A familiar face to MLS players, coaches and fans is about to feature on hundreds of millions of screens across the planet.
Veteran MLS referee Mark Geiger is in Russia, the most experienced member of the five-member delegation of American and Canadian referees from the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) selected by the FIFA Referees Committee for the 2018 World Cup.
No league in the world has sent more refs to Russia than MLS, and no one in that delegation is more experienced than Geiger, who is taking part in his second World Cup after working on five matches in Brazil four years ago. Geiger will work his first match of the 2018 tournament on Wednesday, June 20 when Portugal face Morocco in Moscow.
A two-time MLS Referee of the Year, Geiger made history in Brazil, becoming the first American to referee a match in the World Cup knockout stages when he handled the France vs. Nigeria round-of-16 match. He got there by being evaluated as one of the tournament’s top performers, and his good work also earned him a role as the fourth official in Germany’s stunning 7-1 semifinal win over the host nation.
He’s hoping for another strong run this summer. Here’s a few things you should know about Mark Geiger:
1. His first World Cup game was his most memorable one
Geiger's World Cup debut | Action Images
Besides the aforementioned “Mineirazo” in Belo Horizonte, Geiger was on duty for other shocking occasions in Brazil – the Uruguay-Italy game in which Luis Suarez infamously bit Giorgio Chiellini, as well as Chile’s unexpected upset of Spain to send the defending champions home early. But Colombia vs. Greece is the most prominent in his memory, because it was his World Cup debut.
“It’s our first World Cup match, and there are going to be some doubts in your mind. You’re going to wonder if you’re ready for this type of level of play. You’re going to wonder if you’re prepared. So there’s a little bit of anxiety,” he recalled in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com.
“We walked out from the tunnel and my body just reacted – the emotions came over me and I just started laughing as soon as we heard the anthem. The goosebumps started going and that was how my body reacted. It was incredible. Going up a few steps, grabbing a ball, being out there for the anthems was just overwhelming. But then once the first whistle blows, now we’re down to business, now I’m in familiar territory again and the game went well, and I knew I was ready to handle the pressures and handle the environment of a World Cup match.”
2. He pulls no punches
Geiger’s PRO colleague Jair Marrufo is also headed to Russia – it’s his first World Cup – and when he asked Geiger to compare it to the FIFA youth tournaments they’d both officiated in the past, he got a dose of blunt honesty.
“Mark, because of his Brazil experience, I asked him if it’s pretty much the same,” recalled Marrufo with a chuckle. “He goes, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty much the same – just 10 times more pressure! The whole world is watching.’”
Said Geiger: “Many millions and millions of people are watching the game, and scrutinizing every decision that you make. Obviously there are pressures in Major League Soccer, but it just gets amplified in a World Cup … It’s an incredible feeling to know that you’re part of that, and taking part in a match in that type of a venue.”
3. He digs Video Review
Geiger, Marrufo and their fellow PRO officials will have the opportunity to put their familiarity with MLS’ Video Review system to use in Russia, with FIFA putting a similar process into place for the first time in the tournament’s history. Some people aren’t sold on the technology, but for Geiger it’s a no-brainer.
“I’ve enjoyed being a VAR, to be able to assist the referee and help them be successful in their matches,” he said. “And it’s been a godsend for me as a referee as well, because the last thing we want to do is influence a match. We don’t want to be the reason that a team lost or a team doesn’t go through to the next round. So anything that can help us get the decision right on the field, we’re going to be open to.”
4. He’s thankful for the timing of the MLS calendar
MLS’ spring-to-fall schedule means that the World Cup falls in midseason, unlike many European leagues that finished last month. Geiger believes that makes it easier for him and his fellow referees to be in peak form.
“Any time you get towards the end of a season,” he explained, “mentally you start coming down after your final match at the end of the season. Your mind kind of goes into hibernation until you have to pick up again. So to be in the middle of our season, when we’re in full swing and match fitness, ready to go, I think that’s going to be a benefit for us.”
5. He’s been refereeing longer than he’s been driving
Geiger’s officiating career began way back at the dawn of his teenage years, and he’s methodically climbed the ladder of the profession ever since.
“I started reffing at 13, just as a way to make a few extra bucks – it was better than working at McDonald’s or Burger King,” he said. “I would go out there on Saturday and Sunday, ref as many games as I could, and that was the way I made money as a teenager.
“Once MLS came around in 1996 I made it a goal of mine to make myself better and try to get myself one match in Major League Soccer. I wanted to get out on the field and work with those players. So that became my target, my goal … as I went through my career, you reset your expectations, you reset your goals. So I got my MLS games under my belt and I was like, let’s try to get this FIFA badge. Once I became a FIFA referee I was like, ‘let’s try to work towards a World Cup.’ So you always have that carrot in front of you that you’re trying to work towards or get to.”
6. He plans to keep going as long as he can
FIFA once required referees to step down from the top level of their craft at age 45. That age limit was removed in 2014, allowing refs to continue working as long as they passed their fitness and technical evaluations. Geiger turns 44 in August and has no plans to ride into the sunset any time soon.
“[In] MLS, we have guys in their early 50s that are still on the field, passing the tests and doing well out on the pitch,” he said. “We’ll see how well my body holds out. I think once you’re in your 40s, you start taking it year by year and see what happens, sort of like the players towards the end of their careers as well.”
7. He was a high-school math teacher for 17 years
Geiger juggled refereeing with a teaching job in his native New Jersey until he got the chance to become a full-time ref in 2013. He still uses much the same toolkit, though.
“It’s funny,” he said. “In the classroom you have 30 different personalities that you have to manage and reach out to, and on a soccer field you have 22 different personalities – and it’s the same thing. You’re managing those players just like you manage students. A lot of the skills are the same.”
8. He almost always throws up before matches
That’s just one of many fascinating details in writer Robert Andrew Powell's long-form feature on Geiger in Howler magazine earlier this year. Mind you, those pregame nerves settle once the ball gets rolling.
“We have the best seat in the house,” he said of his job. “Who can say that they’re out on the field with some of the biggest stars in the world, best athletes in the world? We’re running right alongside these guys, and watching them showcase their skills out on the field. For me it’s just been thrilling.”
9. He prefers to work high-level games
You might think that the best players and teams make for a tougher job for the men and women with the whistles, but that’s not Geiger’s experience.
“If it’s a lower-level match, it’s actually very difficult to read. It’s very difficult to figure out where the ball’s going to go next,” he explained. “You’re going to have more giveaways, you’re going to have changes in possession a lot more, which makes it very difficult for the referee. The challenges may become sloppier as well.
“The skill level has been getting much, much better in MLS – not that it was bad at any point, but it’s getting to a very high level and it makes the game easier for us to read. Now of course with that there’s more pressure on each match. But it’s something that we like to take on, certainly.”
10. He puts in the work
Panama protest a Geiger call in the 2015 Gold Cup | USA Today Sports Images
Geiger knows fierce criticism comes with the territory – “you talk to any fan, they’re not going to like the referees in their country – that’s going to happen all over the world,” he notes. But if there’s one thing Geiger wants you to understand, it’s the all-encompassing nature of his job.
“We put in so much time from a fitness standpoint, also time from an education standpoint – we’re watching as many games as we can, we’re trying to learn the players, we’re trying to learn the teams more intimately,” he said. “We’re looking at videos of situations, trying to decide how we would handle a situation. We do a lot of analysis to make sure we are consistent as a group. So it really is a full-time gig. We are working throughout the week when there aren’t matches, to make sure that we’re prepared for the weekend’s match. It’s more than just coming out and blowing our whistle for 90 minutes and going home.”