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!

Tampa Two-Step: OCB and Pride by the Bay

This weekend saw two of the three Orlando City teams in action, with OCB starting their regular season, and the Orlando Pride playing a preseason match against the directionally challenged University of South Florida--technically it's more like West Central Florida Community College. I will acknowledge them as a real university when their football team wins some conference championships and a BCS bowl game--but I digress.

OCB vs. Rowdies: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Yesterday marked the start of the USL season for OCB, with a first-round match at in-state rivals Tampa Bay Rowdies. It's the first time the two teams have been in the same league together, with the Rowdies having come over to USL from the NASL in the off-season. As I stated yesterday in my match preview, the Rowdies have made some off-season roster moves to build one of the most solid main rosters in USL, and OCB head coach Anthony Pulis indicated the same in pre-match comments. "They may be the strongest side in USL," he said, adding that he and the coaching staff knew that it would be a tough match.

On paper, it looked like OCB might have more firepower available to them, with eight of the nine season-long loanees from the MLS side in the starting lineup, including goalkeeper Earl Edwards, Jr. The question I have had since the start of last season is whether the club views the OCB side as a serious separate team with its own goals of making the playoffs and winning USL titles, or whether they see it more as a place to send players from the MLS side to get valuable game minutes and stay in match fitness. I'm not certain it's impossible to do both simultaneously, but it would take a very different mindset to prep the team week-to-week depending on what the primary role of the team is in the overall club organization.

We have seen the quality of Earl Edwards, Jr. when  he had a chance to play with the MLS side a couple of times in 2015 regular season matches and in friendlies over the past two seasons. And Edwards' skill was on display throughout the match as he kept the Rowdies from finding the back of the net during the course of play. He recorded four saves on the night--with his only missed chance being on the PK by Georgi Hristov, who blasted a ball straight into the middle of the net, guessing correctly that Edwards would dive to one side or the other to try to block the kick.

However, in all other aspects of the match the Rowdies thoroughly outplayed OCB. They held a significant edge in possession, duels won, aerials won, interceptions, and corner kicks. One of the most dramatic stats of the match was the difference in shots: the Rowdies owned the stat sheet in that category with an edge of 21 - 3, and led the shots on target count by 5 - 1. You can see the full match statistics on the vastly improved USL Match Center Stats page

Suffice it to say that the Rowdies were by far the more organized side on the night. OCB was unable to generate any consistent attacks, and invariably made poor passes or got the ball tackled away almost every time they got it across the midfield stripe. The Rowdies, on the other hand, were crisp and precise with their passing, building up attack after attack that probed the OCB defense, found the cracks in the back line, and made Earl Edwards Jr. look like a clone of Joe Bendik in terms of his ability to make dramatic saves that kept OCB in the match. The way the two clubs played, it would have been a miscarriage of justice if the Rowdies had not taken a result from the night, and the win was well deserved. I tip my purple bowler (my OCB matchday hat) to them.

Pride vs. USF (WCFCC): The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Pride traveled to Tampa to take on the USF women's side, continuing a tradition from last season of playing college teams during the pre-season. This is a trend I hope they continue, mostly because it helps fans that come to women's soccer through the USWNT and NWSL become more aware of all the great college teams that are in our state and could use our support and encouragement.

The first half of the match featured a lineup that is likely to feature most of the players we will likely see in the Starting XI for the first regular season NWSL match of the season: Ashlyn Harris in goal; Laura Alleway, Ali Krieger, and Toni Pressley defending; Jamia Fields, Kristen Edmonds, Dani Weatherholt, and Camila (Pereira) at midfield; and Chimoa Ubogagu, Sarah Hagen, and Jasmyne Spencer at striker. And in the 11th minute Ubogagu scored her second goal of the preseason to put the Pride ahead of USF by the count of 1 - 0.

The score held until halftime, and in the second half Pride coach Tom Sermanni changed the entire lineup. After the break the lineup included mostly reserves and some trialists: Aubrey Bledsoe in goal; Cami Levin, Alanna Kennedy, and Ali Krieger (subbed out in the 61st minute for draft pick Nickolette Driesse) in defense; Maddy Evans, Monica, and Kristen Edmonds (subbed out in the 61st minute for Christina Burkenroad), Camila (subbed out in the 61st minute for Jordan O’Brien) at midfield; Chioma Ubogagu (subbed out in the 61st minute for draft pick Danica Evans), Jasmye Spencer (subbed out in the 61st minute for Carol Rodrigues), and Rachel Hill.

