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U.S. Soccer and MLS to Announce Newly Organized Professional Referee Organization (PRO)

2012 March 2
by Brian Quarstad

Peter Walton will head up the new PRO as General Manager.

In a move to improve the quality of professional refereeing in the U.S. and Canada, the United States Soccer Federation along with Major League Soccer and in concert with the Canadian Soccer Association, will announce next week the formation of the Professional Referee Organization or PRO.

PRO will be financially independent of any of the aforementioned organizations and will operate in a model much like Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOB) in England. That organization was formed in 2001 to provide qualified match officials for the Premier League in England. US Soccer and MLS hope to achieve those same goals.

A spokesperson for US Soccer confirmed that Peter Walton will be named as the full time General Manager of PRO. Walton is an Englishman who has been a professional referee for 18 years, spending 15 years officiating in the English Premier League.

Walton will lead an advisory board made up of former players, former coaches, owners, and officials who will meet regularly with the GM to carve an exact path and direction for the PRO.

Walton’s exact start date has yet to be determined.

Pro Referee Task Force
Herb Silva who served as Director of the Professional Referee Department in 2011 and Neil Buethe, Director of Media Relations for U.S. Soccer, each emphasized that PRO is not a knee-jerk reaction to officiating at the professional level but more a long-term process to improve the quality and depth of referees.

“There have been discussions for years about how to improve our referees because that’s important,” explained Buethe. “We’ve been asking the question, how do we do that? How do we increase the quality of professional referees? How do we develop more professional referees at a younger age and how do we develop these referees to represent the US and Canada at the highest level, FIFA competitions?”

Silva says PRO was formed to better identify, train and coach referees which would include better quality assessment as well as creating a better system of assignment and employment of professional officials who provide services to U.S. Soccer professional leagues. He explained that in 2010 U.S. Soccer started a Pro Referee Task Force which was formed to review existing pro referee programs and provide recommendations. That task force drew up systematic plans for improved programs that went into place in 2011, well before PRO was officially launched.

Template for PRO
“What happened last year (2011) is the league (MLS) stepped into this to a greater degree,” states Silva. “U.S. Soccer in concert with the CSA and MLS came up with some points of emphasis. Not that we weren’t doing this before but now we were looking at this from the league’s perspective. We had all of the officials, evaluators, referee coaching staff and the teams’ organization all in one place hearing a presentation by commissioner (Don) Garber. He explained those points of emphasis and basically said, this is the way we want our product to look. So let’s pay attention to certain points of emphasis like protecting players from reckless tackles, free kick management, as well as many other points. After that meeting the refs met and said, what does this mean in referee speak?”

Silva said that same group then made a plan to carry those unified points of emphasis into the 2011 MLS season which started in the preseason. That plan included for the first time true referee teams that officiated MLS games. Silva says a referee team might look something like an experienced referee, a sophomore referee, a rookie referee and potentially one of the clipboard referees (4th official).

Another important component of their program was the referee-coach model. The referee-coach would work with the referee teams, coaching and advising.

Then they took it once step further. “Last year we actually set up a real-time command center in New York with interns and staff that was built after an NFL model,” said Silva. “We had all the games going on live. They were being recorded and reviewed. At the same time critical incidents were being logged and clips were then made from each of those critical incidents.” Siva said once the clips were archived they could then discuss “each tackle that should or shouldn’t have been called or the penalty that was given or not given.”

Silva explains that last year there were on average 10 MLS games a week, which meant there were anywhere from 7 to 10 clips per game, generating nearly 100 clips a week. From those, they would identify about a dozen that were the most critical that the staff felt needed reviewing. Conference calls were then made between the federation and the league, the league and the referee-coaches and the referee evaluators. The referee-coaches would then go back to the teams of officials and discuss those incidents.

“Each game was reviewed by a referee coach and a professional match evaluator who are often former players, coaches or referees who are actually at the stadium. Then there were those of us at the command center. So there was  a significant increase in resources from U.S. Soccer that were allocated for this,” says Silva. “Both from a standpoint of creating data, analyzing it and then providing real-time information.”

Fresh Blood
Another component of PRO is incorporating rookie referees in a methodical manner that makes sense, according to Silva. He explained that “7 rookie whistles” (head officials) were placed strategically into games throughout the season. Experienced referees were used early on in the season and the rookies were not placed into games that were higher profile or possibly more controversial.

