The Angle

Is It Really “That Easy?”: Reffing Amateur Soccer

by on 19 September 2016

I’ve used this space in my first two columns to try to better explain the challenges of officiating soccer at its highest levels. For this column, though, I’m going to look at the perspective of the blue-collar officials that you see out on the field working your kids’ games, your niece’s and nephew’s games, the games that your neighbor’s kids are playing in, and even the games you might be playing in (if you are an adult amateur player).

As happens every late summer and fall, the focus of amateur soccer in the state turns from participation in MYSA youth play and the various adult leagues towards high school and college soccer (with a smattering of adult amateur and younger-aged youth play mixed in). Referees in the fall often times are tied up with college soccer, high school soccer, and MYSA’s robust fall league for U14 and younger.

Scholastic soccer — college and high school — often represents a kind of conundrum for soccer officials around the state of Minnesota. The games are typically played in front of larger, more enthusiastic crowds, creating great atmospheres. Everybody has a greater vested interest in the outcomes of the matches.

Invariably, however, the quality of the soccer frequently suffers, especially at the youth and high school level. The Developmental Academy and clubs that participate in the ECNL have stripped away the best boys and girls players from high school soccer. As a result, more kids play high school soccer who either play at the lower skill levels in summer club soccer or simply do not play summer soccer at all. Ask anybody involved in high school soccer, the overall skill level is clearly down in Minnesota. On top of that, high school soccer is occasionally coached by people who are not as familiar with the sport. Not always, but it does happen.

(Aside: this article is not an editorial in favor or opposition of the effects of the ECNL or DA on high school soccer, the comment merely reflects the prevailing impact of the existence of these programs.)

At the youth level, MYSA’s U9-U14 divisions suffer from a coaching drain. Many of the fine coaches who provide tactical and skills development in the summer are now working for colleges at either the head or assistant coach level and are unavailable to help with youth development in the fall. A significant (not necessarily a majority) number of fall MYSA coaches have a poorer understanding of the Laws of the Game, a good grasp what is considered the norm for play, and lack tactical and strategic understanding of the sport.

College soccer, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily suffer a quality drop-off. In fact, at the Division III level we see an increase in intensity as players who played on much more relaxed adult amateur teams in the summer now shift effort from staying healthy and sharp towards results on the field. But coming with that increase in intensity is a focus on results that is not nearly omnipresent in summer club soccer. In college soccer, most players are in the twilight of their competitive playing career, while coaches are fighting to retain jobs that provide a living wage.

No matter how you look at it, fall soccer invariably creates a greater pressure-cooker for referees on the field. Either good coaches are forced to seek results in the win column to maintain jobs, or less experienced coaches are placed in environments where the ability to develop players tactically is impaired. In both cases, game results become far more important. I was unpleasantly reminded of this a couple of times already this fall.

He took a long touch, enough to make the goalkeeper think he might be able to intervene, so the goalkeeper charged from the penalty area. Unfortunately… too late. The striker got to the ball first and launched a shot, which the goalkeeper blocked with an arm above his sliding body.

A few weeks ago, I was working the middle of a high school boys match. The visiting team managed to launch a counterattack from midfield and the striker was in behind the defense. He took a long touch, enough to make the goalkeeper think he might be able to intervene, so the goalkeeper charged from the penalty area. Unfortunately… too late. The striker got to the ball first and launched a shot, which the goalkeeper blocked with an arm above his sliding body.

There’s no way to come out of such a situation happy. A professional player will know what’s coming, accept his fate. Maybe he’ll argue the ball hit him in the chest, but if he knows I’m calling handling, he knows what’s next. That doesn’t happen in high school. The knowledge of the rules is so varied, half of enforcing the laws is properly dealing with the fallout of doing so.

I did what a referee is supposed to do, consequences be what they may. I called the foul. In a professional environment, I probably would have been instantly hounded by attacking players telling me that the player had to be sent off. Of course, in a high school environment, there was a pause of uncertainty. When I pulled the red card, that’s when the outrage began.

