Referees of MLS

Being a referee is hard. But how are they governed and will video assistance change things? 

It needs to be said; being a referee is hard. Among the most antagonistic professions in sport, it is also one of the least rewarding. In an occupation where being booed is simply a part of the job, refs endure a great deal of commentary from players and fans alike. However, do they deserve the criticism and how are professional refs actually regulated?

In Major League Soccer (MLS) referees come under the wings of the Professional Referee Organisation (PRO), which, according to their website is, “an independent company responsible for administering professional referee programs in North America… dedicated to the identification, training, assessment, assignment, and employment of male and female professional soccer officials.”

MLS and US Soccer combined to form PRO in 2012, with the organisation taking over full MLS officiating in 2013. With a stated vision to become the example in professional refereeing by 2022, PRO takes their soccer seriously. However throughout both the MLS and NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) referees are frequently criticised for their poor performances and general lack of consistency and fairness.


Consistency pays

Jon McGuire, MLS referee expert and author of the series “Better Know A Referee” series, believes that consistency and fairness of referees depends on their training.

“Are refs consistent and fair – no – in short, but I don’t know if any ref is going to be, so it’s a sliding scale. From my perspective I think the younger generation of refs, the refs that are under 30, who have grown up or received a higher ratio of the formal training that PRO has provided since 2013, have been more fair and more consistent game to game. This is true even within the peer group data that I think PROS would like to move towards.” 

While there are plenty of referees that fall outside of under 30 and trained after 2013, officials are not arbitrarily assigned to matches. In fact, as McGuire explains, it’s the referees that get the most correct calls on match incidents – which includes red cards, yellow cards, game-changing off sides and other game-changing plays – that get the most games. “Therefore if you want to see who is refereeing well according to PRO, just look at the number of assignments they get.”


Divers face action

PRO takes the quality of refereeing seriously. After several matches where game-changing incidents were not called correctly, including a stomp to the ankle of Darlington Nagbe by Nigel de Jong that should have resulted in a straight red, referee Allen Chapman didn’t officiate a game for six weeks. In the world of refereeing, this shows a loss of confidence in their ability. When a referee is found to be under performing it directly affects his pay. “Referees get a base pay, and then they get game bonuses, with their games scheduled a month out. The fact that he was removed from assigned games immediately the following week showed how seriously that PRO was taking that mistake.”

No matter how well a referee calls a match, there will always be criticism, even if they are rated at the top according. Most recently, there has been controversy over simulation or exaggeration, in other words, players diving. In 2013 the MLS became one of the first professional leagues to retroactively fine players for simulation with the Premier League set to do the same this coming season. 


Video Assistant Referees

While fines and suspensions have not been enough to change player’s behaviour, the MLS once again is setting itself apart by also incorporating use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), league wide, after the All-Star break in July.

The VAR will be used by a fifth referee stationed in a replay booth, who will be allowed to directly communicate with the first official. While this system will be new to fans, the VAR has already been tested. In fact many matches this season have included a fifth official, who have been testing the system in identifying calls that would possibly fall under review.

While some argue that a replay system will take away from the fast-paced nature of the game, it will make the referee’s job a lot easier.  In reality, as far as McGuire is concerned, the VAR will not only help refs make the right call but also add to their credibility. “A lot of the criticism refs gets is based upon everybody getting the chance to look at it in slow motion from four different angles. Refs do recognise –occasionally- that they’ve messed something up. I think they want it too, they’d rather be right.”

Now, we just have to wait and see if attitudes towards refs changes after the All-Star break.

Follow Megan on Twitter @mcmbegs

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