Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On MLS Referees and Referees in General

Ives Galarcep had a post last week discussing MLS referees. I love Ives' blog because he does ask some of the hard questions and solicits responses from readers. My own comment was this:
For all the ref haters out there, how many matches of any level have you refereed? Refereeing games is hard and it gets harder the higher the level you get. In general I referee five to eight games a week between high school matches and premier level youth matches. The speed of play and the physicality of MLS games makes the game hard to call, full stop.

Remember, most of the "controversial" calls get reviewed over and over and over again on slo-mo, replay and post-game analysis. A referee has about, at best, 2 seconds to make a decision. In that time, they have to replay the incident in their head, decide if the action is a violation of the laws of the game, who violated the law, which law was violated, and then lift and blow the whistle. It is not as easy as the arm chair warriors would have you think. For the arm chair refs out there, go to your local park and watch, in real time, a game at the U15 premier level, a game in which you have no personal stake and see if you can make the right call even half the time.

Now after that game is done, imagine the players 8 to ten year older, faster, stronger, and the years and professional experience that have accumulated. Do you think you can still do it?

It takes years to develop referees, just like it takes years to develop players. In order for a referee to become a national level referee, they have to pass the laws test, referees several hundred games at the U-19 or higher and that takes time, usually a few years at best, in order to get the game experience necessary to be a national level referee. You can't simply start a whole host of referees and hope to develop them in a couple or three years--it can take five, seven or even 10 years. Also, keep in mind that referees, although they are well paid, most have a regular day job as well.

I do belive, however, that USSF, which overseas the MLS officials, has not made the job of the referees easier this year. At the start of each year, USSF issues various position papers and directives, usually with a mind to encourage attacking soccer. But the dichotomy is that while the directives encourage attacking soccer, they run counter to the referee's responsibility to keep the players safe.
A fair number of the comments talk about inconsistency of the refereeing in a game, but almost always with the notion that the referee is either a) biased, b) rubbish or c) outright corrupt.

As a soccer referee myself, I generally take offense to the notion, expressed by many, many fans of the game, that the referee's are biased in favor of one team or another. Accusations of corruption without any shred of proof other than a call against your team simply make my blood boil. So let me tell everyone out there a little secret:

Referees could give a toss about which team wins or losses--we really don't care. I will let you in on another little secret, a lot of referees hope for a really dull game; a clean, foul-less blowout or tie game. We really don't want to make a lot of calls, we really don't want to court controversy, we really don't want to issue yellow or red cards and really, really, really don't want any player to get hurt. By we, I believe I can speak for every referee in America and probably the world. I want my post-game report to be simply the date of the game, time of the game, level of the game and score of hte game. The less I have to write the happier I am.

Now having said that, I take my responsibilities as a referee very seriously. As a generally youth and high school referee, my absolute first priority is the safety of the players. If a player is endangering the other players, I have absolutely no conscience about issuing a card, it causes me absolutely no concern or pain. I will then write up the situation in the driest, most fact based manner I can.

But as my comment above suggested I think the USSF has done a disservice to the upper levels of the game, particularly at the USL-2, USL-1 and MLS levels in this country. In the quest for attacking soccer, the USSF has burdened referees with a task that they should not have to shoulder--namely the promotion of attacking soccer.

Some of the rules changes and interpretations I can live with. For example, when I first started refereeing oh so many years ago, if a player was even with the last defender, he was offside. Now, even with the last defender is onside. That is a reasonable rule change that tends to promote attacking soccer without burdening the referee. Rules changes and rules interpretations are one thing, if they can, in and of themselves "promote" attacking soccer. But some of the recent decisions and directives complicate matters for referees, which leads to inconsistent application and thus inconsistent refereeing.

For example, the USSF places great emphasis on "risk taking" for referees. What does that mean? What I might consider a "risk" is not something someone else would call a risk but rather a danger. The USSF wants referees to hold off on calling a lot of ticky/takcy fouls, little fouls in the middle of the field in order to keep the game flowing. However, allowing some behavior to occur unchecked often leads to escalating behavior that could be a 100 percent misconduct or in fan terms, a yellow card, because the players become impassioned and to a certain extent emboldened by the lack of calls that slow things down, allows players to catch a breath and stop and think a little.

So from my perspective, not tightening up the game in the middle of the pitch by calling some of these small fouls that don't necessarily lead to a goal scoring opportunity on a free kick is a pretty big risk, a risk of losing control of the game and an increased risk of players getting hurt.

The way I see my role as a referee, I have two primary missions:

1. Ensure the safety of the players. The only change in a players condition I want to see is sweat and being a little out of breath. I don't want to see any players get hurt. It doesn't matter if I am refereeing 8 year olds or 18 year olds or adults, everyone needs to go home safely.

2. Enforce the laws of the game. My task is to do this as fairly and as accurately as possible. Attacking soccer cannot happen if the players are breaking the rules, even if it is an inadvertent foul.

That is it, just two primary tasks and that occupies probably 98 percent of my time on the pitch.

Attacking soccer is the responsibility of the coaches and players. If a team wants to put nine or ten men behind the ball, nothing I can do as a referee is going to change that and I shouldn't try to. If the fans want attacking soccer they should push the players and coaches to provide it; the USSF should not task the referees with that responsibility.

Soccer By Ives: Monday Morning Centerback: On MLS referees

No comments: