In 2010, as Bob Bradley prepared a 23-man squad worthy of representing the United States in the World Cup Finals, soccer’s governing body, FIFA, was also preparing a squad; but not of players.
FIFA needed a pool of elite referees from the participating Confederations worthy of officiating matches at the highest level of the sport. But as the U.S. men did well to overcome one of the more horrific officiating mistakes of the tournament in a match against Slovenia, referees in MLS may have suffered even more from the refereeing errors and misjudgments of the 30 selected to preside over the 2010 World Cup. They’d been excluded from FIFA list of 30, deemed on a lower level than those making errors in South Africa.
One year later, little has changed.
Let’s get something straight: refereeing at a professional level is not easy and no one is saying it is. But with the exclusion from the World Cup – not even an assistant referee was sent from MLS to the tournament – and the continuing complaints of poor and inconsistent refereeing from fans, players, coaches, and pundits alike something needs to be done about MLS officiating. And maybe a manager in England’s Premier League has the answer.
Just months before the World Cup, Stoke City manager Tony Pulis had seen his side on the short end of referees’ decisions one too many times. Fed up, Pulis called for an overhaul of the refereeing system in the Premier League saying referees should also be subject to promotion and relegation based on their performances at the end of the year; just like Premier League clubs.
Knowing the English Football Association’s penchant for fining managers that criticize match officials, Pulis was lucky to not be a bit lighter in the pocketbook after his rant, but with the support he received from other managers on the idea maybe he was on to something. Here in MLS we haven’t quite managed to figure out promotion/relegation on a club level as of yet, and instituting it for MLS referees would be difficult. But at this junction in MLS’ seemingly unbreakable trend of subpar refereeing, it might be time this risk/reward based system be considered to bring the level of refereeing in the league to the standard a viable soccer power should have.
Instituting such a policy wouldn’t be easy and further changes in the system would need made before referees could be jettisoned back and forth between MLS and lower leagues based on merit. So what exactly would need to happen for this attempt to raise the level of officiating throughout the U.S. to be a legitimate option?
Make Referees Professionals, Raise Their Pay
This may seem counterintuitive to the point at hand; if the referees are already bad, why pay them more? But based on the risk/reward system of promotion and relegation this would make sense. If you are going to tell a referee he could lose his job by being sent to lower leagues, you have to make the incentives for reaching the top (and staying there) worthwhile. In England, officials are already professionals. They are paid a match fee and Premier League referees are paid a retainer fee mandating they attend so many learning sessions a year and keep certain fitness standards. In MLS, referees do belong to the United States Soccer Federation and must meet certain learning and fitness goals, but with no added incentives. It’s possible to make a living officiating, but at around $1,000 per match for MLS matches it’s quite difficult and many referees have other professions. Making officiating their job year round would give not only added incentive to enter the field, but would also justify promotion and relegation at the end of the year for referees not meeting a certain standard.
Widen the Pool
Since we’re making it much more worthwhile to be a referee in this country – after all MLS is now averaging a higher average attendance than the NBA and their officials are rolling in dough! – it’s time we add numbers to the profession. As it stands, USSF has only about 24 “elite” level referees in the MLS refereeing pool; a modest amount. But if we are going to have referees going up or down each season, we’ll need many more. The USSF is always in the process of recruiting and training more referees to reach this level and the added financial incentives mentioned previously will help. More importantly, a larger number in the pool promotes competition. With a larger pool than spots available, referees will have to rise to the occasion and, conversely, we can’t have a referee leaving the league if he can’t be replaced by another official considered worthy of elite status. So widening the pool of referees at MLS’s disposal would be a must.
Institute Promotion/ Relegation in MLS
Ok, so maybe I’m partial to this system in more ways than one, but come on!
Promotion and relegation is obviously a hot topic surrounding MLS right now and something that would take even more work (one would hope) than fixing officiating in the league. But for the better of the players based here and the league as a whole, it’s got to happen. And while instituting promotion and relegation for teams in the MLS (thus giving a place for demoted referees to go and successful referees to work up to) would be almost imperative to any refereeing promotion/relegation situation, I’ll leave the logistics and selling of this to Americans up to you to figure out.
Just be sure to phone Don Garber once you’ve got it all sorted.