“It kind of frustrates me that they paint soccer like it’s this problem sport with all these bad kids when it’s just as bad, if not worse, in the other sports,” Wallace said. “I don’t feel like the state understands the sport.”

The UHSAA on Wednesday released figures on the number of ejections that occurred in boys’ soccer during the 2022 season after initially not providing any data with its initial announcement of the probation.

Last season, there were 164 total ejections, with athletes accounting for 146 of them. There were 114 total ejections as a result of straight red cards, and 50 for receiving two yellow cards.

The UHSAA said 71 red cards were for “language or gesture/fighting/infringing/denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity/taunting/unsportsmanlike conduct.” And 43 were for “violent conduct.”

“The UHSAA believes there are more ejections that have been unreported by schools/officials,” the association said.

When Layton Christian Academy boys’ soccer coach Lucas Almeida read the 50% figure in the association’s email, he actually thought the percentage would be higher due to the types of fouls that occur on the field.

“In other sports, I feel like it’s super-hard for you to get ejected,” Almeida said. “You have to really get out of line to get those things happening to you. Even in football that is full physical as well, it’s very hard because you have to go to the extreme. In soccer, it’s a timing thing.”

Almeida believes that yellow cards — and even some red cards — are part of soccer. For example, if his team is about to get scored on and one of his players grabs an opposing forward to prevent a goal, he’s largely OK with that despite the result being a red card and subsequent one-game suspension for his player.

On the flip side, Almeida does not condone players or parents berating referees.

Wallace agrees with Almeida that cards are part of soccer and are practically inevitable. But when it comes to players or coaches getting ejected for other reasons, he sees what the UHSAA is trying to do.

“I felt it was out of control the way other teams, players, coaches treated refs, and the abuse that the refs took was getting pretty out of line,” Wallace said.

The Morgan coach added that his own players received copious abuse. In the 3A semifinal game, he said, his players were “threatened with their lives.” He also said his players have been called the N-word — even though the majority of them are white.

Wallace said his team incurred only two ejections during the 2022 season. One them was for a second yellow, and the other was a straight red.

Coaches took issue with the reduction in games levied by the USHAA, arguing that going from 16 to 14 allowable games in the regular season is a significant loss.

“You take two games away and you’re taking 10% of the games if you go all the way,” Almeida said, adding that those two games also help prepare a team for its region schedule.

The USHAA said it will re-evaluate the probation every year for three years. It will further reduce the number of games “if the sportsmanship and ejections do not improve,” its email stated. The association’s executive committee has not yet set any standards in regards to an amount of acceptable ejections when reevaluating the probation.

Coaches were upset that the UHSAA made its decision without first getting their feedback on how ejections could improve. They’d like to see that change going forward.

“Let us be a part of a solution that we can all work for,” Gasperini said. “Put together a committee and let’s together and collectively change the climate and the atmosphere for how soccer is perceived in Utah. That’s a better solution than just laying down the gauntlet.”

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