A Modest Proposal for the Orlando City Front Office

Summary

There are too many excuses being made for Orlando City's MLS side, and there are too many short-sighted calls by fans for heads to roll from the coaching staff to the roster to the front office. I offer an alternative:

  • Performance based Pay.
  • Allocate the MLS, USL, and NWSL payrolls to the teams in order of best PPG performance.
  • MLS side coach and player leadership should voluntarily swap their paychecks with NWSL counterparts.

The Problem at Hand

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

With these words, Charles Dickens opened his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. However, he might as well have been talking about the 2017 Orlando City Soccer Club's constituent teams. Two of the three teams under the club are meeting the expectations of fans, and one is falling far short. As the season winds down, the USL side OCB is solidly in the playoff hunt, earning results in its last 12 consecutive matches, dating back to June 23. Likewise the Orlando Pride have earned results in six consecutive matches dating back to August 5, and has outright won their last five matches. So for those of us lucky enough to have season tickets for one or both of those teams it certainly feels like it could be the best of times.

Then consider the hapless MLS team. OCSC's MLS side is winless in their last eight matches, and has managed only two wins since the end of April. After the win on April 29, the team was sitting atop the Eastern Conference table. Now the club is sitting 10th on the table and there's no reason to expect that they will be able to avoid falling to the very bottom of the table after facing DC United at RFK Stadium next Saturday night. It certainly can't be anything but the worst of times for fans of the MLS side.

The Fans' Frustration

Many armchair pundits among the fan base, and many other social media outlets are pointing fingers and bellyaching about who is to blame for the problems of the MLS side. Arguments abound over whether the coaching staff is to blame, whether there are problems in the locker room in terms of the tactics or strategy the team should use, or whether there has been so much chaos in the Front Office in terms of people responsible for player personnel that the roster is akin to a mismatched jigsaw puzzle box containing 500 pieces from four different sets. To me, all of that is a waste of time and smacks of nothing but excuses. The club does not need excuses at this point; it needs to make a bold statement that will send a clear message to all the teams in the organization. It can also send a message to every league under the umbrella of US Soccer at the same time if they follow my recommendation for a modest proposal based on the performance of each team.

I call my proposal modest, and when judged by the standard of pure merit and performance it is the very essence of modesty. Since the modern world and the world of professional sport rarely operates on the principles of merit and performance, my proposal would mean defying the league rules of the MLS and the NWSL as well as those of the US Soccer federation. But my proposal just might send the message that the coaches and players of the MLS side need to feel as well as hear in order to quit screwing around and start playing quality football.

A Modest Proposal: Performance-based Pay

My proposal is to assign compensation by team based on each team's performance on the pitch. Thus the entire salary allocation for the MLS side within OCSC would be paid to the team that has the best performance in terms of points per match earned, the salary allocation for the USL side would be paid to the team with the second best performance in terms of points per match earned, and the salary allocation for the NWSL side would be paid to the team with the worst performance of the bunch.

Under this system, for 2017 we would add up all the DP money, Generation Adidas money, Targeted Allocation money, and MLS salary cap money from the OCSC MLS side's roster of 30 players and split it proportionally among the 20 players on the Orlando Pride roster. Likewise, Tom Sermanni and his staff would be paid the salary that is now being drawn by Jason Kreis and his assistants. After all, in a season with only 24 games, it seems pretty apparent that both Marta and Alex Morgan will finish the year with more goals scored than Cyle Larin, the leading scorer on the Orlando City MLS team. So why shouldn't they be rewarded for superior performance?

And on the flip side, of course, the MLS lads would be punished in their wallets. The 30 players on the roster would have to split the NWSL salary cap of $315,000 among them, and no single player on the team could collect more than $41,700 in salary for the season. Similarly, Jason Kreis and his staff would have to learn to live on the salary drawn by Coach Tom Sermanni and his staff.

This season the USL side would be unaffected. The USL has the second highest payroll of the three teams and sits second in terms of the points earned per match played. The Orlando Pride have earned 35 points from 21 matches (1.67 ppm); OCB has earned 36 points from 26 matches (1.38 ppm); and hapless OCSC has earned only 31 points from 27 matches (1.15 ppm).

As fans it is in our nature to want to find and assign blame when we see things going contrary to our wishes. I care not one whit for trying to place blame. I simply want to see performance rewarded and incompetence punished. That's what makes my proposal so modest, logical, and sensible. Unfortunately, the rules governing salaries in the three different leagues that Orlando City's constituent teams are aligned would probably prohibit the team from taking such a sensible approach to address the situation. 

An Appeal to Team Leaders

So I call upon the two main leaders of the MLS side to voluntarily swap salaires with their counterparts on the Orlando Pride. Jason Kreis--I don't want to hear excuses; I demand results. Until you can put your team into the playoffs, I demand that you trade your salary with Tom Sermanni, who has proven he can coach his team to the highest level of performance within the club. And Kaka--I don't care where you used to play or what awards you've won. Until you score more goals and create more assists than anyone on any of the teams in the club, you don't deserve to draw the highest salary. Until you can back up your paycheck with performance that deserves it, I demand that you swap salaries with Marta. Learn to eat a little humble pie until you can whip your teammates into a band of legitimate contenders working in concert like a well-oiled machine.

