Words With Ross: Molding the man in the middle

In the second installment of his blog, Voice of the Sounders Ross Fletcher examines the ever-evolving position that is the referee in Major League Soccer.

“I have to stop you there because I take exception to that” said one of the former MLS players in the audience. His ears had been pricked and he was now intently leaning forward on his chair. “I was in this league a long time and I find that offensive.”

Peter Walton had only been speaking for a couple of minutes as he introduced himself to the media members at the pre-season MLS Broadcasters Conference. The General Manager of the new Professional Referees Organization (PRO) was making a point about some of the poor first touches he had seen during highly charged MLS matches. He argued the lack of control sometimes led to a badly timed recovery tackle, which then put his referees in a very difficult position. The ex-player didn’t like the perception of his league. Clearly, Walton had a little more convincing to do.

But that is why he was tempted with a move to North America. Peter Walton has a mandate and a clear vision. Having arrived last year from England, where he enjoyed a long and respected career as a Premier League referee, his task is to improve the quality of officiating in US and Canadian Soccer. He was given a blank sheet of paper when creating PRO. The standard of officiating has long been a bone of contention in MLS – just about everyone I’ve met since moving to Seattle 15 months ago has had a strong view - from owners and general managers to players, coaches and fans. There has been a general acceptance that refereeing has to get better. Now somebody has been tasked to do something about it.

Walton largely spent his first season in the shadows, watching, analyzing and evaluating his staff and the league. Now in year two, we are starting to see sweeping changes to the entire officiating structure. One of the first things Walton did was to significantly reduce the number of referees. The pool has gone from last year’s bloated figure of 37 to just 21. There are now nine full-time referees – last year there were just two. That last statistic is a significant one. It simply seems logical that a sport played by professionals should be officiated by professionals.

Those nine men will no longer have to worry about putting bread on their table through a 9-to-5 income. Their sole focus can and will be on the art of refereeing.

That has to be a step forward. PRO has been based on the model in England, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited which helped to develop the 2010 World Cup final referee Howard Webb. Shortly before moving to the States I hosted a dinner with Webb, who before becoming a full-time ref combined his duties with his work as a Police Sergeant. He told me that he had become a much better referee since turning pro, because he simply had more time to focus on improving his skills.

One of the other advancements is the significant increase in the number of training camps being offered to referees and their assistants. Having held two camps in 2012, Walton has organized 20 for this year and they will be spread throughout the country. The intention is for greater tuition, to include more analysis of decision making. In turn, accountability will be increased. Feedback will be greater and more regular and that also includes better lines of communication with each of the 19 MLS teams to help explain contentious decisions. In short, referees are no longer on an island. The days of them treating it as a weekend enterprise are rapidly diminishing.

After the first weekend of the 2013 season, Peter Walton declared that his officials had got off to a ‘good start’. Despite the progress, referees will continue to get decisions wrong. That is inevitable, as long as we have humans in charge of the whistle. But no longer will they feel they have nowhere to turn when they need advice or encouragement. I’d like to see us get to the stage where broadcasters and the written media can interview officials about high profile incidents shortly after a game. But let’s not run before we can walk. Walton has a longer term vision too, to develop more and better young match officials and to showcase North American refs on the international stage. Two of the current crop, Jair Marrufo and Mark Geiger are on the FIFA shortlist for the 2014 World Cup. The talent is there. Now the challenge is to develop it so that in a few years time, Peter Walton won’t have to deal with quite such a skeptical crowd.

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