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MLS Refereeing: Hard to Fix, Hard to Watch

Are the referees really as bad as fans say they are?


It's a sad thing to consider, but Peter Walton still has a heck of a job ahead of him, even more than a year after his hiring.

For those who don't know, Peter Walton was hired in March of 2012 to oversee a brand spanking new outfit called the "Professional Referees Organization". US Soccer hired Walton, a man with significant experience as a Premier League referee, to help overhaul the officiating standards in the USA. He was given the task of heading up the newly formed PRO, a project he said he was eager to take on.

The PRO has taken over officiating in MLS, the MLS Reserve League, the NASL, USL-PRO, and the NWSL. In other words, the PRO is now the big boss of all professional referees. The intent is to raise the standards of officiating and ensure the highest quality possible given the available resources.

It's hard to begrudge Walton and company when you look at the situation the PRO finds itself in. The level of refereeing in this country is constantly subjected to criticism, and it's hard to argue that a lot of the criticism isn't warranted. Head scratching decisions occur on a weekly basis, and some of them truly affect the outcome of games. What can the PRO do to change that?

We know they grade referees every match and that experienced officials review every game and send back feedback to the current referees. We know that maintaining full time referee status depends on consistently solid performances of the match officials and that the organization is doing everything in its power to combat things it sees as detrimental to the game (diving, excessive fouling, etc). If all these efforts are in place, how can the refereeing keep coming under constant attack?

Sowing the Seeds of Success

It's simple, really: Time.

There hasn't been enough time to fix the problems that plague the system. MLS has improved in quality to the point where some matches are very, very good, but it has taken from 1996 until present day to reach this level. It's hard to consider, but there are going to be more growing pains along the way. Some of them will involve hopelessly indefensible red cards or penalties, but it's the ordeal we will have to go through to come out of this as a stronger soccer country. The cream will rise to the top eventually, but it will not happen in a year, or two, or even three.

We can hope there are improvements made in that span of time, yet we have to remember Walton and the PRO isn't made of magic. They cannot speed the improvement of officials any more than MLS can drastically speed the improvement of its standard of play.

And no, they can't import referees. That's not a particularly feasible option.

"But these referees have already been refereeing for years! They're still bad!"

Yes. But does anyone really believe they have been subjected to this level of constant supervision and feedback? The PRO was formed specifically to monitor, train, select the best referees available and slowly weed out the poor ones. That sort of project cannot possibly succeed as quickly as two calendar years. It would be silly to think so. It's not very different from the amount of effort that is going into overhauling the Academy system for clubs.

No one really believes the academies are going to start pumping out Iniestas and Lampards week in and week out, and yet everyone knows that the system needs to have a starting point to even have a chance at success.

It's an investment of both time and money, and investments aren't things that are ready to go three years after you put your money in.

The PRO gets some things right, even when they backfire.

They have done something I haven't seen in many places, and it's something I think should be commended. They will frequently post reviews of calls on their website and explain the officials' behavior and why the call was correct or incorrect. They have sometimes defended poor decisions, but it's still a level of transparency that soccer fans worldwide simply don't have access to in their leagues.

Even When They're Right, They're Wrong

Of course, the problem is that the transparency is really being put to the test this year. Blogging, easy video editing tools, and screenshots are making even the most couch-bound fan an expert on how to review plays, and a great many times the evidence is right there to be taken and exploited. Who can blame angry fans for torching the refwhen a bad call looks even worse on a second viewing with multiple angles?

Part of the problem is this year in particular.

This is entirely anecdotal, but it seems that the calls are exceptionally bad this season, for whatever reason that may be. Maybe it's the increased exposure that comes along with the new PRO, or the fact that more fans are following the league. It seems a week doesn't go by without a very big call going down that could easily be argued both ways.

"Easily" is the key word there. Tough decisions such as a red card or a penalty kick might be able to be argued, but it should never be easy to make a case to the contrary. If the referee has made the right call, arguing to overturn it could be possible, but it should be very difficult to do.

When neutral fans begin overwhelmingly criticizing a decision, you can throw (most) team bias out the window. Fans have access to angles and replays that the referees don't, this is true. It's also true that some mistakes are to be expected, as our officials are humans and not machines.

Referees around the world aren't perfect but I don't think it's hard to argue that MLS currently suffers from substandard refereeing. It's not the worst in the world, and it isn't "holding the league back" (that would be money), but it definitely hurts.

There's hope though. USSF, MLS and every other league in our country is working on it.

If in 10 years we are still discussing the amount of terrible calls each week, then perhaps it will be time to have a conversation about the purpose and power of the PRO.

In the meantime, we will all suffer together through some fairly inconsistent (to put it politely) refereeing. It's part of our growth as a league.

We'll turn to our kids in 2025 and say "In my day, a tackle like that got you a red card and a bullet through the head from Baldomero Toledo. I once saw Mark Geiger piledrive Kyle Beckerman after a perfectly clean sliding tackle. It's better now, believe me."