Bledsoe started the second half strong with two early stops, and then USF launched a counter-attack that saw freshman Evelyne Viens score a goal for the home side to draw the teams level. And as time wound down it looked like the match might end in a draw. However, in the 90th minute Pride trialist Carol Rodrigues, a former star at UCF, added a goal for the visitors. Of course the goal was doubly sweet for me because it not only meant the Pride got the victory but it was another dagger in the heart of USF fans delivered by a UCF player.

So the west coast swing for the Orlando City organization resulted in a mixed bag of results. I would argue that the Pride match was the more important from the standpoint that it gave exposure to another solid women's college soccer program and gave a lot of reserve players and trialists for the Pride valuable minutes on the pitch and in front of the coaching staff in game situations.

In terms of the OCB match, I am of the opinion that at this time the club seems to view the USL team as a something of a developmental club for the MLS team, and they may place the same importance on winning in that league that we fans may want to see. From the standpoint of making sure that the First Team has additional roster players at full match fitness when the inevitable injuries strike; it also means that when fans go to an OCB match they have a good chance to see a fair number of First Team players on the pitch. Unless they all strive to play with the same cohesion that Jason Kreis is demanding in MLS matches, however, it could be a long and not very enjoyable season trying to follow the progress of OCB.

Did you attend either of the matches this weekend? What were your thoughts on them? Are you more excited for the Orlando Pride season or the OCB season this year? Let me know in the comments below!

USL Season Kickoff, Hoops Madness, and US Redemption

Hoops Madness and US Redemption

This has been a great week to be a sports fan in Orlando. On Monday and again on Wednesday, UCF won its tournament games to advance to the Final Four of the NIT, and will play next Tuesday in Madison Square Garden. Then last night in a dramatic overtime game, the Florida Gators hit a three-point basket at the final buzzer to defeat Wisconsin 84 - 83. The Gators will play their Elite 8 game on Sunday, also in Madison Square Garden, as part of the NCAA "March Madness" tournament.

Meanwhile, last night, while the Gators were winning their Sweet Sixteen game, the US Men's National Team started the second Bruce Arena era with an emphatic statement--a 6 - 0 dismantling of Honduras in a World Cup Qualifyer at Avaya Stadium in San Jose. The game featured a hat trick from the wily veteran Clint Dempsey, as well as a score and two assists from wunderkind Christian Pulisic. While this is only a single match, the performance supports an opinion that I have held for a long time that former US Men's skipper Jurgen Klinsmann was a poor fit for the national team, attempting to mold the strength and speed of American players into a game plan that better suits the finesse of the European game. By contrast, Arena seems to have drawn up a strategy that allowed his players use their power and speed to the best advantage.

USL Season Kickoff

And tonight, OCB takes the pitch for the first match of the season. The team opens on the road at a familiar opponent, who are also new USL rivals: the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The match will be at Al Lang Stadium in Tampa, and it will be the first time that Orlando City players have had to face off against former Orlando City favorite Luke Boden.

Players to Watch

Aside from the familiar Boden, the Rowdies have a number of players with top-league experience. Midfielder Joe Cole has won three EPL Championship in seven seasons with Chelsea. The Rowdies roster also includes Marcel Schafer, who holds the record for the most appearances by an outfield player with Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg. In addition, the Rowdies boast players who have played with the Colorado Rapids and the Seattle Sounders in MLS.

While this is the second season for OCB, the squad will look very different from the one that took the pitch last season for the USL side. Captain Lewis Neal is back with OCB, but the team made a number of off-season transactions, and yesterday the organization announced the season long loan of nine MLS players to OCB with Right of Recall, meaning that the players can move freely between the USL and MLS rosters in compliance with MLS rules. The players loaned out to OCB include Goalkeeper Earl Edwards, Jr.; Defenders Tommy Redding, Conor Donovan, Kevin Alston, and PC; Midfielders Richie Laryea, Danny Deakin, and Pierre Da Silva; and Forward Hadji Barry

Prediction

My world view has taken on a noticeably purple tint, so that means until I see any evidence to the contrary I have to predict a victory for my team. With the addition of the proven MLS players to the OCB roster, I think Orlando City will take the victory 2 - 0. 