At the same time “13 clipboards” (4th officials) were working with the new teams of referees and those same 4th officials were used as head officials in many Division 2 NASL games as well as US Open Cup games and Division 3 or other international games. According to Silva those same 4th officials are constantly evaluated both as head officials and 4th officials and would be next in line for head official spots in MLS when those positions open up.

Buethe stated that part of the purpose of PRO is to add to the depth of quality officials in the U.S. “Last year they pushed hard to get new younger referees into the professional level. Any time you do that you’re going to hit some bumps in the road. But last year we had a system in place to really mentor them, to talk them through the process after each and every game with the decisions they made and to help them to improve. But if you don’t do that you have a crop of referees who are getting older and older.”

Silva says they were happy with the first year of incorporating younger referees into the system. He stated that rookies officiated 72 games in MLS last year. “We’re sending them to the stadiums and they are seeing what the games are like at this level. They are seeing the professional game from inside the locker room, at the table on the sideline and they are part of the debriefs at the end of the week. Overall they exceeded the task force expectations last year.”

Increased Budget
All these programs of course cost money and a lot of it. By forming PRO the organization can be funded independently by both U.S. Soccer and MLS.

The US Soccer budget was already increased in 2011 and 2012 to help fund these increased officiating programs. As Steven Goff of the Washington Post pointed out last December, the USSF would be spending $3.8 million in fiscal year 2013 on officiating. That was a $1.1 million increase over FY ’12. He also wrote that “the ’13 budget included $1.8 million earmarked for “referee performance,” which includes the pro referee department, full-time referee program, training camps, referee coach and match evaluation.”

“One of the goals is to increase our full time referees from where we once had four, to having a lot more,” explained Buethe. “Most of our current referees have other jobs and being a referee is on the side. Those officials are not able to concentrate on refereeing as much as they would like to do or we would like them to. With PRO, we will have more funding for that and funding for more experienced technical staff as well as increased training for our officials.”

Identification and Training
Buethe explained that PRO will have yet another function, one that is often overlooked or forgotten; identification of up and coming officials and better training. “The goal will be to reach out to the over 150,000 referees in the U.S. to inform them there is now a path for development all the way to the professional level. If they are interested in that path, U.S. Soccer can help them get on that track. We always talk about player development,” said Buethe, explaining that even within the Development Academy there is a referee component.

8 Responses
  1. March 2, 2012

    Great article Brian… there’s been a lot of rumor milling in the referee community on this, but this is the first time I’ve seen quotes from the principals involved. Nice work.

  2. drebin permalink
    March 2, 2012

    This is great news. The quality of play in MLS has been increasing in recent years that the players started improving at a faster rate than the referees officiating them. I’m very happy there is a consensus on a clear plan among all parties involved to try and close that gap.

  3. Strikers Return permalink
    March 2, 2012

    Good read BQ. SOunds like this is all costing a lot of money, so I sure hope it pays off with some improved officiating that is definitely needed at all pro levels.

  4. MrTuktoyaktuk permalink
    March 2, 2012

    Very pleased to read this. I imagine this initiative could have a large positive impact on the quality of play in the league.

  5. March 2, 2012

    You hit the nail on the head, MrTuktoyaktuk. That is exactly what this is all about, isn’t it?

  6. Brendan permalink
    March 2, 2012

    Maybe you know this, Brian.
    Do referees (and linesmen and 4th officials) sign contracts with each league or with USSF and then are assigned to different leagues? The excerpt below from the article would make it seem more like the latter option. And then are they paid by USSF with any of the league dues (or registration fees or however you properly describe those payments) or by each league?

    “At the same time “13 clipboards” (4th officials) were working with the new teams of referees and those same 4th officials were used as head officials in many Division 2 NASL games as well as US Open Cup games and Division 3 or other international games. ”

    Do you have any idea how often or how many referees make a switch between leagues during a season?

    And one more maybe impossible question, will this referee training program and overall USSF officiating investment do anything to the system that USL Pro uses of “a national referee as the [center] referee, but the assistant referees and fourth official are often locally based, as the league and teams often cannot afford the travel expenses for four officials for each game all season.”
    from this article last year

    Thanks for the article, informative as always.

  7. March 3, 2012

    Sorry, lol, one more question.

    How much is this development connected with the decision to allow MLS clubs to appeal red cards with the league?

  8. March 3, 2012

    I think Brendan should write up a follow-up piece on this article. “Inquiring minds want to know.”

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