Interview with Soccer Refs - Part Two: Soccer in the USA

Last Sunday we published the first part of our interview with Ted Unkel and Christina Unkel, a married couple who are both professional soccer referees. That post focused on the path each of them took to becoming a soccer referee and some insights on how someone with a desire to be a soccer official might follow that passion.

Today's post is a bit more technical, focused on the state of the game in the USA and some differences that both Christina and Ted see between the way the game is played and officiated here. Later in the week in our final part of the interview, we will reflect on the gameday experience in the life of a referee and learn a little more about how the game brought the Unkels together as a couple.

State of the Game

Lion's Teeth Blog (LTB): How often does the league (MLS or USL) provide regular or periodic bulletins on points of emphasis that they want referees to monitor in matches? As a fan, I seem to recall hearing in a recent off-season about making stricter calls for studs-up tackles. Do these happen in reaction incidents or injuries on the pitch, such as the NFL and NCAA’s recent emphasis on targeting in American Football, or does some other mechanism drive these decisions?
Ted Unkel (Ted): Each preseason the league will provide the points of emphasis for the upcoming season – for the MLS, this information is disseminated through team meetings (held by the league and are meetings in which the referees are included), amongst other avenues.

The points of emphasis always focus on player safety and improving the product on the field. If you watched the MLS this season, there was a higher rate of red cards at the beginning of the season for serious foul play challenges. Did some of that come from points of emphasis? Probably, though remember we still work with the Laws of the Game regardless if a certain section or point is emphasized. And just because it was a point of emphasis in a previous season (holding and pulling in the penalty area, for example) doesn’t mean it’s no longer a focus.

Christina Unkel (Christina): See Ted's Answer. Simply put, it’s a reaction to trends on how the players are playing the game, and our number one job is to keep the players safe.

LTB: What is a typical game trip like for the officials?  Do you have a meeting with your crew on the day of the match or the night before?  How far in advance of the match do you get access to the pitch – are you able to do a walk-through the day before or do you just have a few hours before the game?
Ted: We will arrive in the host city the day / night before game day. This could change slightly if a referee lives in proximity to the game city (i.e. I live in Sarasota, so there are times I’ll come into Orlando the day of). We’ll meet as a crew for breakfast and lunch on the day of the game, with an arrival at the stadium 2 hours prior to kick off. Upon arrival, we’ll inspect the pitch and then take note again during warm ups when the field opens to players approximately 40 minutes before kick. I’ll do a pregame with my crew to make sure we’re on the same page after the roster exchange and prior to our warm up – this covers everything from matchups to how we’re going to communicate on the field should certain situations arise. No matter how many times I’ve worked with someone or however accomplished or experienced the crew, we always have a pregame.
Christina: Same answer as Ted. Pretty standard.

LTB: Do you work games with the same crew of officials every match, or could you be working with a different team of officials every week?
Ted: It could be a different team of officials from game to game. There is undoubtedly a benefit of working with the same officials – from a comfort level of knowing each other’s tendencies to building more intuitive communication – and assignments are reflecting this more and more. The challenge with this will always be the expansive geography of our league and availability of officials. Though, we continue to work towards standardizing as much as possible in order to make it easier to work with whatever crew is assigned on a given game day.
Christina: Typically, a different team of officials every week.

LTB: How are assignments made from game to game – does the league regularly rotate you from game to game to different positions, or is there a bid process or merit system in place that determines which official will be in the middle and on the sidelines and in the 4th official’s spot?
Ted: Assignments come from PRO, and outside of knowing some guidelines (not being able to referee the same team in a certain time period, for example), I simply go where I’m told to go. At this point in our careers, we’re specialized in that Referees will only alternatively be 4th officials (and Video Assistant Referees in the future) and Assistant Referees will only be Assistant Referees. Unless, of course, there is an injury or some other extenuating circumstance, which did happen a handful of times this past season.
Christina: At first, when you begin refereeing, you officiate in all positions: referee, assistant referee (“AR”) and fourth official. However, when you begin moving up the ranks, you become specialized in a particular position. When you enter the professional/semi leagues, more than likely, you have been identified or have selected a specialization in either as a Referee or AR. The fourth official is a role that a center referee fills when they are not the head referee, and the game requires a fourth official. But an AR will typically not perform a fourth official role. That said, as far as selection as to what position/what games, assignments are still primarily reliant on the league’s assignor, which in the case of all professional matches in the US, is assigned by PRO, or by an authorized assignor of PRO.