That is my modest proposal. Those are my demands. Are there any other fans in the Orlando City multiverse who feel the same way I do, or am I simply a lone voice crying in the wilderness, seeking justice in an unjust world? Let me know in the comments below!

OCSC at the Gold Cup Break: Facts, Observations, and Opinions

The MLS season is in a short break for the Gold Cup, so it seems an apt time to look back at the first 20 matches of 2017 and assess how the club is doing compared to the same point in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There is no doubt that when the season started, the first two months gave Orlando City fans the hope that this might be the year that the club put everything together for a magical season and could make a deep playoff run. But the multi-match weeks in May and June did leave many fans scratching their heads and wondering what the balance of the year will bring.

My crystal ball is no more accurate than any other pundits, but I have run some numbers, collected some facts, and made some observations and have some opinions about how the team will fare the rest of the year. Others will doubtless have different opinions--some more rosy and some more dire than mine. And I encourage and welcome any discussion. But after the last few days of teasing the mid-season recap, I present it all here for your review and assessment.

Just the Facts

  • Above the Line. So far this season, Orlando City has spent every week in playoff contention. This is a big improvement over the first two seasons, and the early season string of wins buyoed by many matches at Orlando City Stadium helped Orlando City to get off to a strong start.
  • New Contributors. Another factor for Orlando City is that Jason Kreis brought in several defensive players that helped to secure wins early when the team seemed to struggle to score goals. With new players like Jonathan Spector and Will Johnson in the lineup, fans have felt confident the team could hold a 1 - 0 lead for the first time in the MLS history of the club.
  • Anemic Offense. However, the offensive output has been lacking. Through 20 MLS matches in 2017, Orlando City has only scored 22 goals, compared to 32 goals scored over 20 matches in 2016 and 26 goals scored over 20 matches in 2015.
  • Improved Defense? Even with the new defensive players, the 2017 campaign has not seen the best defense of the Orlando City MLS era. In 2017 the team has conceded 29 goals, compared to only 26 goals conceded in 2015. But the performance is much better than the 35 goals conceded in 2016 through 20 matches.
  • Depth is an Issue. And the depth of the team is definitely in question. As long as the team was playing one match per week in March and April, they looked very strong, winning 6 of their first 7 matches and shooting to the top of the Table. However, when the MLS scheduling gods saddled Orlando City with 3 matches per week for most of May and June, the team really struggled. Since the beginning of May they have only won 2 of 13 matches, balanced against 6 losses and 5 draws over that period.
  • Key Player Waived. One more troubling issue for Orlando City fans is that the team could not come to terms with Matias Perez-Garcia and has released the player. MPG was one of the most consistently hard-working players on the pitch for Orlando City, and consistently drew free kicks for the team by putting himself in position to take hard fouls from opposing players. The loss of MPG makes an already thin starting line a little thinner unless there is an opportunity to bring someone else onto the club that can assume his salary and role and perform as well or better.
  • Silver Lining. There is a bright side. Even with all the struggles, the good thing for Orlando City fans is that the team is still above the red line in 5th position for the playoffs. This puts them higher than they have been at this point in either of the previous two season. If my calculations are correct, the team was in 8th place and out of the playoffs after 20 matches in 2016, and they were in 6th position and dropping out of the playoffs at this time in the 2015 campaign. The team is also scoring points better than any previous MLS version of the team. In 2015 the team were only managing 1.35 PPM after 20 matches, and in 2016 they were managing only 1.15 PPM after 20 matches.

Orlando City Statistics by Season: After 20 Matches

Year GS GC GD Points PPM East Table
2017 22 29 -7 29 1.45 5th
2016 32 35 -3 23 1.15 8th
2015 26 26 0 27 1.35 6th

For the table above: GC = Goals Scored; GS = Goals Conceded; GD = Goal Differential; PPM = Points per Match

Observations

Depth makes a huge difference in the MLS season. Between the heat and the travel required to play across North America, the addition of midweek matches in the middle of the season means that for a team to win consistently, they need at least 15 - 18 players that can be part of a consistent Starting XI. Teams at the top of the table like Chicago and Toronto are able to drop players in and out of the starting lineup with little change in the results. They are still able to score well and defend well when their usual starters have to have some rest. But Orlando City is not there yet. When we have to rest our usual starters due to midweek matches or little niggling injuries, we do not seem to be able to match the same success. Early on the team managed to win when Kaka was nursing a hamstring injury suffered after 10 minutes of the opening match of the season, but in hindsight that appears to be more an aberration than a pattern, especially when the multi-match weeks began in May.

Orlando City suffers from a rash of players that are "one trick ponies." We need to draft, mold in our academy, or trade for more players that have a bigger range of skill sets. Cyle Larin is a devastating scorer if you put the ball on his feet, his chest, or his head in the 6-yard box. But outside of that he largely appears to be a lost puppy wondering what to do. He is an inconsistent defender and he has trouble finding teammates with passes or even dribbling the ball to help create his own opportunities. Carlos Rivas is a great dribbler and a very sharp passer, but he is extremely inconsistent when it comes to his finishing touch. He is still far more likely to get under the ball and shoot yards above the goal into the stands than he is to be on target when he shoots. And Kaka is really starting to show the miles on his legs. He is still capable of dazzling opponents and fans a few times per match as he dances on the ball or fakes out a defender, but Marta shows far more consistent wow-factor moves on the pitch than Kaka does these days, and she is equally able to create her own shots or find opportunities for teammates, whereas Kaka seems to have lost a step from 2015.