The match can be watched live online through the USL web site's Match Center

How about you--will OCB pull out the victory, or have all the off-season changes been more disruptive than helpful to the squad? Will you be watching the match online or do you plan to travel over to Tampa for the game? Let me know in the comments below!

Snow Delay News Update

With weather forcing today's game to be postponed until September, it gives us a chance to give a little focus to OCB and the Pride, both of which have experienced a lot of roster moves and updates recently.

Pride Roster Updates

Catley and Fields Sign New Contracts. Steph Catley and Jamia Fields have signed new contracts with the Pride and will return for the 2017 season. Catley was an important part of the defense for the Pride leading up to the Olympics, but then her responsibilities with the Australian National Team kept her from being able to return to play much after the middle of the season. Fields started the season as a role player from the bench and registered an assist on one of Jasmyne Spencer's goals.

Lisa De Vanna Waived. Last season, rumors swirled for months that the Pride were trying to sigh Lisa De Vanna, and eventually they managed to get her on the roster late. But with all the international breaks and chaos of the inaugural season, it was hard from a fan's perspective to gauge how much impact she had on the team. Unfortunately we won't get to see what she could do over the course of a full season, as she has been waived by the team. I know some fans will be bitterly disappointed as there were many advocates for bringing her to the team, but as the men's team had to deal with the departure of Adrian Winter last year, the Pride will have to adjust and move forward without their teammate who was only here for a brief time.

Krieger and Morgan Voted to FIFPro World XI. Alex Morgan and Ali Krieger were named to the World XI, a list of the best eleven players in women's soccer as voted on by their peers in leagues around the globe. I've always put a lot of stock in the players that other competitors appreciate, because I think players know better than almost anyone else the kind of skill, effort and dedication required to excel at their craft. Krieger is going through pre-season workouts with the team as they get ready to open the season next month, and Morgan is currently playing the remainder of the European season with French side Olympique Lyonnais and will re-join the Pride mid-season.

Rumors Swirl Around Brazilian Star Marta. In the past couple of days there have been rumors that the Orlando Pride have been pursuing Brazilian star and five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta. However, tweets from her club team in Sweden seem to throw doubt on that. It would be great to have her come to Orlando, but I'm not sure if the NWSL salary structure would permit the team to sign her, unless there are some of those odd rules that seem to permeate FIFA around a national federation somehow paying her salary with a wink and a nudge to the club team's league. Suffice it to say I'll believe she's coming when Tom Sermanni holds a press conference to announce it. Until then, I'll enjoy reading the rumors along with everyone else.

OCB

Midfielder Ryley Kraft Joins OCB. Fresh off his first call up to the US U-19 National Team camp, midfielder Ryley Kraft joins OCB for the 2017 season. Kraft is 18 and comes to OCB from the Sacramento Republic FC Pro Academy, where he had 12 goals, 33 starts, and made 46 match appearances over the last two seasons. 

Club Transactions

Orlando City Loans Devron Garcia. Garcia, who played in 17 matches with OCB last season, has been loaned out to Honduran side Real C.D. Espana, which opens an international spot for this season. 

Redding Returns from CONCACAF U-20 Championship. Tommy Redding played was with the victorious US U-20 team that won the U-20 CONCACAF Championship in Costa Rica. Redding was one of the best defenders on the MLS roster for Orlando City last season as a 19 year-old player. In many of his 18 appearances, he was assigned to defend the fastest and most potent scoring threat of the opposing team, and almost always left them frustrated and able to get very few clean touches on the ball. Now that he has been a leader with the U-20 national team and has won a CONCACAF trophy and helped that squad qualify for the U-20 World Cup, he brings back even more confidence. It's clear that the quality of the defense is improved from the way they played last week, and Redding's return will bolster that even further, as he and his fellow defenders push each other to perform better and help Joe Bendik register more clean sheets.

What did you take as the biggest news story during the last week? Which players for OCSC, OCB, and the Pride are you looking forward to seeing the most this season? Let me know 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. 

 

New Year, New Faces

There have been many roster changes since the 2016 season ended across all the teams in the Orlando City family. There have been some surprising departures and some exciting new signings for all three teams. This weekend we will look at some of the departures and new faces we will see on the pitch in 2017.

