The Angle

What Does the Demise of the NASL Mean for Refereeing in the US?

by on 8 December 2016

Before I start, I want to point out that there’s a decent chance that headline may generate the least number of clicks in FiftyFive.One history. Somehow, I picture the average soccer fan seeing this headline and thinking, “Why should I care? I don’t want to read 2,200 words on officiating in a soccer league that likely will not exist in 2017 when I could instead be watching YouTube videos of Roombas with steak knives taped to them jousting to the death.”

It’s my job to convince you to care about this topic. And you should, because losing the NASL is going to have a negative effect on referee development. And that negative effect is going to impact Minnesota United, who happens to now be playing in the US soccer pyramid’s top tier with more finances at stake. It’s kind of a big deal.

Start at the Bottom

First, we have to understand how referees get to that top tier. A majority of referees in the US focus on working the everyday youth leagues and adult leagues in their state. In Minnesota, this means Minnesota Youth Soccer Association (MYSA) matches, park leagues, and adult leagues organized around the state’s larger cities: the Twin Cities, Rochester, and Duluth. In the fall, many officials who have the time continue officiating in MYSA’s fall leagues, while adult officials who want to stay active often turn their attention to school-sponsored soccer (MSHSL).

Be it by self-motivation or through scouting, a small number of officials make the jump to pursue the USSF grade of State Referee. To achieve that grade, an experienced official who is at least 18 years old must spend a year satisfying state-track requirements in Minnesota, then go through an arduous process of upgrading to State Referee the next year. To give you an idea of how difficult it is, there were around 4,300 USSF-certified officials in Minnesota in 2016. Of these, around 100 were in the state-track program (2.3%) and 40 were active State Referees (just under 1%).

Officiating College Soccer

While college officiating and USSF are not directly related, it’s often times a safe assumption that almost all of the officials who work college soccer games in Minnesota are either USSF State-Track referees, State Referees, or “Emeritus” referees (meaning they achieved USSF State Referee or higher at some point in their career). As Minnesota has just one NCAA Division I program (the Gopher women, who I will discuss more in a moment), college officials in Minnesota concentrate primarily on NCAA Division II (the NSIC women’s conference), Division III (the MIAC and UMAC conferences, both men and women), and NAIA two-year colleges.

College officiating in Minnesota is the first exposure of many officials to an environment where there is true “job security of the participants” pressure on officials to get their decisions correct. Don’t get me wrong, there are youth matches in Minnesota where these pressures also exist (I’ll cover them as well momentarily), but these are rare in comparison. When working a college match, an incorrect decision that affects the outcome of a match has real repercussions for the coaches of those teams. There is an expectation that officials in college matches are respectful of the job security of the coaches of the teams, and demonstrate that respect through a true professional commitment to high performance.

Example: if I lollygag through a U-13 match and miss a penalty decision because I am 45 yards away, maybe one of those teams loses out on the league title. That’s bad. If I do the same thing in a college match and miss a penalty decision, causing that team to not qualify for the conference playoffs for the fourth straight year, that might actually cost the coach of that team his or her job. That’s not just bad, that’s simply not acceptable.

As you watch matches within the pyramid of importance in Minnesota soccer, the officials working those games usually have proven themselves and worked their way up that pyramid. The referees who work Gopher women’s games are not assigned from within Minnesota like other Minnesota collegiate matches, but rather by a Big 10 assignor who draws from the entire upper Midwest region. Of the Minnesota referees who work MIAC, UMAC, NSIC, and NAIA matches, there is a tiny pool of perhaps no more than five or six of them eligible to work Big 10 games. And when they do start working Big 10 matches, they cut their teeth as fourth officials or assistant referees.

The US Soccer referee progression

While big game experience in college matches becomes helpful in an official’s progression, college soccer is governed by a separate entity — the NCAA — than amateur and professional soccer in the United States. US Soccer has jurisdiction over officials in these affiliated matches, and these matches run all the way down to your MYSA youth matches and all the way up to Major League Soccer. When you start officiating semi-pro and pro soccer, the stakes are raised tenfold. The job security of the coaches is no longer the only concern in professional soccer. You have the players, the assistants, even the training staff all relying on positive outcomes to maintain their jobs, earn raises, and so forth. As a result, the expectations for the skill level of the officials working those games are severely intensified.

Within the USSF pyramid in Minnesota, the first step for the rising official to work on games with greater stakes is MYSA’s State Cup. Minnesota youth teams vie for the right to represent the state at USYSA Youth Regionals and, for some coaches in youth clubs, consistent success in State Cup can be a launch pad for bigger jobs. Performing consistently and effectively at State Cup can lead to an invitation to youth regionals and top notch performance there can lead to an invitation to the USYSA National Championships. Referees who get these national championship invites are often the best of the best State Referees and start to get on “the radar” for progression to National Referee status.

The US Youth National Championships, however, are a bit of a dead end if a referee refuses to venture outside of this competition. The US Soccer Developmental Academy (DA) is the true recruiting ground for referees who aim to get to the professional levels. If a referee works only within his or her state youth program, makes progress at the regional and national level, but does not get involved in DA matches, they’ll hit a dead end. In addition to regular season matches, the DA hosts showcase events around the country and has its own playoffs and championship. US Soccer’s referee staff runs these events, so if the goal is a more national career, it becomes essential to serve at these events.

