It's time for Major League Soccer to take solid action to improve the standard of game officiating, and the league shouldn't be too proud to look abroad for help.
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 right now."
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 distractions.
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
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