OCB

Orlando City B has had the most dramatic turnover in terms of sheer numbers. Shortly after the season ended, the team announced it would not be renewing the contracts for the following players:

  • Defenders: Kyle McFadden, Craig Nitti, and Antonio Matarazzo.
  • Midfielders: Alejandro Garcia, Johnny Mendoza, Marius Obekop, and Andrew Ribeiro.
  • Forwards: William Eyang and Keegan Smith.
  • Goalkeeper: Mark Ridgers.

The drastic amount of turnover is a bit surprising given that OCB was the only team within the club to reach the playoffs within its league. More recently, the club announced a number of new player signings.

Scott Thomsen - Defender Thomsen signed with OCB after scoring one goal and one assist in nine appearances with the Richmond Kickers in 2016, his first professional season. Prior to his turning pro, Thomsen played four years at the University of Virginia, with whom he won an NCAA Championship in 2014.


Fernando Timbo - Defender Fernando Timbo was signed by OCB from the Ottawa Fury of the NASL. The 26 year-old Timbo has been a professional player for a decade, initially turning pro with his hometown club of Curitiba FC in Brazil, and later playing several seasons with the Austin Aztex before moving on to Ottawa.


Zach Carroll - Carroll, another defender, comes to OCB after appearing in 28 matches with the New York Red Bulls II in his rookie season, after a collegiate career at both the University of Virginia and at Michigan State University.


Paul Clowes - Midfielder Paul Clowes signed with OCB after a college career at Clemson University and spending most of the 2016 season with the Charlotte Independence. Clowes is originally from England, and he has previously played with the U-23 team for Orlando City Academy.  His honors in college include being named Midfielder of the Year for the ACC Conference.


Austin Martz - Martz is a Midfielder who was signed by OCB from the Wilmington Hammerheads, where he appeared in 26 matches, scoring four goals and registering two assists in 2016. He has been a pro for two years. Prior to playing in Wilmington, he played in the Maltese Premier League for Pembroke Atheltica FC, and played his college soccer at Georgetown. 


Jordan Schweitzer - Midfielder Jordan Schweitzer was signed from Seattle Sounders FC 2, where he played his rookie season as a pro in 2016, appearing in 22 matches and scoring four goals. He played his college soccer at the University of Denver, and was named to the All-Summit League First Team three times.


Ben Polk - Forward Ben Polk was signed by OCB from the Portland Timbers 2, whose senior team selected him 20th overall in the 2016 MLS Super Draft. Prior to turning pro, Polk may be the most widely traveled of the new faces on the club. He was born in Arizona, raised in the UK, and played for three different colleges in New York before turning pro. In his senior season in 2015 with the Syracuse Orange, Polk scored twelve goals and contributed five assists.


Joe Gallardo - Joe made the short walk from the Academy training pitch to the OCB practice pitch, being signed earlier this week from the youth ranks. Gallardo scored three goals in seven appearances in 2016 with the U-17/18 team, helping Orlando City's Pro Academy side reach the top ranking in the nation. Gallardo has played internationally with Mexican academy team Monterey. He has also been in the Youth National Team for the United States, appearing on the U-15, U-17, and U-19 sides.


Orlando Pride

The Pride have also had a number of changes, some of them influenced by changes outside the NWSL. The biggest names impacted are Josee Belanger and Kaylyn Kyle, who were both left off the Subsidized list by the Canadian Soccer Federation for 2017. Due to the way league rules work, Belanger and Kyle were able to play for the Pride as Subsidized players and did not count against the team's roster in the same way as they otherwise would. Without those subsidies, they would count as International players due to their Canadian citizenship, and their full salaries would count against the club's NWSL salary cap. Since the Pride have already filled their allotted five International spots, they could not retain the rights to these players. 

The oddball and screwy rules about the way roster spots count or don't count against a team when considering things like subsidized status, homegrown status, and generation Adidas are one of the things I think FIFA should streamline worldwide. If a player is on your club they should be counted on your club and that should be that and who gives a rat's hind quarters about all the other phony-baloney nonsense. But I guess that's what keeps all the otherwise irrelevant lawyers employed. OK... enough of me on my soapbox. Let's take a look at some of the new faces that will be gracing the pitch for the Orlando Pride in 2017.

Ali Krieger - Krieger is a defender with the USWNT and has played the last four years with the Washington Spirit. Krieger brings a strong defensive presence to the club, which is an area where the Pride struggled for consistency in 2016 due to all the international callups. On the plus side, her experience with the USWNT will be valuable for the younger members of the team, but the downside is that when there are callups there is yet another member of the team who may have to miss some actions.


