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.
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.