Opinions

I still think this team will make the playoffs, but I don't think they will be in the top half of the playoff contenders. I think 4th - 6th is where we will see the team land after the regular season ends. And that assessment is contingent on no unexpected trades, injuries, or disciplinary issues that drastically impact the lineup over the remaining 14 matches of the season.

I think the team needs to get better talent. We may not need to trade away any stars or fan favorites from the team, but in terms of role players, we need some more depth and we need players who have a broader skill set. As I said it feels like we have too many "one trick ponies" on the team, and we need to have more players who can create chances, distribute the ball, finish chances, defend opponents, and pass to teammates at a high level of skill. Until we do, I don't see us moving much past simply reaching the playoffs.

What are your thoughts on the season so far? Do you think Orlando City is in good shape at this point, or do you worry about what will happen in the balance of the season? Do you think it was a mistake to part company with MPG, or do you believe that the club has an opportunity to sign a player who can help to fill in some of the missing gaps and push the team back toward the top of the playoff bracket before the end of the season? Let me know in the comments below!

Breaking NEWS: Major Player Swap for OCSC

"I'm disgusted with his antics," an angry Luis Enrique said late Friday, discussing the four-match suspension for his superstar player, Lionel Messi. "This is the last straw--he's out!"

Then the Barcelona FC manager announced that the club had agreed to a rights swap with MLS side Orlando City SC, effective immediately. The swap would see the Argentine superstar go to Orlando for up-and-coming striker Cyle Larin. According to rumors, each player will assume the other's contract, salary, endorsements, and kit number.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber was found at his favorite deli with a late night coffee-and-donut snack. When asked about the trade, Garber said, "Well, you know--it's just one of those things that happens in football. It's pretty rare for a mega-star to be swapped for a potential mega-star, but I think there's usually about one day every year that you can expect to hear news like that, right around the start of April when the European clubs are getting desperate for the final push to the end of their season."

Orlando City majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva was seen at a private party toasting everyone and laughing uncontrollably, clearly giddy at the news.

Officials at FIFA and La Liga could not be reached for comment on this story.

Weekly News Roundup

As the start of the season draws near, the news from Orlando City and its constituent teams is coming faster and more frequently. Today we'll look at some of the announcements from the past week and look ahead to more events planned before the home opener two weekends from now.

Also during this past week the club mailed out season tickets, and this year the SWAG included an Orlando City flag in the Season Ticket mailer. Normally I would say this flag would be perfect for tailgating. However, with the elimination of parking at the Citrus Bowl, there will be little to no opportunity to tailgate as we have grown accustomed to doing in seasons past for the matches.

February 13, 2017

  • New Stadium Bag Policy - The club announced a clearbag policy for the new stadium, similar to security measures that have been adopted at other sports stadiums and arenas around the country. The policy will be in effect for all matches at the stadium as well as any other events that are held. In seasons past I have taken a waterproof belt pouch for my wallet and smartphone to the match when there was threatening weather, and the policy doesn't seem to impact that.
  • Orlando City to Offer Paperless Ticketing in 2017 - The Orlando Sentinel reported last week that Orlando City will feature all paperless ticketing in 2017. A mobile app will be used for transferring tickets or for single game tickets purchased from Ticketmaster through their mobile app. 

February 14, 2017

  • Roster Announced for Kids vs. Pros - The Kids vs. Pros match will take place on March 2, and on Valentine's Day the club announced the roster of Pros for the match: Goalkeepers - Aubrey Bledsoe (Pride), Earl Edwards, Jr. (OCSC), Joe Bendik (OCSC); Defenders - Toni Pressley (Pride), Jon Spector (OCSC), Victor 'PC' Giro (OCSC), Rafael Ramos (OCSC), Zach Carroll (OCB), Scott Thomsen (OCB), Jose Aja (OCSC); Midfielders - Tony Rocha (OCSC), Servando Carrasco (OCSC), Kaka (OCSC), Jordan Schweitzer (OCB), Austin Martz (OCB), Lewis Neal (OCB), Paul Clowes (OCB), Matias Perez-Garcia (OCSC), Antonio Nocerino (OCSC); Forwards - Sarah Hagen (Pride), Christina Burkenroad (Pride), Ben Polk (OCB), Joe Gallardo (OCB), Carlos Rivas (OCSC), Hadji Barry (OCSC). During the match, the Pros will face off against 100 kids between the ages of eight and ten. Tickets for the match are $10 each, and all the money raised will go to the Orlando City Foundation.
     
  • Pride Acquire International Spot - The Orlando Pride have acquired an International Roster spot from the Chicago Red Stars for the 2017 season, in exchange for a second-round draft pick in the 2018 NWSL draft.
     
