With the growing likelihood that any 2020 MLS season return would occur without fans in the stands, Professional Referees Organization general manager Howard Webb anticipates a period where his colleagues adjust to that reality. After all, they’re accustomed to making game-altering decisions with tens of thousands of raucous fans in attendance each weekend.
That'll impact referees just as it would players, and Webb said earlier this week via conference call that he’s hoping English referee Anthony Taylor could be a resource. Before COVID-19 suspended soccer in Europe, Taylor oversaw a closed-doors Champions League Round of 16 encounter between Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund at Parc des Princes.
“One of the things we've been looking to do in the coming weeks is maybe bring in some officials who have had experience of refereeing games without fans, fairly recent experience, to share with our group what that felt like,” Webb said during a conference call on Wednesday. “ … What was it like? What do you expect, and how was it different? And we're looking at doing that with a few of the guest speakers that are going to share that experience.”
There's also the need for referees to be at match fitness, since they’ll need to keep pace with players at a full sprint. In preparation, Webb said, he’d hope that MLS referees could officiate scrimmages after last doing so March 8 when LAFC hosted the Philadelphia Union.
Webb also anticipates changes in game-day routines, such as increasing the number of substitutes and doing away with pre-game handshakes.
“You know, these are sensible things, aren’t they, when we're coming into a phase of the game where the cadence of games could be higher than normal,” Webb said. “ … These things make sense and no decisions have been taken yet with what will happen in MLS, whether they’ll use additional subs up to the maximum of five, which (the International Football Association Board) says we can do. But I'm expecting that that's quite likely and then seems to be a sensible introduction.”
Whatever environment referees enter, Webb expects safety and sensibility to prevail. He cited an anecdote from the K League in South Korea as how it all could look.
“I saw a video a few days ago of a Korean game where the referee was asked by a player to pick him up by the hand and the referee said, ‘Sorry, I can't pick you up,’” Webb said. “It was quite interesting to see how that was on the mind of that particular official. And again, we'll be reminding our referees of the need to to not create unnecessary contact when it doesn't need to happen and to be sensible and to maintain their personal space."