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Ref Week: So what is MLS doing to develop officials? (Pt. 1)

Get them started early. Provide them with top quality training. Give them high-level competitions and you’ll start seeing the results.

Those are just some of the primary conclusions about refereeing in North America drawn from lengthy sit-down interviews and correspondence with administrators and executives leading North America’s referee program.

Upsetting the status quo

Many may believe that the referee set-up in North America is archaic and resistant to change. But radical modifications and developments are occurring at a rapid pace.

Take, for example, this year. For the first time, fixed teams of officials were set up for the majority of the 2011 MLS season. Each team consists of a senior referee, a sophomore official, a rookie whistle, three assistant referees and a rookie fourth.

There was also a shift in the way that referees receive their feedback. In past years it came from in-stadium referee assessors, who were depended upon to provide input to the referee who worked their venue on a given MLS matchday. But inconsistent and sometimes conflicting information received by the same referee from stadium to stadium led to the introduction of 25 referee coaches who’ve worked with the same official throughout the year.

Life as a Ref: Part 1
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“The dialogue is more extensive and more regular,” says Herb Silva, director of US Soccer’s Professional Referee Department and a veteran of over 30 years in the field. “And now you’re getting some answers.”

“It has streamlined the information so one person makes the decision as to what is told and how it’s told,” says Nelson Rodriguez, MLS executive vice president for competition. “We think that’s a far better educational environment and coaching environment and learning environment than the previous one.

“But it’s brand new. That is a huge fundamental change, but one that we didn’t expect would yield these tangible and immediate results in its first year of operation. We think it will yield results moving forward.”

Penalizing poor decisions

In addition to the assessments compiled by the referee departments of the US and Canadian federations, there is also feedback gathered from MLS (including coaches, GMs and players); the 25 referee coaches spread around the country; former soccer professionals; a group of in-stadium Professional Match Evaluators (PMEs); and a Professional Referee Task Force, which is a relatively new voice in the referee discussion and is made up of representatives from the various bodies that manage officials.

There is also a webinar held on Tuesday nights to go over hot topics and rule interpretations with all ref coaches, who in turn have their own conference calls with the ref crews assigned to them.

 “We’re not being defensive and saying our guys are always right,” says US Soccer’s Silva. “It’s collaborative and it’s not one guy throwing his dart at the dartboard saying ‘That’s my guy.’ We’re able to identify who’s doing well and who’s not doing so well and there may be little difference between No. 13 and No. 14, but there’s a big difference between No. 1 and No. 25. Welcome to the real world.”

These numerous points of information – they also take into account popular media and fan opinion – provide as close to a thoroughly objective snapshot of referee performance as at any time in the history of the referee program in North America.

“With our guys, it’s not candy-coated,” Silva says. “They have to stand up and be accountable. ... Some guys have done better and got more games and some guys have not done so well and they get less games.”

Blooding New Talent

This year the league and both Canadian and US federations introduced seven rookies as part of the pool of 25 refs. These rookies will have whistled more than 70 matches combined by the end of the season.

“On balance, the rookie officials have performed very well,” Rodriguez says. “It works just like a team, which over time has to introduce new players. The apprentice players learn from the veterans and are slowly brought into the team culture and into the starting XI. And the very gifted ones skip some steps and enter immediately into the frame.”

“It’s a generation change,” says Herb Silva. “Last year there were three games [total] for rookies.”

As part of this integration, there are an additional 14 rookies who have served as fourth officials in MLS this season – an opportunity that allows them to get a taste of the MLS level. Of those 14 rookie fourth officials, seven will get NASL playoff matches and another seven will see action in the Nike friendlies in December.

The plan for those rookie fourth officials attempts to address the void in a true proving ground for up-and-coming referees. While other countries have second and third divisions for officials to cut their teeth and literally move up the ranks, the fluid status and economics of lower division soccer in the USA haven’t represented a sturdy enough stepping stone.

“The research we found is that officials around the world, usually before they step into a first division game, have whistled between 50 and 100 professional matches each,” Silva says. “The seven rookies we introduced this year had a total of 24 matches combined before coming on our fields.”

But the panorama is changing. Discussions continue with the NASL and USL to formalize a process that takes into account the “vertical integration” of referees. This involves passing down the instruction themes and teaching materials established in MLS and applying them to the lower divisions. The MLS Reserve League is part of this initiative.

Investing in tomorrow

You can never have enough resources, but this year the investment has been significant.

The US Soccer Federation established a Professional Referee Department, set up offices in New York and established a command center with full-time staffers and comprehensive video analysis. The seven-figure investment includes the 25 ref coaches.

On the league level, MLS hired former MLS Referee of the Year and USSF ref czar Paul Tamberino to manage its referee analysis and established the network of PMEs who can be found at 80 percent of matches. There are also new information-gathering elements including a database for quantitative fitness data like heart rates. And that’s just the beginning.

A Portrait of Dissent
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“The league is prepared to significantly increase its investment just as it has increased its investment in player development,” Rodriguez says.

“I have been involved since the second year of MLS and we didn’t have video analysis back then, and we didn’t even have anyone at the stadium,” Silva recalls. “It’s evolved now to where we have multiple resources and we have over 1700 clips that we’re using for instructional purposes.”

There are also talks to add to the ranks of three full-time referees. All the other officials are part-time independent contractors.

But Rodriguez made it clear that it’s not enough to just have full-time referees: There needs to be a full-time referee program to support them with training, fitness, nutrition and psychological training. The same considerations that apply to players are also being contemplated for officials.

“Has there been a correlation in performance with the full-time refs? Not as good as it should be, I think,” says Silva. “We’re looking at why? What does that mean — different or better? What can we do? Not to protect it, but let’s be critical of it for the sake of trying to make things better.”

“We are in active discussions with US Soccer and CSA to not only increase the number of full-time referees, but to create an appropriate program around them where [full-time referees] would be brought in and trained on a regular basis and where they get video review the way players do. All of those things that contribute to performance.”

Technology or Talk?

While MLS must always operate within the constraints of FIFA, the league has never shied away from expressing its desire to incorporate new features that assist the men in black.

“We’re awaiting a report from UEFA as to how goal-line officials have performed during the UEFA Champions League, and that’s something we’d be interested in studying more in-depth and looking at,” Rodriguez says. “If FIFA allowed or if FIFA selected us, we’d like to be considered for goal line technology and I think we should look at that and see if we can incorporate that into the league. We’re open to anything that improves the game.”

One new feature that has worked: the vanishing spray which was introduced this year. Players typically don’t encroach when the spray is applied.

“There had been some skepticism and that skepticism is gone and it [spray] is universally acclaimed as brilliant,” Rodriguez said. “As funny as it sounds, that was radical. It’s not a worldwide standard and it was seen by some even in the officiating community as a gimmick, and now every referee sees it as a necessary tool and an effective one.”

Check back for Part 2 of our Ref Development series on Wednesday.