Okulaja awarded Referee of the Year

Major League Soccer handed out the Official Sports Referee of the Year award Friday, honoring Abbey Okulaja as the best official in the league in 2004. The award along with several other MLS year-end awards was announced at a media luncheon in Los Angeles.

Okulaja wins the award in just his second year as an MLS official. The Illinois resident took part in more matches than any other league official this season, serving as the man in the middle for 13 matches and working as the fourth official in seven more.

Past Award Winners
2003 Brian Hall
2002 Kevin Terry
2001 Paul Tamberino
2000 Paul Tamberino
1999 Paul Tamberino
1998 Paul Tamberino
1997 Esse Baharmast
In all of that time on the field, Okulaja clearly earned the respect of MLS players, coaches and media, who selected him as this year's award winner ahead of two other finalists: Kevin Terry and Kevin Stott. Terry, who also refereed 13 matches this year, was the only finalist to have won the award previously, but his past accomplishments Friday took a backseat to the newcomer Okulaja's fine season.

The U.S. Soccer Federation's administrative handbook for referees lists in its code of ethics for referees the importance of honorable conduct and maintaining the dignity of the referee's position, the importance of treating players courteously and considerately without sacrificing fairness and the importance of showing the utmost respect for the game of soccer, in addition to having a keen knowledge of the laws of the game.

This season, Okulaja has shown that he has understood and accepted that code of ethics by ensuring the fairness of competition between the teams on the field while allowing the teams themselves -- rather than his decisions as the referee -- to determine the outcome of a match. A common complaint that many fans, pundits and observers have of referees is that they unnecessarily disrupt the play on the field. With his performance in 2004, it would be hard to pin that on Okulaja.

"I'm always happy with what I am," Okulaja said of this award being a potential springboard to working internationally. "I take one step at a time."

With his impressive regular season performance, Okulaja earned the right to be the man in the middle for the Western Conference Final that saw the Kansas City Wizards advance to MLS Cup.

Jason Halpin is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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