What about referees? How do referees get to that level? Did Mark Geiger and Mark Clattenburg drop out of some magical referee machine in the sky to impose their ability to madden footy fans around the world? Of course not (though there are days it might be nice to have a magical referee machine in the sky).
Every year on the final weekend in June, US Youth Soccer’s Midwest Region (Region II) holds its regional championships for teams in the U13 through U19 divisions. Minnesota sends its State Cup champions, and wildcards are also granted to teams that do well in Region II’s Midwest Regional League. Each group consists of four groups of four, with the group winners advancing to a semifinal round and then a championship game that earns a berth in the US Youth National Championships (this year to be held in Frisco, TX). This year’s Regional Championship was held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Under the radar of most people who follow soccer is a massive effort by Region II’s referee committee to recruit and develop young and highly skilled referees to work these games. Each state in Region II sends a group of young up-and-coming officials to the event, with the average delegation varying from 10 to 20 depending on how many teams the state’s youth soccer association sends.
For these referees, Regionals is not your typical weekend tournament. At a typical club-hosted tournament, you show up for your games, work your games, sign a card with the game score, and move on to your next game. A referee might work anywhere from five to as many as 12-15 games over the course of the weekend, shortened to be able to squeeze in as many games as possible. There are no meetings, administration is handled by club volunteers.
At Regionals, you arrive on the Thursday before group play starts, check in to your hosting facility, and sit through three to four hours of meetings on expectations, rules, and protocols for the tournament. Assignments are sorted daily by the referee committee and are dependent on the referee’s performance on the field the prior day. A team of 20-30 referee coaches (assessors and mentors, also brought by the states) are watching every game and reporting back to the committee. Referees have to arrive at their games and check in one hour before kickoff or risk losing their assignments (for which there are never more than two per day).
Every game has a fourth official, and the fourth official must cart out to their field an hour before kickoff to make sure the field and match paperwork is in order, and confirm the colors of the teams and goalkeepers so that the crew does not clash with either. Rosters and passes are checked for accuracy, with any deviations rendering a coach or player ineligible, and it falls 100% on the referee crew to enforce these standards. At least a few coaches were denied the opportunity to coach their team in the tournament due to faulty paperwork… it’s that serious.
This is a highly professional atmosphere. Crews take 30-45 minutes to cover a pregame discussion on how they are going to handle the match. Crews are expected to scout the teams they will work, talking to referees from other states to garner information on playmakers, troublemakers, and the like. After the match, completion of paperwork can take from 15 minutes to as long as an hour, depending on the match incidents that occurred. Every injury, every card, every odd incident must be reported. When that is all done, the crew goes through a 15-minute debriefing with an assessor to make sure they learn from both their successes and mistakes.
There is a 60-90 minute nightly meeting to discuss the highlights and issues that developed during the day’s games, and points of emphasis are made to try to improve for the next day. After this mass meeting, the larger group breaks up into smaller groups of 20-30 officials, led by the referee coaches, to provide a more intimate opportunity to learn and improve.
The matches themselves are extremely competitive. Many of these teams are coached by former professional players, and stakes are high. The further a team progresses in USYSA’s National Championship series, the greater the chance a player might be noticed by college scouts (over 50 college coaches were present in Sioux Falls, and at the National Championships teams can likely expect a great number of NCAA Division 1 scouts). Coaches who enjoy success at this level can find permanent coaching jobs in the college ranks, or even work their way into a professional club’s youth system with eyes to a career with a professional club.
Because of this, referee decisions are even more crucial here than in your every-day MYSA league competitions. A missed penalty decision on league night in June might cost a team third or second place in its league standings. At Regionals, it could cost a team an opportunity to advance to Nationals and chance to be seen by NCAA Division 1 scouts. A club’s success at Regionals recruits more good players, further strengthening that club’s (and, by default, the coach’s) reputation as a conduit to advancing in soccer. For many referees, Youth Regionals are their first foray into the challenging world of managing personalities and controlling matches with their presence, instead of simply relying on the Laws of the Game.
After three days of group games, the teams that advanced to the semifinals and the referees are given a day off. The referee committee uses this for a morning of on-field drills and training, followed by an afternoon classroom session to focus on elements of knockout round play (extra time and Kicks from the Mark rules, for example).
At the end of the week, the Region II Referee Committee pares down a list of 225 referees to 112 for the semifinals, and then further trims that to 56 officials for the finals. 24 referees are selected to advance to the National Championships. Competition is significant and expectations are high for referees who are looking to advance their careers. Being selected for nationals can open the door for invitation to Developmental Academy regional events and the opportunity to work with US Soccer’s Referee Development Program national staff and representatives from PRO, who provides officials for MLS, NASL, USL, and NWSL. For many young referees, success at youth regionals is the first step towards the process of getting on the national radar.
Minnesota sent a relatively inexperienced delegation to Sioux Falls, featuring five officials who were making their first trip to regionals and 16 overall. Accompanying them were the State Referee Administrator (and National Referee Committee member) and state assessor Paula Hildman, State Director of Referee Instruction and state assessor Doug Marshak (that’s me!), State Youth Referee Administrator and assessor Jonathan Cooksey, and mentor and state referee Zack Johnson.
First-time officials are rarely selected for the knockout rounds and (virtually) never get invited to nationals, but Minnesota put in an excellent showing nonetheless. Ten of 16 Minnesota officials were selected to work on semifinal day, including referee assignments for Tyler Dalsin (17G), Sarah Most (17G), and Mike Johnson (18G). Five Minnesota officials received finals assignments, with Johnson refereeing the U15 boys final. Johnson was also selected to go to the National Championships as a referee, and Most was selected the Outstanding Rookie of the tournament.
Youth championships often hide under the radar of the greater soccer world, and referees are generally assumed to emerge from their day jobs to whistle a game and then crawl back under the rocks which we supposedly hide. Sometimes it’s nice to know that hidden in the game’s lower levels, referees are in fact getting the basic intense training needed to succeed someday in front of the televised masses!
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