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Why Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami will open the new MLS season with replacement match officials

Major League Soccer will kick off this season with stand-in referees when Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami hosts Real Salt Lake on Wednesday.

The MLS Players Association (MLSPA), the labor union that represents MLS players, said the lockout of the league’s match officials was a “backward step,” adding in a statement on Tuesday that “the use of replacement referees will not only negatively impact the quality and results of our matches, it may also jeopardize the health and safety of players.”

The move comes after PSRA, the union that represents professional referees across MLS, the second- and third-tier United Soccer Leagues and the National Women’s Soccer League, and PRO, the MLS-funded body that manages professional officiating in the United States and Canada, failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in January.

The Athletic explains what’s going on…


So, who is going to referee the opening MLS games?

On Feb. 17, The Athletic reported PRO had commitments from 66 replacement officials. Of those, 26 can be assigned as a referee or fourth official, and 29 can be assistant referees.

Cristian Campo Hernandez will be the center referee for Inter Miami vs. Real Salt Lake. The Spaniard officiated matches in the second-division USL Championship last year and was previously an NCAA referee. He is also part of the (PRO) talent ID program, the mechanism that PRO uses to identify and develop future MLS referees.

The assistant referees are Fevzi Demirhan (USL League One, MLS Next Pro) and Albert Escovar (USL Championship, MLS Next Pro).

Members of PRO’s management who have been certified by soccer’s global lawmakers, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), in the past or have worked games at FIFA competitions as the video assistant referee (VAR) will be used in that capacity.

That includes PRO general manager Mark Geiger. The 49-year-old refereed in MLS from 2004-19 and was a listed FIFA referee from 2008-19. He became the first American to referee a World Cup knockout-phase game in 2014 when he oversaw France’s 2-0 last-16 win against Nigeria. He then refereed three matches at the 2018 World Cup before retiring the following year.


France’s Olivier Giroud and Geiger at the 2014 World Cup (Evaristo SA/AFP via Getty Images)

The center referees include 11 options with experience in the top three divisions of Brazil, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico and Poland. Ten are former or current national referees in U.S. Soccer.

Matches hosted by any of MLS’s three Canadian-based clubs will be serviced by Canada Soccer.

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PRO has sought to keep the identities of the replacement referees under wraps partly out of concern that the PRSA will try to persuade them not to cross the picket line, a source briefed on the thinking told The Athletic. Yet since lining up at least 66 replacement referees last week, the indications are PRO has received further commitments from officials rather than anyone pulling out.


How did we get here?

The collective bargaining agreement between the PSRA and PRO expired on Jan. 15.

In December, according to sources familiar with the talks, PRO had offered an overall three percent pay increase to its referees, while the PSRA had demanded an increase of up to 90 percent, with the largest of the increases reserved for its lowest-paid officials, such as assistant referees and fourth officials. In early January, PRO increased its offer “marginally,” said one source, offering an overall raise of four to five percent.

On Jan. 15 it emerged talks over a new deal had not been successful — with PRSA president and lead negotiator Peter Manikowski saying “the parties remain far apart on matters of great importance” — and a stoppage felt “imminent.”

The two sides agreed to a temporary extension until Jan. 31 as the deadline approached, allowing referees to report for fitness testing and preseason training camp, and talks to resume later in January.

PSRA members then voted unanimously to authorize a potential strike. The PSRA also filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging that PRO engaged in “direct dealing” — bypassing union leadership and communicating directly with PSRA members.

Leadership for both groups reached a tentative agreement earlier in February, but 95.8 percent of PRSA members voted “no” on that deal. The PSRA also “rejected PRO’s offer for a mutual no-strike-no-lockout commitment, which would have allowed all match officials to continue working during ongoing negotiations,” said Nelson Rodríguez, MLS executive vice president of sporting product and competition.

On February 17, PRO announced it was locking out the MLS referees, effective midnight ET the following day.


What are they arguing over?

Pay and working conditions are at the heart of the dispute.

“Our members are asking not only for fair compensation at a time when the league is reporting record growth,” said Manikowski, “but also for the ability to take care of themselves on the road and at home to continue officiating at the highest level this sport demands.”

According to the previous CBA, a copy of which was obtained by The Athletic, so-called “probationary” center referees — officials with less than two years of service — make a base salary of $50,647.90 for their work in MLS, which is supplemented by a match fee of $1,350.61 per regular season match. More experienced referees make anywhere from $95,000 to $108,000 per year, based on the number of matches they have called, in addition to that same per-match fee.

Assistant referees also receive that same $1,350.61 per match, but their base pay is far less, falling between $16,038 and $21,384, depending on experience. Under the old CBA, assistant referees do not receive a match fee until the 10th regular season match they call.

