The Charleston Battery played FC New York recently in the friendly confines of Blackbaud Stadium, but the home crowd that is often friendly to the Battery players was not so kind to the referees who officiated the match. But most of our fans know little about these men and women who receive intense criticism after having bad games but are rarely applauded for having good ones. I sat down before that game with Don Wilbur, a “referee coach” for the United States Soccer Federation and FIFA. He evaluates referees for USL PRO, the NCAA, Major League Soccer, CONCACAF, and FIFA. We discussed soccer officials in USL PRO and the process for evaluation and education of referees at every level.
Evaluations necessary just to become a referee
Simply a love of the game and a thorough knowledge of the rules of soccer are not all that are necessary to become a referee, at least at the national or professional level. FIFA, for one, administers rigorous physical fitness tests that prospective referees must pass each season. One of the tests involves referees running six separate 40-meter sprints with 90-second recovery periods between each of the six sprints. International referees must run all six sprints in 6.2 seconds or less, while national referees must run each of the six sprints in 6.4 seconds or less.
A second physical fitness test that FIFA administers consists of repeated high intensity runs. Prospective referees must run 150 meters in 30 seconds, then walk 50 m in 35 seconds, then again run 150 meters, and finally walk 50 meters in 35 seconds. This equals one lap, and the referee must run at least 12 laps in these times.
But physical health is not the only assessment made prior to becoming a referee. Prospective officials must take psychological tests to assess many components of their behavior. A Referee Evaluation Form administered by Exact Sports is given in the preseason. It involves one-on-one meetings with the referee and a performance coach as well as group meetings with the officiating crew and the referee coaches. The tests look at multiple variables among four domains, including psychosocial state, motivation and orientation, officiating games, and career development. It helps to assess the need for interventions, such as training courses, and helps to develop schedules and assignments. These tests are felt to be beneficial to develop self-awareness, improve individual and team dynamics, and improve referee selection overall.
Finally the leagues do try to create crews that work well together. In the preseason, referees are asked confidentially to list assistant referees, fourth officials, and referee coaches with whom they prefer to work. Perhaps more importantly, they are also asked confidentially with whom they prefer him not to work. Hopefully creating cohesive officiating crews can lead to better officiated matches.
Preparation and pre-match interviews
Prior to each match for which he will judge referee performance, Wilbur will call the official for a pre-match interview. During the conference call, the head official describes his research of the teams and players he will officiate. Wilbur says it is critical for the official to understand the formations and the styles of the teams. The officials seek to understand the style of coaching and the temperament of the coaches and players. They even read newspapers and watch television to learn any information that might affect action on the field, such as players’ grudges against certain teams and whether they plan to play physically in that game. For instance, Wilbur expected the head official last Friday would mainly try to control action in the midfield due to the defensive nature of both teams playing, as both the Battery and FC New York had struggled offensively this season.
In Major League Soccer, pre-match evaluations seem to be even more formal. Prior to the Philadelphia versus San Jose match April 30, the referees had detailed information about the players and teams in order to prepare for calling the match. Their document went into a tremendous amount of detail about the style of play and the players. For example, it discussed how Philadelphia typically plays an attacking brand of soccer. They have a central midfielder (Okugo) who is a strong tackler. They also have a strong central defense with players who tackle hard and move out of position to defend. The referees also expected a good deal of contact in the penalty areas, especially as one of San Jose’s forwards (Wondolowski) is very good in the air. Both teams have players who tend to fall in the penalty areas and look to draw penalty kicks, so referees knew to prepare for that possibility with these teams.
Also, the officials extensively research the players involved in order to learn how to best handle them in difficult situations. “Players need to understand that they have reputations too,” Wilbur says. He mentions two of the veteran Battery players that have very different reputations with officials. One tends to be very demonstrative and yells frequently, while the other is more levelheaded and reasonable. The officials know with which of those players to discuss calls and which to ignore.