The goalkeeper’s father yelled from the crowd, “NO! HE HAS A PACEMAKER!” (I remain to this day uncertain what that had to do with anything, but I am impressed by the kid playing sports with a pacemaker, bully for him!) The goalkeeper’s teammates began yelling “What? What is going on? What’s the call?” The goalkeeper’s coach, as expected, took the decision professionally and was understanding, though he had to turn to the stands and tell the father to calm down.

After the game, the dichotomy between soccer people and non-soccer people was even more readily apparent. The coach (a long-time coach who refereed for about 10 years as well) and I had a calm and reasoned discussion about how unfair the required outcome of the decision was. I explained that I felt for the kid and knew he had no idea that his action required a dismissal. The coach tried to convince me that the ball hit his goalkeeper in the chest, which is the proper counter-argument: don’t question the required action, challenge the judgment. In the end he accepted the outcome and moved on. This is what happens when a soccer coach who understands referees and a soccer referee who understands players and coaches interact.

Meanwhile, the father laid in wait by the exit to the field, ambushed me as I was leaving, and demanded my name. After a brief conversation in which I first assured him his son’s coach knew my full name, he persisted. I then asked him why he needed it and he refused to answer. I finally gave him a false name and moved on. Somewhere, a referee named Burt is the subject of an angry letter to who-knows-where from an emotional father who probably needs to spend some time familiarizing himself with the laws of soccer.

Weeks later, I’m serving as an assistant referee in a college game in the Twin Cities. I won’t name the teams or use any names here, but I will provide video and allow you to see what the fuss is about. Late in the game, with white leading 2-1, purple has a free kick that is lifted into the penalty area. The ball rattles around like a pinball, hits a few players, then peters out with a weak attempt on goal that is easily collected by the goalkeeper.

I was the assistant on the bench side of the field, opposite the end that purple is attacking. After the goalkeeper collects the ball, the purple bench erupts with claims of handling, demanding a PK. The coach is livid. The game ends three minutes later and the coach immediately goes to the referee and “asks” a question, then provides his own answer: “Why did you not call the handball PK? Just call it. It’s not hard… just call it.”

So here’s the moment… look for yourself what happened…

The center referee in this match is an outstanding young official. He has an incredibly bright future in front of him. He also got this decision dead solid perfect. This isn’t handling. Granted, the ball does bounce off the white defender’s arm. It also hits the defender in the face en route to the feet of an attacker, who duffs the ball forward sloppily before another attacker lunges and manages to toe poke the ball right into the goalkeeper. The defender was not taking away a shooting or passing lane with the arm, the ball hit his arm out of pure coincidence, and if anything, he certainly did not benefit from the contact… I’m pretty sure he was not trying to deflect the ball into his own face.

This is not an offense. If you were supporting the white team, you would be horrified if the referee awarded a penalty for this. If you were a neutral, looking to see an entertaining match decided by the skill of the players rather than a controversial decision by the referee, you’re not going to want a penalty awarded here.

But, naturally, if you support the purple team, you want this called… anything to get your team a result. I am always amazed at how insistent a player, coach, or supporter will be that an incident HAS to be a foul. I typically let them make that argument, then ask them, “OK, now, tell me, if the colors of the jerseys were switched and that call was made, how would you feel?”

This clip, and the coach’s post-game response, shows the opposite side of the coach-referee relationship from what I experienced in my high school game with the parent. Instead of an emotional parent with a very poor understanding of the laws, the coach is very familiar with the game and has tons of experience. Rather, in this case the stakes of the result are much higher, and so the coach angrily and disrespectfully barked at the referee because the referee did not make a decision that the coach wanted. Mind you, not a decision that was necessarily correct, but one that the coach wanted, even needed, to improve his chances of a positive job performance review.

What is interesting about these two confrontations is in both cases, the referee faces an irate individual who is dissatisfied with the official’s decision. There is no interest in looking at the decision from a neutral perspective. The focus is entirely on the idea that the referee has delivered a personal affront to the individual and his own interests, as if the referee went out of their way to ensure they insulted that person and their cause. The root of each response is on opposite ends of the spectrum — a parent who doesn’t understand the rules, versus a coach who understands them just fine, but needs them interpreted in a way to create personal benefit.

