Photo: Barb Colligon
It is tough to appreciate a game where the referee asserts himself on a throw-in, penalty encroachment, and miscalled goals and cards. At the very least, Mark Geiger and Jason Anno have fed teachable moments to referee instructors, as well as tension to a United-Union rivalry in need of excitement. Hopefully, their weekend performances will lead US soccer to conclude that they and their officiating corps need more than superficial tweaking.
Opportune systemic investments
Unlike players and coaches, referees will not improve without replacing most of the existing system. USSF and MLS have commendably picked their moments for investing in a framework of coaches, expansion, and talent. They should direct the next major investment in the permanent US soccer infrastructure to developing a “world standard” of officiating to improve domestic players’ maturity, attract and protect premier players, and best allocate limited funds.
Referees guide players’ development, not by training them how to tackle, foul, or behave on the field, but when and to what degree to get stuck in, give the referee an earful, or tone it down in important matches. Referees must apply this standard consistently, or risk setting an arbitrary standard that leads to dangerous situations for everyone involved.
PSP’s Geiger Counter is a memorial to the 2011 MLS Referee of the Year but rarely to competence. No objective observer can debate the underlying sentiment after Sunday’s game at RFK. On the international level, Jurgen Klinsmann has criticized US national team players for their interactions with referees, foreign players frequently complain about MLS officiating, and the US national team often finds itself at odds with referees in international games. It wouldn’t hurt if US referees got it “right” more frequently. But, for players to become attuned to the standard of officiating at the highest level, it’s more important that referees get it the same as referees at those levels (avoiding Under-12 calls like untimely throw-ins, and a few inches of penalty kick encroachment that doesn’t involve the keeper).
No market for performance
There are certain objective criteria that can create a market for promotion and rejection of players and coaches based on their performances, and generally encourage systematic improvement, regardless of the underlying systems for development (i.e. teams seek strikers who score, goalies who save, coaches who win). Because referees have no fans or rivals, market forces can’t encourage improvement to the same degree as players and coaches who pursue specific results. Creating a market would be ideal, but we must at least acknowledge that the crutch provided by markets for players and coaches doesn’t exist to nearly the same extent for development of referees. That acknowledgement also indicates that the league must evaluate and potentially act on evidence such as the embarrassments this weekend.
Best marginal investment
Building an infrastructure for standardized officiating presents the best marginal investment of limited League and Federation funds. A few referees can make a more significant impact than a similar number of players, and at lower salaries. On top of that, developing talent domestically requires time and by importation requires more money than is currently available. Rather than pursuing an unaffordable plan to jump to the top tier of world soccer leagues, US Soccer and MLS should continue to improve its world-class framework for developing talent over its currently projected, 10-20 year timeline. The novelty of making referees an investment priority could even generate publicity.
Making officiating a priority should increase the sense of fairness and physical protection felt by young domestic and premier foreign players, who would be encouraged to come and stay to play in the US. At the same time, referees at lower levels would likely emulate referees with more international experience. Because the determination of which referees should be promoted depends on both objective standard and comparison to other referees, the most highly ranked referees unavoidably set an example for referees seeking promotion. Experienced referees — like old dogs — are not going to change substantially, so the mold for the next generation of senior officials is unlikely to change much. MLS needs to find a critical mass of referees, who have developed in more mature soccer environments, to create a new mold for younger referees.
Suggestion: Burn it down, walk away, let a pro rebuild It
Because MLS has indicated with its highest honor that Mark Geiger is the best of the current system and, therefore, the implied mold for referee training:
- throw out the bathwater, tub, and baby of the US officiating institution,
- make blowout offers to enough of the best referees in the world to set a new, clear, and consistent example for referees and players, and
- lock those referees into long-term deals that involve both on-field officiating and executive-level management roles at USSF and MLS.
Let these all-star referees coordinate with the player development system to clone themselves and overhaul the system for training, evaluating, and promoting on the basis of this “world standard.” Remove referees and officials with experience in USSF from leadership positions. Keep current American referees who buy into the system, but limit their roles to on-field officiating and selling the program to the troops—not teaching.
Will premier players trade millions of Yuan or Champions League competition for the chance to be officiated by all-stars? Probably not. But MLS is not attracting top players with its talent and salaries. This investment strategy could generate substantive appeal while—consistent with US soccer’s successful practice of targeted splurges—creating permanent systemic improvements that will attract top players to the US. Perfection does not exist in soccer players or referees but maturity does; US soccer has invested sufficiently to provide guidance and incentives for its players to learn that maturity, now it needs to provide the same for its referees.