Wilbur also tries to correct some tendencies of the referees. For instance, he offers as an example one referee who in his last match waved his hands at players (as if to say “no more of that or you’ll get a card”) eight times without ever issuing a card subsequently. Wilbur explained to him that he should only wave his hands once at a player before resorting to issuing a card.
Analysis during the match
Evaluation of the referees and their calls and non-calls during the game is fascinating. Wilbur notes that he tries to sit behind one assistant referee for one half and the other for the second half. He shows me a worksheet that is unbelievably extensive on which he lists significant calls and actions that do not receive a foul or card. The worksheet allows him to track match critical incidents (such as goals allowed or disallowed, penalties given or not given, etc.) injury management, the personality, conduct, and communication of the referees, and in what minute these decisions were made.
In MLS, these in-match evaluations by the referee coaches still occur, but there are added levels of analysis. Professional Match Evaluators (PME) also observe most MLS games, and MLS has set up a Command Center to oversee all games. The ref-coaches and PME’s contact the Command Center, and at least three officials there will save video from multiple angles at moments noted by the ref-coaches and PME’s. According to the notes from the league’s April 28th conference call, “The additional perspective has been helpful in identifying key moments in the game for the growing video library and we will look to increase the value of information gathered from this program.”
The multiple layers of post-match analysis
After each match, Wilbur says that referee coaches meet with the head official and the entire team several times. The first evaluation typically involves only Wilbur and the head official. For instance, after a USL PRO match in Charleston, Wilbur might meet the head official at Queen Anne’s Revenge to go over Wilbur’s handwritten notes and observations. In the coming days, they will review evaluations provided by the assistant referees, fourth officials, and the participating coaches from the match.
If available, the referee coaches and referees receive a DVD of the match to review later. At least according to the 2009 USL Referee Manual, it is “’strongly encouraged’ for all USL First Division teams to provide a video copy of their home matches to the center Referee.” In MLS, Wilbur is given a spreadsheet for the match with six to eight critical calls or no-calls showing video from multiple angles to review with the referees. Plus, the league frequently has webinars with the ref-coaches to review clips of penalties, tackles, player conduct management, and other decisions to identify trends in officiating for the ref-coaches to pass on to their referees.
Database of evaluations
While the multiple, in-depth evaluations each match might seem excessive, it is critical that all of these evaluations go into a large database that will allow the leagues and referee coaches to evaluate the officials over the course of the season and their careers. This system of evaluation helps to determine which referees get to move up. For instance, if a young assistant referee consistently has good games, he might move up to head referee. Successful head referees in USL PRO often get to serve as fourth officials in Major League Soccer. There are approximately eight to ten rookie officials in MLS each season.
The data is compiled into worksheets and scorecards on each official showing their habits, strengths, and weaknesses. For instance, these scorecards show what parts of the field certain referees consistently make correct calls versus incorrect calls and no-calls, whether they are better with some calls rather than others, whether they overly use or avoid cards and send-offs, etc. And while there are remediation penalties (such as the need to have a certain number of passing scores at subsequent games), Wilbur is quick to point out that at least at the MLS level, there is little difference between the highest- and lowest-scoring referees.
Are MLS referees better than those in USL PRO?
There seems to be a common perception that the officiating in USL PRO is poor, but from my investigation into the evaluation process, it at least seems to be an area of focus, and one that potentially could improve significantly. There is one major difference in officiating between the MLS and USL PRO. Major League Soccer uses national or professional referees for all four positions – the referee, the two assistant referees, and the fourth official. USL PRO, the league in which the Battery plays, uses a national referee as the referee, but the assistant referees and fourth official are often locally based, as the league and teams often cannot afford the travel expenses for four officials for each game all season.
But just as the travel costs for four officials is daunting to teams in USL PRO, finances seem to affect the use of video analysis. Even if the USL PRO teams have video to give the referees, it is usually from one camera angle. Having more consistent and thorough use of video would not only point out mistakes but might also allow the referee coaches and the league itself to educate the referees in manners similar to Major League Soccer and FIFA.