Nonetheless, in both cases there is a complete loss of concern for whether the referee is doing his job right. And after 1,500 words of setup, that brings me to the crux of this column.

Referees take a lot of flak for their mistakes — and they do make mistakes. But they also get tagged for a lot of “mistakes” that are, in fact, nothing more than personal opinion and the bias — or, in some cases, ignorance — of the observer.

Referees take a lot of flak for their mistakes — and they do make mistakes. But they also get tagged for a lot of “mistakes” that are, in fact, nothing more than personal opinion and the bias — or, in some cases, ignorance — of the observer. Participants in the sport have to be cautious in how they attribute or blame the results of a play or match on the official, because doing so is problematic regardless of the underlying cause.

Let’s say your focus is player development. It’s acceptable, in a competitive match environment, to express some reactionary frustration to a referee decision with which you don’t agree. But to dwell and fester on these decisions will eventually distract the players from the proper focus on tactical and technical improvement. If the players are focused on whether the referee is fairly calling the match, then the players aren’t focused on defensive shape or offensive tactics. It behooves all involved to let those decisions go, otherwise the goal of development will be distracted.

Now let’s say you are a parent watching your child play in a youth game or a high school game. Again, reactionary frustration is fine. Extended commentary and negativity, however, will do one of two things. One, it might rile up your child and their teammates, distracting them from the needed tactical and technical tasks needed to succeed, not to mention interfere with whatever message the coach is trying to convey. Ask any coach how they feel about the loud-mouth parent constantly undermining their instructions or screaming at the officials. Second, it may very well embarrass your child. Just Google “athlete embarrassed by parent” and you will find an endless supply of stories and articles on how parents are ruining the youth or high school sports experience. If you want your child to love soccer, don’t make them embarrassed to play it.

Lastly, let’s focus on the game result, because as I mentioned earlier, scholastic soccer tends to zero in on this. Lost in the outrage over that “horrendous” decision — which I pointed out earlier is often times still correct but under a biased view looks wrong — is the fact that one decision by an official is but one of hundreds, if not thousands, of incidents in a single match that lead to a given outcome. Of course, there is no question that certain referee decisions loom larger in determining outcome… a penalty decision versus a 50-50 aerial challenge in the midfield, for example.

For every referee decision, even important ones, that occur in a match, there are 10, 50, maybe even 100 decisions and actions made by players that have just an important role in determining outcome. That clip I referenced above? The purple team out-shot the white team 20-13 in this game. Put one of those other 19 shots on goal and away from the goalkeeper, that’s just as likely to change the outcome. In fact, here’s an opportunity in the second half off a free kick on the edge of the white penalty area:

This play comes from (a) a referee decision to award a foul; (b) a decision by purple to request the referee set the wall instead of taking it quickly; (c) the white defense completely screwing up their defensive assignments on the ensuing free kick; (d) the kicker recognizing the blown assignment and seeing the simple pass instead of blasting it towards the wall; and (e) the purple teammate getting an absolute sitter and pounding it right into the goalkeeper’s gut. The purple team benefited from four crucial choices here, were left with an absolutely golden opportunity to slam home a goal, and utterly botched it all of their own doing.

Railing on the referee after a competitive match is almost always a façade designed to hide a team’s shortcomings or failures. I’m not saying that is a deliberate attempt to hide those shortcomings. It is a natural human trait to use one’s own bias to shift fault. Heck, you could even argue that’s what I’m doing with this article! No referee wants a decision to impact a match’s outcome, but understand that in every match there are dozens of often obvious player and coach decisions, and probably hundreds of unnoticeable ones, that are just as important.

Good referees understand the need for self-preservation and referee-blaming, and good referees don’t take it personally. In fact, that becomes one of the stalwart characteristics of quality officials, learning to not take vindictive post-match commentary personally. But the most important lesson from this article is the simplest one: if you don’t want the referee to have an opportunity to influence the outcome of the match, then don’t put the referee in a situation where he or she can make such a decision.