Minnesota has had two boys’ DA teams for the past several years: Minnesota Thunder Academy (MTA) and Shattuck-St. Mary’s (SSM). With MNUFC’s hire of Tim Carter from SSM, we know the club will be implementing its own DA team and, rumor has it, it will start participating in the DA in fall 2017. What is uncertain is if MNUFC’s DA program will replace MTA or be in addition to it. It would seem it’s a safe bet that SSM will continue to operate its own DA program and US Soccer determines whether a club is certified for DA. Certainly one can hope MNUFC’s DA program will be a bit larger than existing Minnesota programs, but there is no guarantee that the addition of MNUFC to the DA landscape will increase competitive officiating opportunities for referees in Minnesota.

At the semi-pro tiers of the US Soccer pyramid in Minnesota, the state referee committee and local assignor coordinator retain some margin of assigning control for officials. Minneapolis City games (and, last year, MNUFC Reserve matches) are typically staffed by State Referees who are the very top of the referee list in Minnesota. The American Premier League (which featured Fargo FC, Duluth FC, and Minnesota TwinStars in 2016) also try to use this small pool of officials.

Minneapolis City midfielder Ben Wexler. Image courtesy of Daniel Mick.

Minneapolis City midfielder Ben Wexler. Image courtesy of Daniel Mick.

Professional soccer

Once a referee reaches National Referee status (which is determined by US Soccer’s referee department and is outside of the control of the states), they typically expand on their assignment pool to a larger region and begin working professional matches. Eligibility for USL matches allows these officials to travel to these games, which in 2016 were third division. Starting in 2016, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), headed by Peter Walton and best known for the management of officials in MLS since 2012, took over all assigning for both USL and the NASL.

In the NASL prior to 2016, PRO would designate the referee for the game and then Minnesota would provide two assistants and a fourth official. This allowed Minnesota’s few National Referees and the cream of the State Referees to work NASL games locally. In 2016 PRO took over the AR assignments as well, leaving Minnesota’s higher level State Referees out of the process. With MNUFC moving up to MLS in 2017, there would be at least one year where there would be no local professional opportunities for officials (future opportunities are dependent on MNUFC creating a USL side close to or in the Twin Cities).

NASL referees (the guys with the whistle) have been drawn from a small pool the past two years. A majority of NASL games were centered by PRO’s fourth official pool. These were officials serving as fourths on MLS games and working NASL games to maintain field fitness and, hopefully, progressing towards earning MLS center official assignments. The past 18 months saw Robert Sibiga and Nima Saghafi make their MLS bows through this process. Occasionally one of the PRO regulars would “drop down” from MLS to work an NASL match to maintain match fitness. This year’s MLS Cup referee, Alan Kelly, also worked the Soccer Bowl in 2016.

Meanwhile, USL saw a slightly lower tier of candidates looking to continue climbing the referee ladder. The MLS fourth officials would occasionally take assignments in USL — as would even some of the MLS regulars — but, for the most part, USL matches were worked by the referees looking to climb into PRO’s fourth official pool with an eye towards finally cracking into MLS at some point.

What does it all mean for referees?

The apparent collapse of the NASL and the potential elevation of USL to Division 2 status has obviously shaken up the lower-level US soccer landscape, but the implications for referee development are potentially damaging. There will be a trickle-down effect that will impair the preparation and selection of officials for PRO and MLS. If the USL winds up being the only “professional” division below MLS, then PRO will be forced to develop its officials in those games. All of the fourth official pool will be forced to seek field experience in those games, which in turn will limit the availability of opportunities for the next level of National Referees to get higher-pressure game experience.

By decreasing opportunities to “field-test” referees, the ability of PRO to evaluate potential new officials will be impaired. With MLS going to 22 teams in 2017, they now need 11 quality referees on every weekend, but it’s getting harder and harder to get those officials for the stakes that these games are played at.

Referee development at the professional level has always been somewhat impaired anyway by the blurred lines between the status of the NASL and USL. US Soccer called NASL Division 2 and USL Division 3, but average attendance in the NASL in 2016 was only 1,000 more per game than the USL. The ownership requirements for D2 were $20 million in worth, an area with 750K in population, and a minimum stadium capacity of 5,000, compared to $10 million in D3 with no population requirement and a minimum stadium capacity of 1,000. When you consider what Sacramento Republic has accomplished at the “D3” level and Orlando City before them, these teams were meeting D2 requirements but playing D3. If D3 teams are basically D2 teams based on your definitions, then what good are your definitions?

What truly defines D2 vs. D3, at least according to the rest of the world, is supposed to be the skill level of the players and the stakes of the matches. US Soccer defined the pyramid based on owner financial net worth, city size, and minimum stadium capacity. It’s understandable they did this to try to stabilize league viability, but hey, look at the NASL right now and tell me how well that worked. From a player and referee development standpoint, D2 vs. D3 is supposed to be about quality of play and financial stakes.

You don’t question the talent level or stakes of an Arsenal match versus a Fulham match, or a Fulham match versus a Millwall match. Arsenal players are paid better than Fulham players, who in turn are paid better than Millwall players. When a referee works an Arsenal match, the pressures on the referee are 10 times the pressures of working a Fulham match, and in turn those are 10 times the pressure of working a Millwall match.

(Arguably, the pressure of escaping The Den alive after refereeing a Millwall match are probably 100 times the pressure of leaving the Emirates, but let’s not digress too much here.)

This is most certainly not meant to be a pro/rel piece, so I’m not going there. But referee development is always considered to be a waste of the average soccer fan’s thought process (remember the jousting Roombas) — until that referee botches a call in the game that MNUFC needs a win to make the playoffs. I’m hoping that maybe when that happens (next year ideally, but realistically in two to three years), maybe enough people will go dig up this article and say, “Hey, maybe we need to pay attention to this too.”