McCarthy's Musings: New structure and fresh ideas create a novel path for MLS referees

League executives and federation officials from the U.S. and Canada turned to one man to create the foundation for current and future success.
NEW YORK – Peter Walton started the Professional Referees Organization last March with a comprehensive title and an expansive directive.

And that was about it.

The former Premier League referee faced the monumental task of building his outfit from scratch. He leased office space from MLS and spent much of last year surveying the landscape.

“It's just been a collection of facts, figures, stats, understanding and a knowledge of the direction we want to take,” PRO general manager Walton said during a discussion in his office last week. “It's been quite a whistle-stop tour.”

Every destination provided new information about the referees and the resources at his disposal. As he gathered those details, he started to build the structure required to improve the standard of refereeing at the highest levels in the United States and Canada.

PRO, by its mere existence, represents a significant departure from the political fiefdoms and patchwork structures that preceded it. It is an independent organization initially funded by MLS and U.S. Soccer to create a central body for professional match officials in North America. Walton reports to a five-member executive board – two representatives from MLS, two representatives from U.S. Soccer and one independent FIFA chairman – on his activities.

Walton, who is English, eventually constructed an organizational chart modeled after the Professional Game Match Officials Limited established in his native country in 2001. He appointed veteran MLS referee Michael Kennedy as referee manager and imported Paul Rejer from the PGMO to oversee training and development. Rejer works with 12 referee coaches, a women's referee coach (former FIFA referee Sandra Serafini) and several assessors to implement development schemes and stage training camps (approximately 20 in various locations during the year).

The robust structure – including a sports scientist and several other staffers – allows PRO to assume a greater role in cultivating and managing referees on and off the field. It also increases the external demands placed upon the organization and the officials at its disposal, according to Walton.

“This year is a really important year for us,” Walton said. “Last year was a bit of a honeymoon period. It was a new venture. People were quite comfortable giving me a little bit of slack. But now that those foundations are in place and people do have various tasks to do, the expectation level has risen again. That is something I need to manage, but we also need to make sure the product we put on the field is a changing product for the best.”

Walton reduced the number of officials in the referee pool to bolster the quality on a week-to-week basis. MLS relied on 30 officials to take charge of its 323 regular-season matches last season. That number will dip to 21 this year (including nine full-time referees) in order to allow officials to work games more regularly. Although Walton admits that cup competitions and friendlies may place some stress on that reduced pool at points this season, he said he will likely stick with the selected group for the duration of the campaign.

By reducing the number of referees working at the top level, Walton hopes to foster competition for spots and track the form of his referees. Every official will receive a mark out of 100 as part of the assessment process after matches and slide up and down a merit order list based on those performances. Walton said he plans to use both form and the merit order when he ultimately doles out playoff assignments in November.

All of those measures – plus the inclusion of 10 fourth officials charged with gathering experience along the way – are designed to create a deeper pool of referees capable of lifting the overall standard.

“I have to make sure that our officials do not stand still,” Walton said. “We need to advance alongside [the league] so we do not have a big gap developing. That's hard enough, but the other element is that we need to make sure we have people underneath that leg who are not exposed to games and the games that matter. There's not enough competition out there at the moment. I have to formulate some way of getting them the experience to come through the system.”

It will take some time to achieve those objectives. The revamped system may encourage greater consistency within the group, but it will not generate a fresh crop of referees overnight. Many of the familiar faces from previous season will remain as the structure takes hold and develops their eventual replacements. Only so much room for growth exists when the principals remain the same.

Some of the instant alterations – greater emphasis on game management, more interaction with coaches and players in non-game situations and more transparency (including the posting of match assignments on the PRO website) – could yield results in short order. The larger and more fundamental objectives will require more patience and more time to achieve.

“We have a vision in mind by 2022,” Walton said. “We're looking nine years down the line where we can benchmark ourselves with the best in the world and say that we're up there with the best in the world. It's not an overnight success. I don't come here professing to be a light switch that we just switch on to make everything in the world perfect.”

No person or system could possibly satisfy that particular goal, but it is Walton's job to come as close as possible to that unattainable standard. At least now he can rely on more than a blank page to help him as he embarks upon the lengthy journey ahead.

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