  • Pride Players Win W-League Championship - Steph Catley and Laura Alleway of the Orlando Pride have been playing with Australian W-League side Melbourne City during the off-season. And after reaching the finals, Melbourne City defeated Perth Glory 2 - 0 to win the league championship. 

February 16, 2017

  • Four Players Re-Signed to Orlando Pride - The Orlando Pride has signed contracts with four returning players. Jasmyne Spencer, Maddy Evans, Toni Pressley, and Aubrey Bledsoe have all signed new contracts with the Pride for the 2017 season. 
  • Cristian Higuita to Miss Start of MLS Season - The Orlando Sentinel reported last week that after an adductor strain suffered in Tuesday's practice, Cristian Higuita has been told to expect a month-long recovery following medical evaluation. The popular midfielder known for his energetic and physical play will miss the home opener on March 5 if the medical timetable is accurate and he is unable to recover more quickly. Higuita is an intimidating presence in defensive midfield, and in the first two seasons of MLS play, he has led Orlando City in yellow cards accumulated.

February 17, 2017

  • New Home Kit for OCSC - Orlando City had an event at Wall Street Plaza on Friday where they unveiled the new home kit for the 2017 season. For the first time the jersey has a collar, and the crest on the home kit is the same raised metallic crest that was introduced on the away kit for the 2016 season. Some other changes to the kit include the latitude and longitude coordinates of the club's new stadium on the right sleeve.

Fantasy MLS

For the third season in a row I'm participating in the Fantasy MLS season from the MLS web site. In 2015 I did fairly well, but I didn't do very well last season. In the first two seasons I tried to start by building my team with hometown Orlando City players first. This season, however, I am trying to build a team with a more balanced approach, with no more than two players from any club, and I've anchored the team with Joe Bendik, and for the sake of nostalgia I've added former Lion Kevin Molino to the team, and I hope he'll give me some good points from Minnesota this season.

Have you picked up a new Orlando City home kit for the 2017 season or do you plan to? What do you think of the new look with the collar and the raised metallic crest? Let me know on social media or in the comments below!

Orlando City News Roundup - Early February

This weekend we take a look at news from and impacting the Orlando City SC club and its teams in the first part of February.

NWSL Broadcast Partnership with A&E Networks - Last year the NWSL hit a landmark of fielding teams for its fourth season of women's professional soccer. This year, they have hit a new milestone by signing an agreement with A&E Networks to have an NWSL Game of the Week broadcast every Saturday during the NWSL season. Lifetime Network (a member of the A&E Networks Channel) will broadcast a game every Saturday at 4:00 pm, which will include a pre-game show at 3:30. The deal will go for three seasons and creates a partnership entity between the league and A&E Networks called "NWSL Media," which will oversee the production and streaming of all matches in High Definition.

Orlando City will Participate in VAR Testing in Pre-Season - PRO Referee is testing VAR (Video Assistant Referee) during the month of February in select Pre-season games. Orlando City's last pre-season match on February 28 at IMG Stadium against OKC Energy will include the VAR testing. VAR will be employed in four specific match-changing situations: goals, penalty decisions, direct red card incidents, and cases of mistaken identity. In these select pre-season games, the VAR will impact the outcome of the match. Additionally, in every MLS stadium between mid-March and August will host a match in which VAR is used, but in those matches the outcome will not be affected. The MLS plans to deploy VAR league-wide after the All-Star Match. Presumably the way these tests roll out will determine if VAR actually launches this season--hopefully, its implementation will not slow the pace of play. Orlando City fans will remember that last season the club conceded a goal and lost 2 points (when a win was converted to a draw) on a missed direct red card call. Servando Carrasco was struck on the collar bone just outside the corner of the 18-yard box, and the officials wound up incorrectly calling a handball and compounded it by awarding a PK as though that foul had happened inside the penalty area.

OCB Signs Two Cameroonian Nationals by way of Montverde Academy - OCB has signed left back Jules Youmeni and forward Albert Dikwa. The two have played at least three years at Montverde Academy, and both have been part of the school's record 157-match unbeaten streak, which is the nation's longest among prep school programs. 

Tommy Redding Called up for USA U-20 World Cup Qualifying - The USA U-20 team will begin play in the 2017 CONCACAF Championship in Costa Rica on Saturday, February 18. This tournament will also double as the team's qualifying championship for the 2017 World Cup in Korea. Orlando City's Tommy Redding is one of eleven players from MLS rosters to be named to the team, and one of six defenders to be selected. The top four teams in CONCACAF at the conclusion of the tournament will appear in the U-20 World Cup in May in Korea. For the CONCACAF tournament, the USA is in a group with Panama, Haiti, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Their first match is against Panama on February 18 at 4:00 pm, and all matches for the USA U-20 team will be broadcast on Univision. The remaining group matches for Team USA are against Haiti on Tuesday, February 21 at 5:30 pm, and against Saint Kitts and Nevis on Friday, February 24 at 5:30 pm. Knockout rounds will be played between Monday, February 27 and Friday, March 3. The final will be played on Sunday, March 5 at 4:00 pm. 

