By Andrea Canales
Complaints about the quality (or lack thereof) of refereeing in Major
League Soccer are nothing new, though the sheer number of red cards this past Saturday (7) brought the issue into focus. Yet it's been a problem for some time.
I didn't want to write another column simply adding to the chorus of
criticism, though. After all, it doesn't seem to really serve a
purpose. Do people expect that after being called out for incompetency,
any MLS ref will think, "Wow, that's true, I do suck. I'll stop that
It's not realistic to expect that even an abashed referee looking to improve can magically and instantaneously do so.
What needs to be done instead is to look at the process by which
referees advance to call games in Major League Soccer and to see
whether there is something in that mechanism that needs to be changed.
First of all, it's important to note that there are specific protocols
in place to govern the quality of refereeing. The U.S. Soccer Federation, which supplies MLS with the referees for games, also provides trained observers, some of whom are retired referees
themselves, to review referee performances. As a teaching tool, the
federation website posts a weekly compilation of specific calls (even those which are missed in the actual games) and explains the official
rules pertaining to each situation. Not only is this instructive, but it also creates to an extent public accountability for refs.
Yet at the same time, all the training and review in the world isn't
going to make much of a difference if the pool of referees remains exactly the same. If players are pushed to raise the level of their game
through greater competition, it stands to reason that the same applies
to those calling the game.
Institutions don't develop by accident, however. There are political
reasons guiding the rationale of who is allowed to blow a whistle in
MLS. For one thing, U.S. Soccer would obviously want to reward those
who have gone through their training structures. Getting U.S. referees
games in MLS and in international matches played in the U.S. helps them
build up resumes for possible World Cup consideration
Exceptions have been made before, however. For last year's SuperLiga
final, English referee Howard Webb was brought in to do the job.
Yet he didn't have a great game. It wasn't horrible, but he missed some
calls. Considering it was a one-off in a league that he didn't
have experience in, perhaps that was to be expected.
Instead of looking to just spring for whistle-blowers from abroad here
and there, MLS should look at an exchange program. If they could be
assured of a decent salary for the season, with provided lodging, it's
likely that officials from respected leagues around the world would
consider a stint in MLS.
At present, U.S. Soccer has a few slots for full-time referees,
including Jair Marrufo, Ricardo Salazar, Terry Vaughn and Baldomero
Toledo. They are paid a set salary, not merely game to game, so they
can fully focus on becoming top professionals with no other
One aspect of this program as it grows should be the institution of a rotating international slot.
In other words, an invite would be extended for a quality international
referee to contract for a year-long experience in MLS (and other U.S.
tournaments). If the contract is transferred on a yearly basis, a number
of officials from abroad could help set a higher quality standard for
referees. They would also gain exposure to the U.S. game and players
through the experience. It would be the referee equivalent of the
designated player slot and it could bring a fresh perspective to
officiating the American game.
The same rationale behind the DP also applies - that it's important to
be able to bring in quality imports from abroad to raise the level of
the game. Officiating is an essential part of every match. The U.S.
shouldn't remain insular in the world's game by keeping all the
officiating duties to domestic workers. It's time to stop the cycle of
endless complaining and take at least one solid step forward in
addressing the problem.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
Go to Goal.com's MLS section for all the latest on the U.S. game.