LTB: What kind of ongoing training and/or continuing education are required to be a referee for professional soccer?
Ted: As Referees for PRO, we meet as often as every two weeks, which currently is in Dallas at the beginning and latter portions of the season and Park City, UT, during the summer months. During these meetings, we will have fitness training and video review sessions of recent games, as well as field sessions, nutrition / mental training and laws of the game refreshers. Outside of these camps, we have daily fitness requirements which include weight training and running. Data is captured from all games and training in an effort to maximize our performance when it matters the most.
Christina: PRO has requirements of its collective bargain members as to educational camps and fitness/training requirements (see Ted’s answer). For those not part of the CBA, but who work professional matches assigned by PRO, the ongoing training and continuing education is a personal, self-imposed requirement. In order to get to the top of our profession, it is incumbent on the non-CBA member who works PRO games to self-institute the kind of physical training needed to be a part of the professional games and keep up with the professional athletes. It is both a training and nutrition/healthy lifestyle approach one must commit to.

As far as continuing education, each professional league under PRO’s assignment has its particular education, whether through webinars or through verbal/written feedback from assessors who watched your matched. Further continuing education can be obtained through US Soccer materials and FIFA materials found on their websites. On a side note, there are only a handful of Full and Part time professional referees. The rest of us are independent contractors who, for the most part, have other full time/part time careers to help pay the bills/provide insurance/food on the table. So it must be appreciated that those who are not employees of PRO but who officiate professional soccer in the states, must have the stamina, tenacity, motivation, and more importantly, the support of their loved ones and bosses, to be able to pursue their passion/dream to referee professional soccer in the states.

LTB: Is there a formal grading or review process by which the league or FIFA or some other governing body evaluates referees from game to game?
Ted: Assessments are a big part of the equation, and each game is assessed by a PRO representative. The designation of the role has changed from assessor to coach and back again, though the considerations of the referee and crew have remained fairly consistent – from game management to team work to critical match incidents. Fitness is also considered, and it’s all graded accordingly. A score is given, and represents an acceptable (and greater) or unacceptable performance. Though it’s the written feedback that carries weight for me – this part of the evaluation is what helps me get better, as it focuses on what was good and what can be improved. Both aspects are incorporated into future matches as I strive to continuously be better.
Christina: For the professional match in the US, the formal grading/review is done by PRO/US Soccer assessors. (See Ted’s answer for further detail).

LTB: Are you required to view games that your crew or other crews have called and do any kind of self-review or peer review of your calls?
Ted: There is no requirement, but it’s a normal practice of all the referees in the MLS to watch games. DVDs are provided to the referee crew postgame, and we all have access to MLS Live. We also use a program called TeamXStream where we can view the entire match, clip certain situations or review the situations that were clipped by the assessor. I regularly go on the MLS Soccer app after a match to review incidents, as they are fresh on my mind. No matter how difficult, I want to make every call right – not just the 2 or 3 large calls, but every call from throw-ins to simple fouls. I’ll always review other games on the weekend, and then further review with my peers at camps. There is a lot of raw, honest feedback when we review clips at camps. [Editorial Note: see a great article detailing the activity at one of these MLS officials' camps that appeared last April on the Vice Sports web site: https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/behind-the-scenes-of-mlss-efforts-to-improve-officiating] 
Christina: Yes. Formally one is required to do their own self-assessment through the online portal of their matches which, in a nutshell, requests a sort of S.W.O.T. analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) from the referee. As for any formal peer-review or requirement to watch others games, not necessarily. One watches other games to understand what happened in the match, either from a tactical team/player perspective or what did/did not work for the referee crew in that game/those teams/those players, so that one can be sure to take that information and appropriately consider/apply in their own game. However, at camp, we do review other referees’ games informally through discussions about particular situations, etc., and discuss how it worked or can be improved upon. 

LTB: Does the league ever send officials video packages including feedback on calls or non-calls that they believe were made or missed incorrectly, and is there any kind of appeal process for individual officials or is this used for learning or coaching purposes?
Ted: Publicly, you’ve seen the Disciplinary Committee come down with decisions retroactively.  Internally, if an incident is missed or a call is made in error, we’ll be notified in the assessment and can view these videos in TeamXStream or scroll the replay of the match online or on DVD. Even though we don’t receive video packages directly from the league, there are ways that information is disseminated.
Christina: Overall, we do use a system that has the capabilities for the assessors/PRO to clip situations out of the games and provide us the clips to discuss during our debrief teleconferences and for our own as well as others personal review. All officials have access to all the games and pulled clips from all professional matches. See Ted’s answer for more details on this.