The per-game rates for all officials slide upward during the playoffs and for the All-Star Game. For his work in this year’s MLS Cup, for example, center referee Armando Villarreal made $6,916.57 — around five times higher than the amount he would get for a regular-season match.


Villarreal officiating in the 2023 MLS Cup (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Video assistant referees (VARs) and assistant VARs have a separate pay range, which is even smaller than the on-pitch officials.

PRO said that the overall increases in pay for the first year included 10-33 percent for referees, 75-104 percent for assistant referees and 15-100 percent for video match officials, as well as increased match fees for both regular season and playoff games. The deal also included first/business class air travel for the playoffs and MLS Cup.

MLS claimed this “would have made PRO members among the highest-paid soccer officials in the world,” but the offer was emphatically rejected by PSRA members.


Is there any sign of a resolution?

Leadership for both camps reaching a tentative agreement and sending it to vote would suggest they aren’t far off, although PSRA members’ emphatic rejection of the deal has set things back.

An optimistic view would be to point out both sides indicated in press releases that they were each eager to continue at the negotiating table, rather than publicly digging in for a long work stoppage. That’s still on the cards if no new agreement is reached and membership votes it through, but for now, both sides say they are motivated to continue talking.


What are people saying about it?

MLS Players Association: “On the eve of the 2024 MLS season, attention should be focused on the competition on the field. The use of replacement referees will not only negatively impact the quality and results of our matches, it may also jeopardize the health and safety of players.”

PRSA president and lead negotiator Peter Manikowski: “We live for the game, giving it 100 percent of our dedication, experience, fitness and ability. The skyrocketing growth of MLS has significantly increased demands on officials mentally and physically, and as such has increased demands on both our professional and personal time.”

MLS


(Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

PRO general manager Mark Geiger: “Time has been of the essence to conclude a fair deal and move forward together with renewed positivity ahead of our 12th year of supporting the growth of the professional game in the United States and Canada. The result of the membership vote is disappointing.”

Nelson Rodríguez, MLS executive vice-president of sporting product and competition: “It’s extremely disappointing that the officials have voted against the tentative agreement on a new CBA reached by the PSRA and the PRO. PRO worked for months and addressed all the issues that were raised by PSRA’s bargaining unit.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber: “It’s not the way MLS was hoping to start a season. But you can’t really negotiate with an entity that in my opinion hasn’t really negotiated with PRO fairly. So we’ll see how all that plays out, you know, in the weeks to come. At this point we don’t even know what it is that they’re looking for, because we agree with their elected representation. So I’m sitting here today, with officials who I’m confident will do a good job, not knowing what it is and how far PRO is apart from the, you know, the PSRA and that is just not something that I can say is normal in a bargaining dynamic.”

On Wednesday, PSRA protests were seen outside MLS headquarters in New York City and in Dallas, Texas.

 


Has this happened before?

Yes. The last referee work stoppage came at the start of the 2014 MLS season.

Replacement officiating crews oversaw the year’s first 16 regular-season games. During that time, the PSRA said in a release, the error rate of key decisions (red cards, penalty calls, key offside decisions and more) in matches “skyrocketed.”

Although we don’t have access to the PSRA’s match reports, a look at the disciplinary figures from the games called by replacement crews shows a marked departure from MLS officiating standards in the mid-2010s:

Although the sample size is far leaner, games played during the strike were more frequently soundtracked by shrill whistles. Those matches involved an average of 30.6 fouls, an increase of five fouls per game over the non-strike average of 25.7 fouls from 2013 through 2015. Similarly, yellow cards were brandished 4.3 times in strike-impacted contests, up from 3.4 in the non-impacted sample.

However, that zealousness didn’t translate to issuing red cards or second yellows, with players being sent off only half as often as usual during the work stoppage. One could theorize that the replacement referees were less eager to make a team play short-handed and be accused of impacting the game more than their union counterparts. It should be noted that the last lockout saw seven officials who started as replacement refs go on to have careers in PRO.

And there is another little quirk: That 2014 season culminated with an MLS Cup between LA Galaxy and New England Revolution where current PRO general manager Geiger was the center referee. One of the assistants? Manikowski, now president and chief negotiator for PSRA.


How else will this impact matches?

Hours before kickoff for Inter Miami vs. Real Salt Lake, MLS announced it was postponing the implementation of several sporting initiatives approved in December while the replacement referees are in place. The postponed initiatives are: the timed substitution rule, the off-field treatment rule, and the in-stadium VAR announcements (all initiatives are explained here).

“MLS will implement the new Return to Play Equity protocol and stadium clocks will run until the completion of each half, including any additional time at the end of either half,” the league said in a statement.


Required reading for the 2024 MLS season kickoff


 (Top photo: Megan Briggs/Getty Images))


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