Why will none of the referees at this year’s World Cup be from the USA?
It’s a good question and a vexing problem for both U.S. Soccer and MLS. This past week, the lone American in the FIFA pool, Kevin Stott, failed to make the cut of 23 officials for the 2006 tournament.
While both have made great strides in the past fifteen years in developing American players and coaches, it is widely agreed that the weak link remains the men in the middle.
"We hear the same complaints [about our referees] about the speed, the size, the strength of athletes, the new equipment and the newer, highly accurate balls," says MLS’ Joe Machnik, MLS’ Assistant to the Deputy Commissioner for On-Field Competition.
"All of these make for additional challenges for the refs. This isn’t a problem that is solely germane to MLS – our problems are the same other leagues are having throughout the world."
Part of the problem is that the pool of American referees is perilously small, and those referees which do make it to the top level are frequently stretched thin.
"A big problem for our refs now is the lack of time they have to prepare mentally and physically for our games," admits Machnik. "We don’t have fully professional referees, and they have the demands of other jobs and other refereeing assignments, such as college and USL games. They also have to fulfill their requirements at the state level – ref’ing Sunday amateur soccer games, for example – to keep their state credentials."
The obvious answer is professionalizing referees, an idea which has been floated at the highest levels of the game. But it is easier said than done. Surprisingly, even in America, not all top league referees are pros. While the NHL, MLB and the NBA have full-time referees, the NFL does not.
"The NFL is thinking about that now after all the publicity centered around the refs at the Super Bowl," notes Machnik. "But because of the short schedule, they don’t have a full-time refereeing corps; they’re in kind of the same boat we are."
One idea MLS is beginning to take seriously is developing a program where former or retired players can be fast-tracked into becoming referees.
"The NFL has a program like that which addresses a big complaint – that the refs don’t have a feel for the game, because they haven’t played at the top level," says Machnik. "We’re going to attempt to bring former players along quickly and get them in the middle – I think this is something you’ll see succeed within the next three seasons."
Machnik does see improvement, despite losing two of the USA’s top refs – Kevin Terry and Ricardo Valenzuela – to retirement.
"We started off the season on a positive note," says Machnik. "We had six attractive games, and you saw the officials allowing the games to flow. When necessary, I think the refs made the tough decisions. I want to see a year of that kind of consistent, good quality from the refs, which allows the players to perform at the highest level."
As soccer continues to grow in the US, you have to believe that we can sustain professional referees between the MLS, USL 1st, etc. As the US tries to claw its way up the ladder of respect worldwide (in soccer anyway) and our teams improve, we have to be able to field officiating crews that FIFA feels will make the cut. I hope the MLS and USL 1st can work towards a workable and sustainable solution to this. Officiating is a nearly impossible job, one I freely admit I couldn’t do well if I tried. Being in the center of older Rec matches scares me because I can be so adle brained at times! I can’t imagine the pressure of a World Cup match.