LTB: Within the moment in the match, how much input do the officials in the Referee’s Assistant or Fourth Official’s position have in determining serious calls such as yellow cards or red cards?
Ted: As I’ve mentioned, I strive intently to get everything correct - if my crew can assist in that then I will use this information.  We can communicate through the communication devices, signals (i.e. flag) or conversations when the ball is out of play.  The pace of the game continues to get faster, and the game is all about angles.  If I am in a good position to have all the information I need to make the decision, I don’t necessarily need any additional help.  However, if I have not seen something that will help us get these calls right, then I certainly welcome it.
Christina: It depends. First, and most importantly, was the AR or Fourth in a good position or better position to see the situation than the Referee? Second, should the AR and Fourth have important information that they know or need to be sure the referee is aware of, they are capable of providing that information almost instantaneously (if needed) or at the appropriate time during stoppage when dealing with a situation? The information by the AR/Fourth is highly valued, especially at the professional levels, because you all work at a higher level, have familiarity with the level/needs/expectations of the professional ranks, and for many, understand the needs of one another or the needs at that time for that particular situation. Therefore, depending on position/view/angle, the AR/Fourth’s input can vary in helping the referee to determine serious calls. But it goes without saying, they are an integral support system in helping the referee put together the puzzle, especially when the AR/Fourth has a piece of the puzzle that the referee does not have for one reason or another.  

LTB: How do you determine the difference between a situation that should result in calling advantage vs. stopping play for a foul?  It is always your best interpretation of the appropriate law of the game or do the interaction between the players of both teams figure into those decisions – in other words, are you more likely stop play and call fouls when the two teams start getting chippy with each other?
Ted: By definition, advantage is applied when an offence has occurred if it benefits the non-offending team. This does not mean that the team simply maintains possession, but rather the possibility a promising attack will result by not blowing the whistle. Some considerations are the severity of the foul (advantage is not to be played on a red card challenge unless a goal is imminent), place on the field the offence occurs and the number of attackers vs. defenders in proximity to the attacking goal.

There is also consideration to how accepting the players are to allowing advantage, as we’re taking a risk in allowing it. Law allows us time to see if the advantage materializes, and we have the option of bringing it back to the spot of the foul if it doesn’t materialize in a timely fashion. In my opinion, the toughest decision on advantage occurs on fouls around the penalty area – the MLS has so many free kick experts, and I want to give the fouled team the best opportunity on goal.

Christina: There are several factors to take into consideration when determining whether a situation should result in an advantage vs. stopping the play for a foul. The first, and one of the most important factors is, is there truly an advantageous opportunity for the team that was just fouled. This sounds a bit patronizing, but the reality is there is a difference between a team having an advantage (advantage being roughly defined as an opportunity to …. ) vs. just merely retaining possession despite having been fouled.

For example, if a player gets cut down in his defensive half, but before he does, he distributes a ball over the top to teammates who are 2 or 3 vs. 1-2 defenders, deep in the attacking half, without the opportunity for other defenders to realistically catch up to the play, then one may want to consider the advantage; whereas, should a player get cut down in his defensive half, but before he does, he distributes the ball laterally or across the field to his teammate who has clear possession and control of the ball with no impending challenge by an opponent, but doesn’t have a clear numbers advantage over the opponents in the attacking zone, then this is what I would call merely “possession vs. advantage” and that factor would help influence my decision to give the foul instead of the “advantage.” 

Another factor that one takes into consideration is the severity of the foul. Was the foul a careless, reckless, excessive force or violent conduct? The higher you go on this ladder of severity, the less likely you are to give an advantage. Those are only two factors of several that go into whether advantage vs. stoppage for foul should be given. Others are position on field where foul occurred (is the foul position more advantageous where the ball resulted), the specific player who may/may not have the advantage (so skill of the player(s)), the numbers advantage in the situation, the temperature of the match, the players involved, etc. Under the FIFA Considerations, there are considerations to assist a referee in deciding whether to apply advantage or not. This is an area of grey, and falls into “in the opinion of the referee.” However, there are some instances where it is more than likely than not an advantage should/shouldn’t have been given depending upon what elements where present in that particular situation. Easy huh? All while chasing professional athletes who train day in and day out for their career, the environment of the game, and all the “lovely” chatter directed at you both personally and professionally. 

LTB: Have you ever officiated matches in leagues outside the USA, such as in European or South American leagues?
Ted: I have refereed in a tournament in Portugal, and have had CONCACAF and FIFA appointments outside of our country. As for league games, each domestic league has their own referees. We’re very fortunate in the US to have so many friendlies, and I’ve been able to referee the biggest clubs in the world from Manchester United to PSG to AC Milan to River Plate and each presents a unique challenge. I also recently refereed Mexico vs. Panama in Chicago before the most recent round of World Cup Qualifiers, and the environment was electric.
Christina: No. Just FIFA/CONCACAF events. But no professional leagues outside.

