MLS suspends Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini for joking about ref dying after contentious playoff exit

INDIO, CA - FEBRUARY 04: Vanni Sartini the head coach / manager of Vancouver Whitecaps FC during the MLS Pre-Season 2023 Coachella Valley Invitational match between Vancouver Whitecaps FC v Charlotte FC at Empire Polo Club on February 4, 2023 in Indio, California. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
Major League Soccer didn't like Vanni Sartini's joke after the Whitecaps' playoff exit. (Photo by Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images)

Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini was suspended five games by MLS on Thursday for his actions during and after his team's controversial exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs, the league announced.

Sartini was also fined $20,000 and will have to "complete a league-approved behavioral assessment and comply with any recommended treatment."

The game in question was against the defending champ LAFC in the Whitecaps' first series of the playoffs. Down 1-0, Vancouver faced a must-win match Nov. 6.

There were multiple heated moments throughout the match for Vancouver, including after referees awarded a penalty for a questionable Tristan Blackmon foul on Mario Gonzalez. Minutes later, Gonzalez avoided a red card for a hard slide into goalkeeper Yohei Takaoki. Vancouver players surrounded the refs after both plays to argue their case.

The wildest moment, though, came in the third minute of stoppage time, when referee Tim Ford accidentally collided with Whitecaps midfielder Alessandro Schopf as the player was running in for an attempt at the tying goal. Instead, LAFC recovered the ball and appeared to score an empty-net goal, but the goal was waved off due to an offside violation.

Before the goal was waved off, Sartini was issued a red card and ejected for berating Ford. He was no less heated after the game, describing the refs as "a disaster" and "their worst performance of the season." He then made a joke he would come to regret, via the Canadian Press:

[Sartini] made a joke about being a suspect if Ford was found dead after the match, which appears to have sparked the pushback from the referees union.

"If they found him in False Creek then I'm going to be a suspect," Sartini said. "I'm not saying that I would do it, I'm saying I'm the first suspect, it's different."

The Professional Soccer Referees Association, the union that represents MLS refs, was not amused. The next day, it released a statement calling Sartini's comments "disgusting" and saying he took his rhetoric to "dangerous levels."

Sartini apologized for his comments the next day, but not before MLS opened an investigation into his team's actions. A red card comes with an automatic one-game suspension, but the league opted to add five more games to Sartini's discipline, which will begin at the start of next season.