As part of his recurring series of interviews on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, Bradley sits down with Hilario “Chico” Grajeda, the man who has been assigned as the head referee for Saturday’s MLS Cup final. Grajeda, 46, debuted as an MLS referee in 2004 and also works part-time as an emergency room nurse in Dayton, Ohio. He was in the center for the AT&T MLS All-Star Game this past summer, and has called a number of playoff matches, but will be making his first-ever appearance as the head referee in a final.
BRADLEY: When did you find out you’d be in the center for the final, and what was your reaction?
GRAJEDA: It was last Monday [Nov. 25]. Michael Kennedy, the head of [the Professional Referee Organization], called and, it was kind of funny, he made me sweat a little bit. He was giving me thanks for the season, saying, "Good job," and I was thinking maybe he’s saying goodbye.
Then he asked if I could do one more game. I was speechless, obviously. I couldn’t believe they were actually asking me. I was honored.
BRADLEY: Was it something you hoped for, maybe even expected?
GRAJEDA: I was hopeful, definitely. I think all of the referees from PRO want the final. That’s what we work for all season. But I was not expecting it, to be honest. There are so many other good referees out there, and that’s why this was a great honor that they selected me.
BRADLEY: Before this assignment, what’s the biggest game you’ve ever been assigned?
GRAJEDA: I think the playoff between LA and New York, the second leg [in 2011]. It ended in such controversy, with Rafa Márquez being sent off and the mass confrontation at the end. The place was so tense coming back for the second leg. I think everybody, all the referees, were a little nervous. That was a big game.
Hilario Grajeda (here as head referee in a Oct. 5 match between Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas) says his style is "very approachable" for players. (USA Today Sports)
BRADLEY: Do you prepare any differently for a game of this magnitude?
GRAJEDA: Physically, no. That part is the same. My workouts are the same. Mentally, definitely. I use a sports psychologist who helps me with visualization. We go through the previous games that these two teams have had. We go through the players, the tactics. We go through the different things that can happen. But, overall, it’s just another big game.
BRADLEY: Do you have a style, a way of dealing with the players on the field? If so, how would you describe it?
GRAJEDA: I think I’m very approachable. If a player wants to ask me a question, by all means. I see their emotions. It’s an emotional game. It’s a physical game. And I let them come to me and I’m very open about telling them, "This is what I saw." I never try to be above the game.
So, I’d say I’m firm, but I’m calm and I let players vent a little bit, so long as they’re not being disrespectful. I think they know me well enough by now. They know what they can and can’t get away with.
BRADLEY: Going into this final, do you go back and do homework on Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake, and what’s gone on in the past? Does that come into play?
GRAJEDA: Absolutely. I saw the write-up about how this rivalry started in the preseason a few years ago. And I think I was the first referee to have Salt Lake and Kansas City in a regular-season game after that preseason match, which saw Roger Espinoza sent off for a really hard challenge on Kyle Beckerman.
I’ve had these teams before. I know the history.
BRADLEY: Do you think you’ll have some pregame butterflies?
GRAJEDA: Absolutely. There has to be butterflies.That’s a good thing. The players, I’m sure, feel the same way. There’s so much at stake, so naturally there are butterflies. Every call and no-call is magnified. I’ve had butterflies since I was told I had the final. That’s natural.
BRADLEY: You’ve been the fourth official at the last two MLS Cup finals. Is there anything you learned from that experience that you’ll take into Saturday?
GRAJEDA: I know everything is going to go by really fast. From my preparations at home to the phone calls with the teams to the game. It’ll be like, "What happened?" when it’s over. So, we’ll change a few things. Instead of getting to the stadium two hours before kickoff, we’ll get there three hours before kickoff. We’re expecting the day to go by fast.
BRADLEY: You’ve been a referee in the league since 2004. Have you changed at all during that time. If so, how have you evolved as a referee?
GRAJEDA: There’s a learning curve. When I first started, I maybe tried to be too much of a dictator. I was very tense when I was new to the league. I’m so much calmer now. I can slow the game down. From 2004 to now, I think I see the game a lot clearer. I’ve learned a lot. I think our whole referee group, now with PRO, our accountability is enormous. We are in the spotlight every weekend. So our sense of awareness has been raised.
Personally, I think it’s made me a much better ref. I think the bar was raised and it’s made me better.
BRADLEY: As a group, the referees were asked to do a better job dealing with mass confrontation this year. Do you think there’s been an improvement on that front?
Grajeda (pictured here with AS Roma and US national team midfielder Michael Bradley) served as the head ref in the All-Star Game this summer, and 23 regular-season games in MLS in 2013. (USA Today Sports)
GRAJEDA: In the games that I’ve had, when things have escalated, I think the players have done a better job of policing themselves. That’s been good to see.
BRADLEY: Is there a call you’d describe as "the most difficult call in soccer?"
GRAJEDA: Personally, for me it’s when we have to deal with a player denying a goalscoring opportunity and we have to issue a red card. There are so many things to take into account: the angle of the play, the position of the defender. One step either way can change everything. For me, that’s one of the toughest calls every time I have to make it.
BRADLEY: You were involved in a difficult situation during a recent game between Portland and Seattle, where Osvaldo Alonso was shown red for elbowing Will Johnson behind your back. Do you feel you did the right thing, relying on the other officials to assist you in making that call?
GRAJEDA: Absolutely. For me, one of the things I tell the guys before a game, "This is 100 percent teamwork." No one is better than the other three, from the assistant referees to the fourth official, we have to get the calls right. If one guy has a better angle, there’s no ego on my part. We just need to get the calls right.
In that case, I had Ricardo Salazar as the fourth official and Corey Rockwell as the linesman. They spotted it, and it was the correct call.
BRADLEY: What’s it like to referee in this era, when fans can literally post replays of calls and captured images during the game that are seen by everyone?
GRAJEDA: It comes with the territory. We know what we’re in for. This is what we do. We try to get into the right positions to make the calls, and do the best we can.
BRADLEY: Do you have a goal for you and your crew for this Saturday?
GRAJEDA: As long as the players and fans are talking about the players and not us, it will be a success.