LTB: Have you ever worked with officials in MLS that have experience officiating in leagues such as the EPL, La Liga or the Bundesliga?  If so, what is the biggest part of the learning curve for an official going from one league to another?
Ted: Our current MLS Referee of the Year (Alan Kelly) is from Ireland, and worked in the First Division there as well as Champions League matches. I don’t want to speak for Alan, though there are obvious differences in the styles of play between leagues that a fan can see on any given weekend on TV. The MLS is no different, though he has clearly adapted well. In our league, there are big names making millions with years of professional experience melded with young players recently out of college or the academy system. It’s a very compelling dynamic, and provides a challenge to referee.
Christina: See Ted’s answer.

LTB: As an observer of the game, what is the biggest difference you notice in the style of play between the top European leagues and the MLS? Are there things that get called more or less frequently in MLS than in other leagues due to the way the game has evolved in the USA?
Ted: The MLS is a physical league, and the skill level continues to improve, especially in the starting 11. The pace can arguably be as fast as anywhere else in the world given some of the players that spread across our rosters.

As for the biggest difference, the top European leagues put balls on frame and on foot more consistently. Alternatively in the MLS, this leads to a little more unpredictability and heavy touches, which create tackles that require a referee’s decision. I believe we punish certain acts more harshly here than in Europe, though it’s not fair to make a generic statement across the board. Artificial surfaces are also uniquely a part of our first division, and change the way the game is played / refereed.

Christina: The biggest difference overseas from MLS is the combination of speed/strength and finesse that the players have in the top European leagues. I’ve noticed that there are tackles in the European league that are strong but since all the players are strong and know how to go into a tackle/brace for a tackle, the players are able to play this level of physicality where it truly is not a foul because of their ability/skill to tackle with such strength and speed and be precise when challenging for the ball. This leads to less disrepute/mass confrontations by the players/coaches/fans towards the officials since the level of strength/speed and skill/ability are, for the most part, on the same playing field (no pun intended).

As an observer, I believe more fouls must be called in MLS than other leagues on an individual game basis (no statistics to support this belief), due to the disparity of strength/skills the players in the MLS have across the board. It is not as uniformed as overseas due to soccer/the game in the US still being in its early or “tween” stages compared to the European leagues that have been established far longer than MLS and the kind of money that is transferred/poured into those leagues. And due to that disparity of skills/strength, there are more challenges that are not as precise or as equal between the players abilities which have resulted in what one would say a “more physical game,” resulting in more disrepute/mass confrontations in MLS than in other leagues.

Also, take a look at the college game. MLS’ player base are made up of athletes who played in the US collegiate game. It is “understood” that the college game in the US is a more physical game than in a professional/FIFA match due to the expectations/demands from the coaches/players, whether stated or not. This naturally may also add to the element of physicality in the MLS game than in others overseas. 

LTB: In 2016 the USL began experimenting with a limited form of video instant replay – do you have any insights on how that experiment has changed the way the game is called, and has any decision been made on when or if that will be introduced to MLS?
Ted: The Dutch have been doing it for a year, and I believe stats have shown the game is not called any differently. All of us have been doing this for a very long time, and I can’t imagine I’d approach a call a different way just because video replay is involved. The game is fluid, and it’s what helps make the “beautiful game.” 

Let’s try to preserve that, yet at the same time get the most critical calls correct. There was a limited USL trial last season as you mention, and we expect that to be an expanded trial next season and include MLS games. There is currently VAR (Video Assistant Referee) training going on for our group in December 2016 and January 2017, and naturally the education of the new role and how it will evolve will continue throughout 2017. If it’s better for the game, I’m for it.

Christina: Ironically enough, as I answer this, I am on my way to Dallas for training as a VAR official (Video Assistant Referee). It is the future. I personally have not been a part of video instant replay at the moment. But after this training, I will have slightly more insight as to how I can expect the game may be change. As far as introduction to the MLS, it will be introduced in 2017 season. The extent is not yet known by me.

LTB: Are there referees who make a living solely off of officiating in MLS, or is it a part-time job like being an NFL referee?
Ted: PRO and the CBA have allowed for referees to make a living solely off officiating in the MLS and make this a career. Salary and benefits now exist, as what it takes to be a professional referee is demanding and can be considered a full-time job. Notably, there are referees – including myself – that do have a professional life outside of refereeing as well.
Christina: Yes. See Ted’s answers for more details.