 

Orlando City News Roundup: Christmas 2016 to January 21

Just because it's the offseason and we fans get distracted by the holidays and other sports, it doesn't mean that everything grinds to a halt within the offices of the club. In case you missed any of the news, here's a roundup of some of the most interesting and noteworthy changes to affect the club and its teams since Rudolph and Santa made their annual rounds from the North Pole:

Front Office Changes

Leadership Shuffle - Arguably the biggest news of the off-season involved Phil Rawlins stepping down from his active role as club President for personal reasons. No further details were made public, but the news came almost at the same time as he and Kay Rawlins announced they were separating. Phil has been named Club Life-President, while Alex Leitao will assume a more active role in day-to-day operations. Anxious fans may see shadows of the off-season turmoil that rocked the club after the 2015 season. I am hopeful that the change is not a political move but one that really is designed to let Phil focus more on personal and family matters after the enormous effort and stress he's put on himself to bring Orlando City to Florida, build the club into an MLS franchise, and spearhead the effort to build a new soccer-specific stadium. He certainly deserves some time to relax after all of that, and this fan hopes we will continue to see him about and around at matches, events, and other functions.

Player Personnel Changes

Orlando City signs Victor "PC" Giro - The roster for Orlando City gained a little more youth when Victor Giro (known as PC) was signed from NASL side Tampa Bay Rowdies. Giro was with the Rowdies for the second half of the 2016 season. Prior to that, he played with the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and he scored the winning goal for that side against Orlando City in their Round of 16 victory in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup match last season.

Four Orlando Pride Stars Earn USWNT Call Ups - The blessing and curse of having great players in a small league is that so many of them earn honors for their national team. Earlier this month, it was announced that Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris, Kristen Edmonds, and Ali Krieger would be called up for the USWNT camp in the middle of January. It was previously announced in December that Alex Morgan would start 2017 playing for French side Olympique Lyonnais, so she will be missing from the Pride lineup until the French season ends and that club concludes any playoff run.

OCSC Re-signs Carrasco, Alston, and Hines - Servando Carrasco, Kevin Alston, and Seb Hines were re-signed to contracts with OCSC for the 2017 season. After Coach Jason Kreis arrived in the middle of the 2016 season, it was clear that Servando Carrasco was someone that bought into the new coach's scheme. He has always played with great energy and enthusiasm, and figured in some critical moments of the 2016 season, including getting the long-range assist on the goal that earned a draw in the dying seconds of the opening match of the year against Real Salt Lake. Hines is known for his prowess scoring goals with his head, and Alston is a speedy defender with the range to cover the entire length of the pitch when the need arises.

Orlando Pride Add Offense in NWSL Draft - Serious sports fans often quote the old maxim "defense wins championships," but the truth is that "offense puts eyes on the game." In showing that the club leadership is serious about building the excitement and crowds for the NWSL Orlando Pride, they selected more offense in the draft earlier this month. In the third round, the Pride selected striker Danica Evans from the University of Colorado. Evans scored 11 goals in her senior season, and was invited to attend the U-23 USWNT camp earlier this month. In the fourth round, the Pride selected midfielder Nickolette Driesse from Penn State. Driesse won a championship in her sophomore season as a member of the same FSU roster that produced the Pride's Jamia Fields, and she won a National Championship in her junior season with Penn State, where she scored five goals and registered twelve assists.

Orlando City SC Drafts Danny Deakin - In the MLS Super Draft, the MLS side selected Danny Deakin, who played for Detroit City FC of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) in 2016. Prior to going pro in this country, Deakin played his college soccer for the South Carolina Gamecocks. Deakin is an attacking midfielder, and continues the trend of signing more specialists at getting the ball into the opponent's net. At some point one begins to wonder if we will see a 2-3-5 formation with fully half the field players charged with the task of scoring goals every match.

Orlando Pride Acquire Rights to Rachel Hill - In the 2017 draft, the Portland Thorns selected Rachel Hill, but in a deal struck subsequent to the draft, the Orlando Pride have acquired rights to the striker. Hill scored 61 goals and registered 18 assists as a collegiate player with the UConn Huskies, who play in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) along with local team UCF. Hill's collegiate record puts her second all time in career goals for the school, and fourth all time in total points (140) scored during her career.

Orlando Pride Trade Witteman for Alanna Kennedy - Australian Women's National Team member Alanna Kennedy is headed to Orlando from the North Carolina Courage (formerly the Western New York Flash) in exchange for Sam Witteman. Witteman played her rookie NWSL season for the Pride and established herself as a great rookie talent. While it's sad to see her leave, it's exciting to see Kennedy join the club. At only the tender age of 21, Kennedy already has nearly 50 caps for her National Team, and has won regular season titles and championship cups as a professional since the age of 16, when she played for Sydney FC. Kennedy has played on teams that have reached the Grand Final of the Austrailian W-League four times, winning the cup in 2013 with Sydney. And in her first season in NWSL, the defender helped Western New York win a championship in 2016.

Coaching Changes

OCSC Goalkeeper Coach Returns to Canada - Stewart Kerr, who came to Orlando City SC as goalkeeper coach at the same time Joe Bendik joined the team, has accepted a position with the Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Under Kerr's guidance, Bendik won the MLS Save of the Week 11 times in 2016 and finished with the second-highest save total in the league. I hope that the new keeper coach will continue helping Bendik perform at the same high level this season, as he certainly deserved the team MVP award he won at the season-ending banquet after the conclusion of last year's campaign.