Camila - Brazilian Camila Martins Pereira joins the Orlando Pride after a year away from NWSL play. In 2015 she played with the Houston Dash, and she spent 2016 with Brazilian side Tiradentes. She is listed as a defender, but has the experience and mobility to also play at wing, giving her some versatility to be able to slot in where she is best needed in a lineup or during the flow of play. 


Danica Evans - Evans is a forward that was drafted from the University of Colorado in the 2017 NWSL Draft. Evans brings a collegiate resume of 28 goals and 19 assists to help spark the offense of the Pride. With Alex Morgan set to miss the first few months of the season playing in the French league, it will be helpful for the Pride to have more strikers on the pitch early in the season. If nothing else, more scoring threats will create greater opportunities for proven scorers from 2016 like Jasmyne Spencer and Kristen Edmonds.


Nickolette Driesse - Driesse is another draft pick for the Pride, a midfielder who played in college at both Florida State and Penn State, and she has the distinction of having won national titles with both universities. She accumulated 20 assists and six goals in her collegiate career, and the Pride coaching staff identified her passing game as a key asset they hope can translate to the NWSL. Creating opportunities for more scoring will be important to helping the Pride improve upon their 2016 record.


Rachel Hill - Rachel Hill was acquired from the Portland Thorns, who selected her from UConn in the 2017 NWSL Draft. Hill was a forward at UConn, where she scored 61 goals and had 18 assists in four years. She was also a two-time finalist for the MAC Herman Trophy. Hill represents another scoring threat for the Pride in the 2017 season. While adding more players with USWNT experience, I am glad to see more young players on the roster who can fill in if those players get called away for international camps.


Alanna Kennedy - Australian national team defender Alanna Kennedy comes to the Orlando Pride from the Carolina Courage (formerly the Western  New York Flash) in a trade for Sam Wittenman. In addition to winning an NWSL championship with Western New York, Kennedy was on the Austrailian roster for the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she appeared with fellow Pride members Laura Alleway and Steph Catley.


Chioma Ubogagu - Ubogagu comes to the Pride from the Houston Dash as another forward. In addition to playing in the NWSL, she has played in her native England with the Arsenal Ladies. She played with the Gunners in 2015, appearing in 21 matches and scoring seven goals. Ubogagu is another well-traveled member of the roster: though she was born in London, she holds American citizenship (her family is from Texas), and she has represented the USA at the U18, U20, and U23 levels in International play. 


Orlando City SC

The MLS side has also seen its share of new faces and surprising departures. The first news came to us during the MLS playoffs when we learned that contract options would not be exercised on six players, several of which have since been confirmed as not returning to the team: 

  • Defenders - Luke Boden, Tyler Turner
  • Midfielder - Pedro Ribeiro
  • Forward - Julio Baptista

But those were not the only departures from the club. In December it was announced that midfielder defender Mikey Ambrose had been taken by Atlanta United FC in the MLS Expansion draft, and Harrison Heath had been traded to Atlanta United FC for a 2019 draft pick. Then in January, Minnesota United FC bought the rights to original Lion Kevin Molino in one of the largest transfers in MLS history. That's not a complete surprise since former Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath is at the helm in Minnesota now, and the move re-unites Molino and his old coach.

While losing Kevin Molino is something I was personally sad to see because of the production and experience he added in 2016, there are plenty of new faces for Orlando City fans to learn about and follow in the coming year.

Danny Deakin - Deakin is an attacking midfielder whom the team selected in the third round in the 2017 MLS Super Draft. Deakin grew up in Sheffield, England, and played collegiately for two years with NCAA Division II team Mercyhurst. For his final two years in college he played with the University of South Carolina, and then played professionally in 2016 for the NPSL side Detroit City FC, where he appeared in nine matches, starting in seven, and had one goal and two assists.


Victor "PC" Giro - Brazilian left back Giro signed with Orlando City from the NASL/USL side Tampa Bay Rowdies, who traded him for experienced Orlando City player Luke Boden. While I've appreciated Boden's accuracy on the ball, especially on set pieces, I've been a bit frustrated with the fact that most MLS strikers are too speedy for him to cover. Hopefully Giro will provide some additional speed on the defensive side of the ball, but we will have to see if he can match Boden's accuracy in distributing the ball to teammates.


