Posted by Ed Bellion, New Year’s Day, 2006:
The completion of the 10th year of Major League Soccer has been a mixed bag in terms of successes: expansion, shrinkage, re-expansion and the possibility of additional expansion for next season and beyond. We have seen the construction of three excellent soccer-specific stadia, in Columbus, Los Angeles and Dallas, with more on the way. Player development has been very encouraging. Our National team has qualified for each of the three World Cups held since the league began in 1996. This is significant since the team had only qualified for one World Cup in the previous four decades. And in 2002, the team reached the quarterfinals, the best performance since 1934. Furthermore, many of the players developed in MLS are now regular players in the major European Leagues: McBride, Convey, Beasley, Nelsen, John, Bocanegra, Friedel and Howard to name just a handful. On the downside are low TV audiences and somewhat disappointing attendance figures, albeit very variable throughout the league.
However, this is a site devoted largely to refereeing matters, so now we turn attention to the other major downside: the failure to develop a strong pool of competent professional referees.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in our list of referees on the International Panel, generally referred to as the FIFA list. At the end of 2004, two of our most experienced referees, Kevin Terry and Ali Saheli retired from that list of eight referees. The previous season (2003) we had seven referees on the panel; one retired, and two from the MLS ranks were added for 2004. However, for 2005, only one official was promoted to replace Kevin and Ali.
At the end of 2005, Ricardo Valenzuela will leave the list, but he will not be replaced, leaving just six referees on our FIFA list for 2006. Thus after 10 years of MLS, we have the smallest number of referees on our FIFA list for over thirty years! In 2000 there were nine FIFA referees. This was shortly after FIFA allowed USSF to appoint up to ten referees to the list, following decades when the list was capped at seven, and there was no separate list for assistant referees. Since that time, encompassing six full seasons of MLS, and six National Camps, six referees have left the list, but only three have been appointed to it. Thus we are seemingly going backwards! Why are there insufficient referees coming through the process with the abilities and potential to go on the FIFA list?
One would expect that after ten years of our so-called National Camp, and out of over 200 National referees, there would be a at least a few capable of the FIFA list. Ten years should have been sufficient time to develop them! Contrast this with the NASL years and those following immediately thereafter. There were always several referees waiting to go on the list to replace those who retired. This was despite the fact that refereeing in the NASL was also done by Canadian referees, even on US soil, and also by many well-known guest referees from around the world, which cut down on the available games for US referees. Indeed there were generally several to choose from, with many going on to successful careers with FIFA, notably David Socha (the first native-born American to go to a World Cup and the only US referee so far to go to two of them-- 1982 and 1986), Vinnie Mauro, Arturo Angeles and Brian Hall, all of whom officiated and were trained in the NASL. Furthermore, in some years as many as three referees were promoted to the FIFA list.
So where did it all go wrong?
Clearly the dearth of a large pool of competent referees is due to the inadequacies in the training, instruction and evaluation programs that are being provided.
This inadequacy is admitted by the league itself, if unknowingly. Three of the last four MLS Cup Finals have been refereed by men who have refereed a previous final. Usually an honor game like a cup final is given to a referee just once in career, and then others do the rest of them. After several years of league play it should be possible not to have repeaters.
The USSF Referee Committee has also recognized the inadequacy in the training by not appointing anyone to the referees’ list for 2006. They are to be commended for this decision rather than to appoint someone who is not qualified or ready. The problem will be even worse for 2007, since two of our most established referees, Brian Hall and Michael Kennedy are scheduled to retire at the end of 2006.
Where do the problems lie, and how can they be addressed? These topics will be elaborated on in more detail in a later article.