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The Lowdown: My weekend with the NWSL referees

The PRO referees and ARs with members of the Grand Canyon University men's soccer team (in purple) following field session in Phoenix (photo: Dan Lauletta for The Equalizer)

The PRO referees and ARs with members of the Grand Canyon University men’s soccer team (in purple) following field session in Phoenix (photo: Dan Lauletta for The Equalizer)

PHOENIX, AZ — So you think you can be a referee?

Here’s a quick scenario. A ball gets sent through to an attacking player overlapping on the left side. She crosses it toward traffic but the keeper comes out to punch it. The attacking team wins the second ball and sends it back toward the goal. It changes direction with a glancing blow and is then cleared off the line. The ball then bounces off the arm of a defending player to the feet of an attacker who sticks it in the goal just as a defending player crumples to the pitch.

All of that can happen in less than five seconds. The example did not include whether the through ball or cross were offside, whether the glancing blow eliminated offside of the return ball, if the ball of the arm should have been a penalty or the how, when and why the player went down. Oh, and there is also the matter of whether the line clearance happened on time or if it should have been a goal.

Those decisions alone represent more than one per second during the sequence. Get them all right and no one much cares. Miss one and catch scorn from everyone from players and coaches to fans and media.

“Decisions happen very, very quickly. It’s easy to sit and watch the replay, but referees get one shot at the decision,” Matt Franz, who was in the middle for the 2016 NWSL Championship, says.

Each of those decisions by the way, carries with it a dozen or more factors the referee, assistant referees (ARs), and fourth official must run through their heads and process, all in a split second, in order to arrive at the right call.

“It happens in real time and you have to put yourself in the best position to succeed,” Franz continued. “Every referee is giving everything they have to get the decision right, but you still only get one chance at it so it’s all about setting yourself up.”

the first integrated camp

At the PRO camp in Phoenix last month, more than 50 referees and ARs representing NWSL, NASL and USL gathered for their own special preseason. It was the first time officials from all three leagues were together at the same time. For parts of three days, they covered everything from fitness and nutrition to player management and, of course, specifics about important calls—what PRO calls Key Match Decisions.

General manager Peter Walton flew in and opened the camp by congratulating everyone who was in the room but also reminding them that there are higher levels to be had.

“Hopefully there is someone in this room who will get right through to the top,” Walton said. He also made note that PRO no longer classifies officials as men or women. “We’re all just officials.”

{USWNT:  Finish last at SheBelieves after 3-0 loss to France  |  Lauletta’s final thoughts}

The first-of-its-kind camp included a four-hour field session on Saturday morning during which the officials worked on everything from positioning to teamwork and communication.

“This is the inaugural event for PRO development. It’s really a great opportunity for everyone and really a good reflection of the growth of soccer in the United States,” Karen Abt, an NWSL referee who had SheBelieves Cup assignment for Germany-France, said. “For many of these referees who haven’t had access to these materials and resources before, it’s an opportunity for them to have access to a nutritionist and a sports scientist who can really help maximize their performance on the field.”

According to PRO’s Strategic Initiatives Manager, Serafini, the camp represented a 360-degree approach to officiating. Not only were there specific sessions on fitness and nutrition, but also discussions about off-field time management and preparation.

Serafini, along with Regional Development Assistant Erich Simmon, conducted a stirring classroom session titled “Penalties and Send Offs,” during which it was noted that offseason data analysis showed the error rate among match officials was highest during the final 15 minutes of the match. (Separately, NWSL scored as the least accurate of the three leagues regarding straight red cards as well as second yellow cards—not enough of the former, too many of the latter.)

“If we’re able to help these individuals reduce fatigue and the stress load throughout a match, they’re hopefully able to reduce that error rate later in the game,” PRO’s assistant sports scientist John Westbrooks said. “So that’s one of our big goals is being able to make sure that they are able to stay strong throughout the entire game.”

Westbrooks said that preparation for a match begins as soon as the last one ends. “The biggest thing is to make sure they’re recovered adequately—after their last game or after their training.”

Head sports scientist Matt Hawkey reported after the camp that there was a high level of athleticism in the group. That allowed more of the focus to fall on staying in shape rather than getting in shape.