Scrutiny can take its toll
There is a tremendous amount of stress on soccer referees that fans rarely see. Knowing that a command center of officials exists to analyze every call or no-call from multiple video angles, and that those officials and the numerous evaluations they receive each night can adversely affect their ascent to the top soccer leagues has to impact the referees. Only the best of the best officials make it to these top levels. Wilbur points out that while there are approximately 140,000-150,000 soccer referees in the United States, there are only 80-100 in MLS. “These guys have to be masochists. They have to subject themselves to intense scrutiny, not just from fans, but also from the leagues. The desire to do well is there. They want to move up to the next level,” Wilbur claims.
And the public scrutiny is certainly present now, with Twitter, television, radio, chat rooms, message boards, and blogs all serving to spotlight bad decisions. “I wouldn’t want to referee today,” Wilbur notes. “It’s life in a fish bowl. Every mistake can be analyzed. A mistake tomorrow night will be available for the whole world to see forever.”
Tweet about evaluation of referees.
I want to hear what you think! Are you surprised by how thorough the review process is? Do you sympathize with them for the scrutiny and criticism from fans?
Before I start, I want to point out that there’s a decent chance that headline may generate the least number of clicks in FiftyFive.One history. Somehow, I picture the average soccer fan seeing this headline and thinking, “Why should I care? I don’t want to read 2,200 words on officiating in a soccer league that likely will not exist in 2017 when I could instead be watching YouTube videos of Roombas with steak knives taped to them jousting to the death.”
It’s my job to convince you to care about this topic. And you should, because losing the NASL is going to have a negative effect on referee development. And that negative effect is going to impact Minnesota United, who happens to now be playing in the US soccer pyramid’s top tier with more finances at stake. It’s kind of a big deal.
Start at the Bottom
First, we have to understand how referees get to that top tier. A majority of referees in the US focus on working the everyday youth leagues and adult leagues in their state. In Minnesota, this means Minnesota Youth Soccer Association (MYSA) matches, park leagues, and adult leagues organized around the state’s larger cities: the Twin Cities, Rochester, and Duluth. In the fall, many officials who have the time continue officiating in MYSA’s fall leagues, while adult officials who want to stay active often turn their attention to school-sponsored soccer (MSHSL).
Be it by self-motivation or through scouting, a small number of officials make the jump to pursue the USSF grade of State Referee. To achieve that grade, an experienced official who is at least 18 years old must spend a year satisfying state-track requirements in Minnesota, then go through an arduous process of upgrading to State Referee the next year. To give you an idea of how difficult it is, there were around 4,300 USSF-certified officials in Minnesota in 2016. Of these, around 100 were in the state-track program (2.3%) and 40 were active State Referees (just under 1%).
Officiating College Soccer
While college officiating and USSF are not directly related, it’s often times a safe assumption that almost all of the officials who work college soccer games in Minnesota are either USSF State-Track referees, State Referees, or “Emeritus” referees (meaning they achieved USSF State Referee or higher at some point in their career). As Minnesota has just one NCAA Division I program (the Gopher women, who I will discuss more in a moment), college officials in Minnesota concentrate primarily on NCAA Division II (the NSIC women’s conference), Division III (the MIAC and UMAC conferences, both men and women), and NAIA two-year colleges.
College officiating in Minnesota is the first exposure of many officials to an environment where there is true “job security of the participants” pressure on officials to get their decisions correct. Don’t get me wrong, there are youth matches in Minnesota where these pressures also exist (I’ll cover them as well momentarily), but these are rare in comparison. When working a college match, an incorrect decision that affects the outcome of a match has real repercussions for the coaches of those teams. There is an expectation that officials in college matches are respectful of the job security of the coaches of the teams, and demonstrate that respect through a true professional commitment to high performance.
Example: if I lollygag through a U-13 match and miss a penalty decision because I am 45 yards away, maybe one of those teams loses out on the league title. That’s bad. If I do the same thing in a college match and miss a penalty decision, causing that team to not qualify for the conference playoffs for the fourth straight year, that might actually cost the coach of that team his or her job. That’s not just bad, that’s simply not acceptable.