Tim Mulqueen Joins OCSC as First Team Goalkeeper Coach - Former MLS and Youth National Team goalkeeper coach Tim Mulqueen has joined Orlando City as first team Goalkeeper Coach. In addition to extensive experience working with some of the legends of US Goalkeeping, including Tony Meola, Mulqueen has also previously worked with Joe Bendik, Earl Edwards, Jr., and Mason Stajduhar, so he is familiar with many faces in the net for the club.

League Changes

USL Granted Division 2 Status - Soccer, like baseball, is divided into major and minor professional leagues in nearly every country where it is played, but the designation for these differences is called "divisions" by FIFA, the sport's governing body. In the US, MLS is the top "major league" or "Division 1" league. The NASL has been considered the Division 2 league in the past and USL has held the rank of the 3rd Division league. Now, starting in the 2017 season, USL will be considered a Division 2 league.

USL Conference Alignment Announced - USL announced that the league will feature 30 teams in two conferences this season. Each team will play 32 games during the year. Most of those games will consist of a home-and-away match against each of the other 14 teams in their conference, with the remaining four matches being against regional rivals, and no team playing any single opponent more than 3 times in the regular season. The top eight teams from each conference will advance to the playoffs, and the USL Cup Final will be played in mid-November.

These are some of the most significant updates and changes in the club over the last few weeks, at least from my perspective. What are some of the other stories that caught your eye? Let me know in the comments below!

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. 

In the Middle of the Pitch: An Interview with Soccer Refs - Part One

This is what most fans think: In the MLS, the theory goes that every game is played 11 on 11, at least until the red cards get drawn. But no matter whether your team is the home team or the road team, it almost always feels like the game is being played 11 on 15, with your team having to battle not only the opposing team, but the four officials as well.

At least that's how I have usually felt. But toward the end of the the 2016 season, I got curious about what it's really like to be that "ref in the middle," and instead of simply whining about it as I am usually prone to do, I decided to make an effort to actually talk to an MLS referee and learn a little about watching the game from his perspective. To that end, I was able to secure a fairly extensive interview with MLS referee Ted Unkel. In doing my research, I learned one other interesting fact that also figured into my line of questioning--Ted is actually married to another professional soccer referee, Christina Unkel, who was also very generous with her time and answered my questions as well.

The two referees answered my questions ranging from their path to becoming soccer officials, their thoughts on the state of the game in this country, and the differences they see between MLS and other top leagues in the world, and even how the game brought them together as a couple.

Because Ted and Christina gave me so much material, there is enough for several posts. In this post I'll focus on their paths to becoming soccer referees and what it takes to do the job for anyone that has been curious about that career path. In subsequent posts, we'll cover their thoughts on the state of the game in the USA and finally some more personal reflections of how the game helped bring them together and some of their most and least favorite experiences as officials of the game.

Becoming a Soccer Referee

Lion's Teeth Blog (LTB): How long have you been involved in the game of soccer?
Christina Unkel (Christina): I have been involved in soccer since I was born – 29 years. Having had a father play semi-professional in Guatemala, the sport has always been a part of my life as I know it. I played as soon as I was allowed to so probably when I was 5/6. I began to officiate when I was 10 years old. 
Ted Unkel (Ted): Like most, I played when I was young but nothing of note. I began refereeing when I was 12 as a way to spend more time with my father – he also gave me his game fee, which made it arguably the best part time job I could have.

LTB: Did you come to the game first as a player or as a fan or as a referee?
Christina: As a player.
Ted: A player before I was able to make the choice to play – or drive myself to practice – and I hit my ceiling in high school. I’ve been a fan of the game as long as I can remember, originating in the EPL and expanding further with each new version of FIFA on whatever console my friends or I had at the time.

LTB: Before becoming an official, was there some moment or some pivotal event that made you want to grab the whistle and put on the official's shirt?
Christina: Yes. I was playing in a game, and unfortunately the young official in the center of my game was just “going through the motions.” He was incredibly uninterested in our game, was consistently getting calls wrong (more for the fact that he wasn’t trying), and was more concerned about impressing his friends off the field by goofing off. It frustrated/angered me. The official was being paid to do a job; he was not doing it, and it felt incredibly disrespectful. That was the game where I made up my mind that I could and would do a better job. I would respect each game/player and always give it my best.

Also, my coach wouldn’t allow me to keep yelling at the officials until I took the referee course. So, of course, I wanted to keep yelling at the officials – I took the test and became certified! 

Ted: There wasn’t necessary a pivotal moment – in addition to being with my dad, I was pretty decent at refereeing. A bit of that was driven by seeing what referees I was getting as a player, and saying “I can do better than that”. There was a local youth game that started this whole thing back in 2004 – if I can point to anything, I can point to that game that started it all. Being free on a Saturday morning turned into an invite to State Final Four in Panama City, which I highly pondered not going because why would anyone travel that far just to referee a soccer match? Funny to think that now.