“If you look around the room, a lot of these men and women are really fit,” Westbrooks said, “so I don’t see us having a huge issue in making sure they work out. One of our bigger issues is making sure they recover adequately going into the match.”

Saturday’s four-hour field session

That fitness was put to the test during the Saturday field session which began with temperatures in the upper 30s at Grand Canyon University and ended near 70 under a hot sun. In one area, small groups of referees alternated being in the middle of a closely-placed trio as they quickly moved a ball back and forth (they used their hands to keep things moving quicker and because, as one referee put it, “they don’t trust the touch of the old referees.”) The idea behind the FIFA-inspired drill was for the referee in the middle to stay out of the passing lanes while still maintaining the proper angle to keep an eye on the play.

Alex Prus, in jacket, addresses a group of assistant referees ahead of their on-field training at the integrated PRO camp (photo: Dan Lauletta for The Equalizer)

Alex Prus, in jacket, addresses a group of assistant referees ahead of their on-field training at the integrated PRO camp (photo: Dan Lauletta for The Equalizer)

“There’s been a real change in the last five years in terms of the referees’ movements and how we’re moving around the field and (getting) the angles and where we’re going,” NWSL referee Danielle Chesky said.

At the other end of the pitch, ARs took turns playing in crosses and quasi-corner kicks while their compatriots were tasked with following the play and honing skills from making offside decisions, assisting with fouls and penalties, determining whether the ball crossed the goal line, as well as proper flag technique.

“You have to keep in mind there are some situations where the goalkeeper is going to come out. So you might have two defenders and the goalkeeper is up,” Brooke Mayo, a first-year NWSL AR in 2016, said. “Some of the more difficult decisions are when a shot was taken from a distance and then there is a save made. And then you might have had players that were onside and offside at the time of the shot. And you have to be able to recall what numbers were offside and what players were onside and then who got the ball off the goalkeeper.”

Then there is perhaps the most difficult decision of all for an AR—whether a ball played in hits a defender on the way. But that’s only part of it. If the defender makes a deliberate play on the ball, the play resets and no one is offside. If the contact is a deflection from the defender, the play continues with offside being judged as if no contact had occurred. Sometimes the AR’s view is blocked. Sometimes so many bodies are clustered inside the six-yard box it can be difficult to discern.

“An action versus a reaction,” is how Mayo describes it. “Even though they didn’t play the ball well and it looks terrible, that still (may be) a deliberate play. If they deliberately play it then anybody can get to the ball. If it’s a deflection then the person that gets the ball would be in an offside position.

“We are judging whether they are deliberately playing it or whether it was a deflection. That’s a judgment call where we (sometimes) have to work together—the referee and the assistant referee—to determine that.”

The field session was the brainchild of Alex Prus, who joined PRO last April and is now the Match Official Development Manager. Prus was the referee for MLS Cup 2007 and pushed the referees on all elements of positioning. That means they were schooled not only on how to track an attack, but also how to use body language and knowledge of the game to stay in the right channel even when a team is harmlessly knocking the ball around its back line.

“Angle over proximity,” Prus stressed.

Communication and teamwork

Unfortunately, the AR must stay with the second to last defender (they were all quick to correct me when I said first defender—that would be the goalkeeper most of the time) and beyond that can only move laterally. That can be an issue when a dozen or more legs are frantically poking at a loose ball in the box. Unbeknownst to many, the center referee often plays an integral role in alerting the AR as to whether or not the ball takes a deflection off a defender or if it was deliberately played.

The PRO camp included many classroom hours. Here, Sandra Serafini addresses PKs and Send offs. (photo: Dan Lauletta for The Equalizer)

The PRO camp included many classroom hours. Here, Sandra Serafini addresses PKs and Send offs. (photo: Dan Lauletta for The Equalizer)

The entire four-person officiating team is now equipped with verbal communication systems (with ear pieces made custom to fit each official) the center referee can yell, “Defender, defender,” to alert the AR that a defensive player has made a deliberate touch on the ball.