As you watch matches within the pyramid of importance in Minnesota soccer, the officials working those games usually have proven themselves and worked their way up that pyramid. The referees who work Gopher women’s games are not assigned from within Minnesota like other Minnesota collegiate matches, but rather by a Big 10 assignor who draws from the entire upper Midwest region. Of the Minnesota referees who work MIAC, UMAC, NSIC, and NAIA matches, there is a tiny pool of perhaps no more than five or six of them eligible to work Big 10 games. And when they do start working Big 10 matches, they cut their teeth as fourth officials or assistant referees.
The US Soccer referee progression
While big game experience in college matches becomes helpful in an official’s progression, college soccer is governed by a separate entity — the NCAA — than amateur and professional soccer in the United States. US Soccer has jurisdiction over officials in these affiliated matches, and these matches run all the way down to your MYSA youth matches and all the way up to Major League Soccer. When you start officiating semi-pro and pro soccer, the stakes are raised tenfold. The job security of the coaches is no longer the only concern in professional soccer. You have the players, the assistants, even the training staff all relying on positive outcomes to maintain their jobs, earn raises, and so forth. As a result, the expectations for the skill level of the officials working those games are severely intensified.
Within the USSF pyramid in Minnesota, the first step for the rising official to work on games with greater stakes is MYSA’s State Cup. Minnesota youth teams vie for the right to represent the state at USYSA Youth Regionals and, for some coaches in youth clubs, consistent success in State Cup can be a launch pad for bigger jobs. Performing consistently and effectively at State Cup can lead to an invitation to youth regionals and top notch performance there can lead to an invitation to the USYSA National Championships. Referees who get these national championship invites are often the best of the best State Referees and start to get on “the radar” for progression to National Referee status.
The US Youth National Championships, however, are a bit of a dead end if a referee refuses to venture outside of this competition. The US Soccer Developmental Academy (DA) is the true recruiting ground for referees who aim to get to the professional levels. If a referee works only within his or her state youth program, makes progress at the regional and national level, but does not get involved in DA matches, they’ll hit a dead end. In addition to regular season matches, the DA hosts showcase events around the country and has its own playoffs and championship. US Soccer’s referee staff runs these events, so if the goal is a more national career, it becomes essential to serve at these events.
Minnesota has had two boys’ DA teams for the past several years: Minnesota Thunder Academy (MTA) and Shattuck-St. Mary’s (SSM). With MNUFC’s hire of Tim Carter from SSM, we know the club will be implementing its own DA team and, rumor has it, it will start participating in the DA in fall 2017. What is uncertain is if MNUFC’s DA program will replace MTA or be in addition to it. It would seem it’s a safe bet that SSM will continue to operate its own DA program and US Soccer determines whether a club is certified for DA. Certainly one can hope MNUFC’s DA program will be a bit larger than existing Minnesota programs, but there is no guarantee that the addition of MNUFC to the DA landscape will increase competitive officiating opportunities for referees in Minnesota.
At the semi-pro tiers of the US Soccer pyramid in Minnesota, the state referee committee and local assignor coordinator retain some margin of assigning control for officials. Minneapolis City games (and, last year, MNUFC Reserve matches) are typically staffed by State Referees who are the very top of the referee list in Minnesota. The American Premier League (which featured Fargo FC, Duluth FC, and Minnesota TwinStars in 2016) also try to use this small pool of officials.
Minneapolis City midfielder Ben Wexler. Image courtesy of Daniel Mick.
Once a referee reaches National Referee status (which is determined by US Soccer’s referee department and is outside of the control of the states), they typically expand on their assignment pool to a larger region and begin working professional matches. Eligibility for USL matches allows these officials to travel to these games, which in 2016 were third division. Starting in 2016, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), headed by Peter Walton and best known for the management of officials in MLS since 2012, took over all assigning for both USL and the NASL.
