Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Replacement referees for opening MLS matches include youth, college, lower division officials

The Athletic has obtained the list of referee assignments for this weekend’s Major League Soccer games, which includes officials with widely varying degrees of experience.

While some have been involved extensively in matches in the second and third divisions of the U.S. Soccer pyramid, others are making the leap from the uppermost levels of youth soccer. Some of the assistant referees have largely worked college games.

MLS has been forced to play games with replacement officials after the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) could not come to terms with the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) on a new collective bargaining agreement. With the season fast approaching, PRO locked its referees out and assembled a collection of officials to replace them. PRO and PSRA are meeting on Wednesday to continue negotiations, according to a source briefed on the situation.


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The Athletic is not identifying the officials by name. PRO has expressed concern that replacement referees might be targeted. On Friday, it declined to comment on the list of officials but said it would release match assignments on Saturday and Sunday, in accordance with its policies.

Referees who call professional matches in the United States are subject to licensing by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which has its own criteria for certification at several different levels.

Of the referees assigned to MLS action on Saturday, 24 of them hold the federation’s basic “referee” license, while 19 have met the criteria for a regional license, U.S. Soccer’s intermediate license. Seventeen of those involved are USSF-certified “national” referees, the highest certification available via the federation.

A basic “referee” license is available to anybody above the age of 13 who completes the certification requirements, which include several hours of online or in-person training and (if above the age of 18) a background check. Some of the officials who’ve achieved only the basic level of certification do have professional experience. PRO has foreign officials to work games who are based in the U.S., and those officials achieved the base level of certification as a requirement to work MLS games.

Inter Miami

Replacement referees (left to right) Albert Escovar, Cristian Campo Hernandez, Jonathan Weiner and Fevzi Demirhan ahead of Inter Miami’s match on Wednesday (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

The “regional” license goes to referees who are at least 18 and have been working as officials for at least two years. Certification as a regional referee involves completing at least 25 games as a referee and 15 games as an assistant referee at the adult amateur level along with a host of other training requirements and a fitness test. They’re also subject to multiple “match evaluations,” real-life examinations of their performance at the adult amateur and U-18 or U-19 youth level. Adult amateur games are matches with a center referee and at least two assistant referees.

U.S. Soccer’s highest level of certification is the “national” license. National referees are 21 and older, chosen via an application process and hold regional licenses for at least two consecutive years. They’ve been a part of at least 65 games at the adult amateur level and have to complete extensive training in-person. They also have to meet FIFA’s fitness requirements and have their own, more stringent in-person performance evaluations.

The jump in pressure and stakes for some of these officials is significant. Some have recently been involved in college matches attended by very few fans. Over the weekend, they will call matches in sold-out stadiums and under intense scrutiny.

The 2024 season kicked off earlier this week with Inter Miami’s 2-0 win against Real Salt Lake, featuring the return of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez’s debut. From an officiating standpoint, Wednesday’s match largely went off without incident. A broader test will come this weekend when PRO’s collection of replacements will call the week’s remaining 14 games.

The center referees officiating this weekend’s matches have disparate experience levels. Many have officiated extensively in the USL Championship, USL League One, MLS Next Pro and the now-defunct North American Soccer League. Others have experience calling U.S. Open Cup matches and a handful have even served in some capacity in MLS and NWSL matches.

(Photo: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

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