Will Johnson - Johnson is a ten-year MLS veteran who has won MLS Cups with Jason Kreis in Real Salt Lake and with the Portland Timbers in 2015. Most recently, Johnson played the 2016 season with Toronto FC. He signs with Orlando City as a forward/midfielder, and figures to bolster the club's attacking presence on the pitch. Scoring more goals will be vital to Orlando City, as they have finished just a point out of the playoff race in their first two MLS seasons, so improving goal differential and scoring more points will help get them "over the hump."


Josh Saunders - Goalkeeper Josh Saunders signed with Orlando City SC from New York City FC, where he played in 2015 under head coach Jason Kreis. Saunders brings a fourth keeper to the MLS first team roster for Orlando City, alongside Joe Bendik, Earl Edwards, Jr. and Mason Stajduhar. Given Saunders' MLS experience, it's possible to see that he and Bendik will be the two keepers that make the day-to-day 18-man roster for the first team, while Edwards and Stajduhar primarily take duty with the USL side, OCB. Of course that's just mere speculation, and the team may have other plans in mind. 


Jonathan Spector - A defender with the USMNT, Spector signs with Orlando City after having played in the English Premier League and the English Football League Championship, where he registered 101 and 153 appearances respectively. Most recently Spector played with EFLC side Birmingham City, and he has also played for EPL sides Manchester United, Charlton Athletic, and West Ham United.


Donny Toia - Donny Toia joins Orlando City after being taken first in the MLS Super Draft by Atlanta United FC. Toia is a fullback who played with the Montreal Impact in 2015 and 2016. Over the last two years, he made 48 appearances with the Impact (44 starts) and had one goal and two assists. At 25, Toia brings a combination of youth and MLS experience that should help Orlando City shore up its defensive line, which was a point of weakness in 2016 and led to Joe Bendik having to make one of the highest save totals in MLS due to the sheer number of shots that the team allowed on his goal.


While this brings you up to speed on the new faces as we know them today, there is no certainty that the rosters of the constituent clubs will not change in the weeks leading up to the start of the season or after the season begins. 

Who are the new players that you are most excited to see joining the teams in Orlando City? And which players were you the saddest to see leave the club during these off-season transactions and roster cuts? 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!

OCB vs. Charlotte: Previews and Predictions

Only one of the Orlando City teams is in action at home this weekend, and that is OCB, who take on the Charlotte Independence tonight at Titan Soccer Complex in Melbourne. This will be the second meeting between the two clubs on the season. Back on May 28, OCB defeated Charlotte 2 - 1 at home.

Players to Watch

Charlotte has a number of active and dangerous players. Three players come into the match tied on four goals: Jorge Herrera, Enzo Martinez, and Caleb Calvert all have four goals on the season. While Martinez and Calvert each have at least 28 shots on the season, Herrera has been much more efficient, having only 15 shots all season, and playing far fewer minutes than the other top scorers. Prime goalkeeper Cody Mizell for the Independence has 32 saves on the season and is giving up an average of one goal per match (9 goals in 9 games played).

For the home side, Michael Cox leads the team with 5 goals from 19 shots, while 2016 MLS draft pick and former UCF star Hadji Barry has 4 goals from 16 shots. Perhaps the most efficient scorer on the team is Tyler Turner, who played with the first team in MLS last season. He currently has 3 goals on the season from only 5 shots--with accuracy like that, we should start calling him "Deadeye Ty!" Primary goalkeeper Mark Ridgers has made 49 saves on the season, and he is surrendering about  1.5 goals per match (18 goals in 12 games played).

Predictions

OCB are on pretty good form coming into the match, having a record of 3 - 1 - 1 in their last five games. They were quite sluggish to start the season, but have been winning more consistently of late, and this is seeing them climb the table, where they now sit 7th in the East on 21 points.

Charlotte has a 2 - 2 - 1 record in their last five matches, and they sit 5th in the East on 24 points. At one point early in the season, Charlotte had four wins in a row, but they have faltered a bit since, though they enter the game on a 2-game winning streak.

As for predictions, I think that since OCB are starting to find midseason form they will continue their success and will emerge from tonight's match with a 2 - 0 victory, giving Mark Ridgers his second clean sheet of the season.

What about you? What do you expect from the OCB lads tonight? Let me know in the comments below!