In the NASL prior to 2016, PRO would designate the referee for the game and then Minnesota would provide two assistants and a fourth official. This allowed Minnesota’s few National Referees and the cream of the State Referees to work NASL games locally. In 2016 PRO took over the AR assignments as well, leaving Minnesota’s higher level State Referees out of the process. With MNUFC moving up to MLS in 2017, there would be at least one year where there would be no local professional opportunities for officials (future opportunities are dependent on MNUFC creating a USL side close to or in the Twin Cities).
NASL referees (the guys with the whistle) have been drawn from a small pool the past two years. A majority of NASL games were centered by PRO’s fourth official pool. These were officials serving as fourths on MLS games and working NASL games to maintain field fitness and, hopefully, progressing towards earning MLS center official assignments. The past 18 months saw Robert Sibiga and Nima Saghafi make their MLS bows through this process. Occasionally one of the PRO regulars would “drop down” from MLS to work an NASL match to maintain match fitness. This year’s MLS Cup referee, Alan Kelly, also worked the Soccer Bowl in 2016.
Meanwhile, USL saw a slightly lower tier of candidates looking to continue climbing the referee ladder. The MLS fourth officials would occasionally take assignments in USL — as would even some of the MLS regulars — but, for the most part, USL matches were worked by the referees looking to climb into PRO’s fourth official pool with an eye towards finally cracking into MLS at some point.
What does it all mean for referees?
The apparent collapse of the NASL and the potential elevation of USL to Division 2 status has obviously shaken up the lower-level US soccer landscape, but the implications for referee development are potentially damaging. There will be a trickle-down effect that will impair the preparation and selection of officials for PRO and MLS. If the USL winds up being the only “professional” division below MLS, then PRO will be forced to develop its officials in those games. All of the fourth official pool will be forced to seek field experience in those games, which in turn will limit the availability of opportunities for the next level of National Referees to get higher-pressure game experience.
By decreasing opportunities to “field-test” referees, the ability of PRO to evaluate potential new officials will be impaired. With MLS going to 22 teams in 2017, they now need 11 quality referees on every weekend, but it’s getting harder and harder to get those officials for the stakes that these games are played at.
Referee development at the professional level has always been somewhat impaired anyway by the blurred lines between the status of the NASL and USL. US Soccer called NASL Division 2 and USL Division 3, but average attendance in the NASL in 2016 was only 1,000 more per game than the USL. The ownership requirements for D2 were $20 million in worth, an area with 750K in population, and a minimum stadium capacity of 5,000, compared to $10 million in D3 with no population requirement and a minimum stadium capacity of 1,000. When you consider what Sacramento Republic has accomplished at the “D3” level and Orlando City before them, these teams were meeting D2 requirements but playing D3. If D3 teams are basically D2 teams based on your definitions, then what good are your definitions?
What truly defines D2 vs. D3, at least according to the rest of the world, is supposed to be the skill level of the players and the stakes of the matches. US Soccer defined the pyramid based on owner financial net worth, city size, and minimum stadium capacity. It’s understandable they did this to try to stabilize league viability, but hey, look at the NASL right now and tell me how well that worked. From a player and referee development standpoint, D2 vs. D3 is supposed to be about quality of play and financial stakes.
You don’t question the talent level or stakes of an Arsenal match versus a Fulham match, or a Fulham match versus a Millwall match. Arsenal players are paid better than Fulham players, who in turn are paid better than Millwall players. When a referee works an Arsenal match, the pressures on the referee are 10 times the pressures of working a Fulham match, and in turn those are 10 times the pressure of working a Millwall match.
(Arguably, the pressure of escaping The Den alive after refereeing a Millwall match are probably 100 times the pressure of leaving the Emirates, but let’s not digress too much here.)
This is most certainly not meant to be a pro/rel piece, so I’m not going there. But referee development is always considered to be a waste of the average soccer fan’s thought process (remember the jousting Roombas) — until that referee botches a call in the game that MNUFC needs a win to make the playoffs. I’m hoping that maybe when that happens (next year ideally, but realistically in two to three years), maybe enough people will go dig up this article and say, “Hey, maybe we need to pay attention to this too.”
What Does the Demise of the NASL Mean for Refereeing in the US?
by Doug Marshak on 8 December 2016