LTB: What is the career progression like for referees in American soccer – is there a formal pathway from youth leagues to school / college and semi-pro leagues up to the professional leagues?
Christina: Today, there is more structure and progression as to a pathway but overall still remains reliant upon being identified among the rest of the other officials at an event/tournament. With more eyes on our sport, more money being spent on the game domestically, and more at stake, the referee career progression has begun to catch up to the popularity and need for higher level officials to keep up with the game and its demands. That said, the systems are different in America then in other countries. 

For example, school/college is a different system run by state high school associations and/or NCAA; whereas, youth, semi-pro and professional leagues all fall under the umbrella of US Soccer and the Professional Referee Organization (“PRO”). With regard to personnel in the two systems, there is much overlap, such as NCAA assignors and US Soccer; however, the pathway for career progression to semi/professional leagues is through US Soccer and PRO. Identification is key. And to be identified, attending US Soccer events/tournaments and performing well is the first step to progression. PRO comes in at the tail end of that identification progression and identifies many of its potential candidates who demonstrate the skills/capabilities to advance their career through its own identification system/managers and conversations/cooperation with US Soccer. 

As to the basics, upon registration and successful completion of an introductory course and exam, one begins their referee career as a grade 9 or 8 and must take further education, satisfy game experience and age level requirements, as well as successfully perform on both written and physical games/standards to advance their grade from 9/8 to a national referee (grade 3) and potentially a FIFA Referee or AR (Grade 1 or 2 respectively). 

Ted: Everything starts on a local level – signing up to take a referee class, pass a written test and begin working youth games at a local club. US Soccer has a grading system, from Grade 9/8 (entry level) to Grade 1 (FIFA referee, which I am now). In between is a myriad of written and fitness tests, game requirements and assessments, tournaments and identification, academies and seminars.

Similar to players, referees strive to develop and move up – From December 1-6, 2016, I mentored at U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy Winter Showcase in Sarasota. There’s an application process to get in, and travel costs are the responsibility of the referee – it shows a lot of commitment at an earlier part of a referee career to be part of such an elite event. Performance at events like this helps springboard a referee to assignments in more challenging tournaments and leagues. High school and college are separate from the path, though good games anywhere help to continue to develop a referee. I firmly believe there is no substitute for experience.

LTB: What advice would you give a reader of the blog who has an interest in becoming a soccer official—where is the best place to find information or learn how to get started?
Christina: One’s local soccer club/local assignor as well as the state’s referee website. At the local level, there is always a high need/demand for officials to service the local youth/adult games. One’s local club will know who the referee assignor/administrator is, and can give you that individuals contact. Additionally, many, if not all, the states have their referee organization’s sanctioned by US Soccer, and their websites provide the appropriate contacts and requirements for each state. For further educational material, US Soccer’s referee website provides good technical instruction and administrative guidance, and PRO provides higher-level advice on the professional game in the U.S. http://www.ussoccer.com/referees
Ted: Visit your local club and inquire either through the referees that are working those games or someone associated with the club.

This ends part one of the interview. Look for additional posts in the Interview with Soccer Refs series to come in the days ahead.

Coming Soon...

Happy Holidays, everyone! We've been on holiday break, but with the new year and the balance of the off-season right around the corner, there are a few things we will be doing between now and the time that the 2017 season for our three clubs kicks off.

  • Referee Interview - we have an interview "in the can" with an MLS Referee. I am grateful for his time and willingness to respond to questions about the art and science of being a referee in the MLS. There's also a bit of a human interest story with this one as well. It should be interesting for leaders to learn about watching a game from the view of an official and learning one reason why he actually appreciates the Orlando City fan base...
  • Offseason Roster Moves - Between the expansion draft and the MLS Super Draft as well as trades and other transactions, there will be new faces and missing faces from the 2017 rosters for the MLS, USL, and NWSL sides. We'll be talking more about those changes in the weeks ahead before the season cranks up.
  • Stadium Tour - We're working on getting a tour of the new stadium and we will try to get some interviews with some of the people who actually worked on building our new "home away from home" for the 2017 season (especially for those of us with season tickets to multiple teams).
  • Fantasy Soccer Report - For the last two years I've been playing fantasy MLS soccer to varying levels of success. Next season I'll be tracking my weekly lineup changes on the blog, and it will probably be a good lesson in what NOT to do to reach your fantasy finals.
  • More Social Media Partnerships - In 2015 I started the Lion's Teeth Soccer Blog as a hobby. In 2016 that hobby allowed me to start getting some collaborations with some other voices in local soccer social media. I'm hoping to be able to expand that next year and get some more perspectives on the game we all love and the players that wear our favorite colors on the pitch.

Happy New Year everyone. Have a safe and fun New Year's Eve, and we look forward to talking soccer with more of you in 2017!

Thanks... I guess: OCSC Makes Roster Moves

One of the harsh realities of professional sports is that there almost always comes a time when clubs have to part ways with players, or at least decide they will not actively work to retain players. On Wednesday of this week we learned Orlando City would make six such decisions. The club announced that they had declined to exercise the option on contracts for Kevin Alston, Luke Boden, Seb Hines, Tyler Turner, Pedro Ribeiro, and Julio Baptista. 