“Communications systems help a lot with offside decisions, especially the jigsaw ones,” Mayo said. “Referees will preemptively say ‘defender’ over the comms and we’ll know that there can’t be an offside because there was a deliberate play by the defender.”

The communication system is not entirely new, but there is a greater emphasis than ever being placed on using it. One entire session was devoted to uniform terminology so that no matter the grouping of officials, everyone always knows what everyone else means. Keeping the verbiage uniform will also translate when any of these officials move up to Major League Soccer.

“The communication system is not new,” Franz said. “But all the referees here have been refereeing for years and years without it. So it’s a new element of communication. Getting more comfortable with it and figuring out what’s the best practice, that part is always ongoing, always changing.”

The session on the communication system and its terminology brought some of the most interesting discussions on the weekend. Regional Development Assistant Alan Black hammered home several agenda items and showed an array of video clips highlighting when and where the communication system would come in handy.

Black showed another series of clips and asked the room which of the four officials had jurisdiction over a certain play. One instance that generated a lengthy debate, a player was pulled down in the penalty area while the referee was angled elsewhere to follow the ball. AR1 (the AR to the right of the 4th official in front of the benches) had the right and responsibility to tell the referee it was a penalty, Black said.

“Oh, absolutely,” one referee said when asked if they had ever called a penalty blind, strictly on the word of the AR.

“A penalty kick is a 100 percent decision,” Franz said. “You have to be 100 percent right. Nobody calls penalties based on no information. Their knowledge is not any better or worse than mine, but it’s different. And the perspective on a decision from one angle is different from any other angle.”

To that end, none of the referees I spoke to would commit to what would happen if the AR signaled a penalty on a play they saw and did not think it warranted a PK. As much as the dozens of questions and video clips are meant to put everyone on the same page, each referee has his or her own style and slightly different expectations about what they want from their ARs and 4th official (who are expected to call fouls behind the play as well as whenever the ball moves through the area directly in front of them).

“It’s all about how you combine all the information together to put the puzzle together and get the decision right,” one said.

Of course not every decision is going to come out the right way. After showing one clip in which the wrong decision was made, Serafini said, “This is not meant to pick on the ref. If you’ve never been up here, it just means you haven’t been reffing long enough!”

Quick, make the call, then choose a card

Perhaps the most enjoyable session—at least to this outsider—was the Friday night quiz. Thirty clips ran in short order and everyone in the room had to make two choices. Was the play a penalty kick, direct free kick, indirect free kick or no foul? After that, was it a red card, yellow card or no card. The results and scores were supplied Saturday night. There was no partial credit. You either got them both correct or it was marked wrong.

(Writer’s note: My score was 10 out of 30, but I never got to see all of the answers so this score is currently under protest. However, one of the clips was from the 2015 World Cup semifinal when Julie Johnston took down Alexandra Popp. That one I got right.)

“Every classroom session that we’ve had constantly challenges our thought process on how we’re viewing games,” Abt said. “This is a good opportunity for everyone to be on the same page about what we expect and when we see the same thing, what the expected outcome is. It’s good for us to be in one location discussing and analyzing the same clips so we can use that to move forward on the same level.”

The love of the game

Perhaps the most important element of the Friday-Sunday camp was one not included in any classroom or field session. Every person there has a deep love for soccer. It was evident in the discussions both in the classrooms and on the side. It was evident watching them on the field (just maybe not when Khadim Seye scored from midfield in a pickup match at the end that pitted the officials against Seye and some of his teammates from Grand Canyon University who came to help).

“I just like to be around the game, so any way that I can be around the game—I love it. I like being a part of it. Coaching, reffing, playing,” Mayo said, adding that her students (she is also a school teacher) think she misses every offside call when they watch her games.

“Everybody who is a referee is a fan of the game,” Franz said. “They wouldn’t do it if they weren’t passionate about it. Referees are as committed to the games being successful as anybody. We all want to see good soccer. Referees have a unique role to play in the game. It’s different than a lot of other stakeholders, but all fans of soccer want the same thing. That is good, entertaining soccer games.”

Added Chesky: “It’s good when people leave the match and they’re talking about what the players did.”

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