Some of the decisions made me a little sad as a fan, and some of them I think were necessary. But in the spirit of Thanksgiving weekend, I want to devote most of this column to saying what I am thankful for with these players as they begin looking ahead to what may be the next chapter of their careers.

Due to the age and experience level of the players, the announcement means that some will qualify for free agency and can negotiate new contracts with any MLS club (including Orlando City), while others would qualify for the MLS re-entry draft in December. It also means that it is very likely these players do not fit into the scheme or mold that Jason Kreis envisions for the club going forward.

Kevin Alston

  • Role: Defender
  • Years with OCSC: One
  • Gets my Thanks for: Being opportunistic in attacking situations. Alston always recognized when a break was starting for Orlando City, and he often raced along the sideline to get involved with the buildup in the attack and looked to help get the ball to one of the midfielders or forwards in striking position.
  • Thoughts on the Announcement: I'm not terribly surprised. Defense has been our weakest point in 2015-16, and we really need defensive specialists that are fully committed to the role. Alston plays where he is assigned, but I think in his heart he wants to help the team outscore the opponent instead of outdefend them, and that may have factored into the decisions.

Luke Boden

  • Role: Defender
  • Years with OCSC: Six
  • Gets my Thanks for: His long-range accuracy on passing from free kicks and set pieces. Boden rarely tried to go for glory for himself, but he was usually able to place the ball where someone could make a good strike at the net from his feed.
  • Thoughts on the Announcement: Boden's biggest liability on defense is his speed, or rather his lack of speed. MLS has some very fast strikers and midfielders that get involved in the attack, and if Boden tries to closely mark his man off the ball, then he can easily get outpaced when the opponent makes a break to chase a long pass or get involved in a sustained push forward.

Seb Hines

  • Role: Defender
  • Years with OCSC: Two
  • Gets my Thanks for: His skill heading the ball, especially on set piece opportunities. There was one international friendly match in 2016 in which Hines scored four goals from corner kicks by Kaka. And any time Hines was on the pitch when there was a corner kick, it was always exciting to see if the player taking the free kick could put it head high in front of the net where Seb could get his noggin to it.
  • Thoughts on the Announcement: Seb's biggest liability on defense is his tendency to get caught watching the ball and not the player he is marking. I've not done an exhaustive review of every goal OCSC has given up in the last two seasons, but my unscientific observation is that Hines tends to get himself out of position as much as nearly any other defender on the pitch, and it leads to a lot of easy chances where the opponent has multiple attackers facing off against the goalkeeper. So I think this was probably a necessary move.

Tyler Turner

  • Role: Defender
  • Years with OCSC: Two
  • Gets my Thanks for: Helping OCB make it to the playoffs in 2016. It was clear in the announcement of the first team roster for 2015 that Orlando City intended to build for the long-term, with a few veteran players sprinkled into a roster mostly built from young players with more promise than experience. As the second season in MLS got ready to start, it was clear that some of the young players had been rushed to the first team ahead of schedule, and would do better in the USL side where they could get more starts and more minutes.
  • Thoughts on the Announcement: I feel like we never got a chance to really see what kind of player Turner could be in MLS, and that makes me a little sad. I hope he can have success somewhere, as long as he doesn't enjoy too much success in matches against Orlando City.

Pedro Ribeiro

  • Role: Midfielder
  • Years with OCSC: Two
  • Gets my Thanks for: Securing the first MLS victory for OCSC. Years from now, Ribeiro will be still known for his role in Orlando City's first victory against the Houston Dynamo in 2015, where Ribeiro put both the ball and himself in the back of the Dynamo net to score the winning goal. Ribeiro was exciting to watch throughout the 2015 season. Then early in 2016 he suffered a back injury that required surgery and he never returned to the pitch for the club.
  • Thoughts for the Announcement: I am sad to see his contract not renewed, and I suspect it has as much to do with his missing so many games in 2016 as anything else. Jason Kreis really did not get a chance to see him play against any MLS competition in 2016, so that cannot have been a factor in Ribeiro's favor. As with Turner, I hope he will have an opportunity to continue his career and enjoy success.

Julio Baptista

  • Role: Forward
  • Years with OCSC: One
  • Gets my Thanks for: His immediate impact. Most players take some time to get acclimated to a team and find their role, but Baptista was a spark plug from the moment he took the pitch. Less than one minute after he first came into a match he drew a PK by forcing a pair of defenders to foul him inside the 18-yard box in front of the opponent's goal. Baptista had earned the nickname "The Beast" for his energetic and aggressive style of play on the pitch, and he always seemed to give the team a lift when he was inserted in the starting lineup or came off the bench.
  • Thoughts on the Announcement: While Baptista may be in the twilight of his professional career, I still think he has several seasons to play, especially if he can embrace the role of being a "super sub" where he primarily plays from the bench. Baptista scored six goals for Orlando City in 2016, so losing his production could be a concern, unless Jason Kreis is able to coax more offense out of players that underperformed in 2016 or bring in more scoring through drafts, trades, or free agency.

What about you? What are your thoughts on these announcements? Do you think the team made the right decision on these players, or are there any that you think they will come to regret letting get away? Let me know in the comments below!