2023 marks my 19th consecutive year as a certified US Soccer Federation (USSF) referee. It has been a progressive journey; I have had the pleasure of officiating anywhere from U4-U19 recreational games, competitive 3 vs 3’s, competitive club leagues/tournaments, public high school, Development Academy, to men’s college matches. Note: I have never officiated a futsal match.
As I wind down on my involvement on what appears to be my last year, I can say that most of my officiating years have served the following purposes: 1. Develop a greater respect, appreciation and empathy for refereeing profession 2. Understand yet another facet of the beautiful game. 3. Share acquired knowledge (through organic playing, refereeing, coaching and parenting education) via mentorship of young referees (ages 13-17), players (fans and coaches included) and last but not least 4. Fitness/exercising.
I officially started refereeing during my college years; I only refereed one indoor season as it was very seasonal and realistically, engineering consumed most of my college time. After graduation, I took a 6 year break before I rejoined the ranks and became one of the 100K+ registered soccer referees. However, I quickly understood that moving up the referee pathway (below) was going to take time which I didn’t have much of due to my other academic and corporate endeavors. Unfortunately for the sport in this country, soccer officiating is a profession that very few pursue as a career for many reasons; some of which we will try to root-cause below.
It is important to understand that the best part of officiating is flexibility. Soccer referees are independent contractors; as such, the duration of their work is short, and they normally have the freedom to officiate at times, places and fees of their own choosing. That said, most young referees pursue soccer officiating to generate a stream of income with flexible hours starting as early as 13 years of age. Another advantage is that referees can earn up to $600 (tax-free) in a calendar year without having to report it to the IRS. The below recreational (rec.) referee pay scale (albeit from 2020) can be very attractive to a young referee.
Let’s be honest, pay scales like the one above won’t be sending any adult referees into immediate retirement either. Caveat: Recreational refereeing pay scale is at the bottom of any pay scale. As such, adult soccer referees normally do not enter the profession hoping it become the single source of income. Even for college level soccer referees, the hourly wage (once travel is factored in) is nothing to write home about. In the majority of the cases, adult referees enter the profession by being forced to be around the sport in some capacity: coaching youth, volunteering, having a child playing in the local rec. soccer association or just wanting the best seat in the house while earning some (albeit little) cash. Some use it as a hobby and in some rare cases like mine, we end up pursuing it as a permanent way to give back to the beautiful game. There is however, an in-between temporary category of soccer officials where “hobby meets income source” and that normally belongs to referees whose English is a second language. They tend to pursue the profession wholeheartedly at the beginning of their arrival to the United States but that dedication only lasts until some higher income source comes along.
A few years back, there was a small perk for referees; at the conclusion of the assigned games, a cash payment was rendered at the fields. There’s just something satisfactory about being paid immediately after a service is rendered. However, times have changed with technology. Most soccer associations have now adopted an automated payment system where referees no longer get paid cash at the fields. Instead, they have to wait up to three days to be electronically compensated for their services. Unfortunately, there are adult referees whose personal finances depend heavily on the revenue they generate refereeing over the weekend and having to wait to be paid is just another entry barrier to the profession or its progression. One time, at my local association, it took about 6 weeks for three games refereed to be deposited into my bank account due to a “glitch” in the system.
Those situations described above lead us to conclude that the best hope to have future competent referees resides in the youngsters (ages 22 – 30) whose college soccer playing days are over, still have a desire to be involved in the game, progress through the referee ranks, are financially stable and despite the constant criticism, choose pursue the career.
Unfortunately, the brave and ambitious young referees who consider advancing in the profession face the constant criticism from the experts (ex. coaches and fans) which ultimately proves too much to endure at such low wages. The below statement comes from the yearly Grassroots training that all referees must undergo during recertification.
Officiating public high school soccer is more attractive financially due higher wages and a travel per diem. In theory, fans are more knowledgeable about the game since they have been around it longer but the sad reality is that high school soccer is the twitter of soccer; anonymous spectators hiding behind crowds (screen) easily become coaches and experts of the game. The constant disrespect towards the refereeing crew is even normalized by other adults at the stadiums as “teenage behavior”. Spectators from all walks of life become loud critics of the officiating crew showing constant dissent. It’s common to listen to criticism from students, family members, etc. whose background may not even include ever setting foot on a soccer field (other than to kick a field goal). Statistically, constant criticism is the main contributor for younger (more experienced) referees to trump their progression in their careers.
To play devil’s advocate, not all the blame can be placed on “know-it-all” spectators though. Many soccer referees may not possess the adequate soccer background/instinct to maintain the flow of the game or even establish credibility in a game. When it comes down to it, it’s a chicken and egg dilemma. How can more potential referees be recruited if the few brave ones face the constant criticism of the experts? Therefore, anybody (and I mean anybody) willing to undergo a few hours of training is often recruited (family members/friends) by assignors (ex. KSA) and thrown to the fire without the proper preparation. Unfortunately, the lack of playing/watching experience for a referee is immediately evident and the fans pick up on it and magnify its impact on the game. This aspect is exacerbated at the professional level as ex-professional referees are normally hired by tv networks to critique their former colleagues’ performances.
The low retention rate of referees unfortunately leads to the desperate recruiting of unqualified individuals. Most referees I officiate with did not grow up playing, coaching or even watching the beautiful game. In fact, here in Texas where American football “is life”, on a typical Saturday fall morning at the referee tent, most referees often converse about American college football games in between soccer games while a simultaneous football derbies (ex. Real Madrid vs Barcelona, Inter vs AC Milan, Man City vs ManU) are being played. Soccer has a long way to go to be mainstream in the American culture to reach the popularity levels of other American sports. As a result, most soccer referees are more knowledgeable about other sports but become soccer referees for a spectrum of reasons but none really for career advancement or even the love for the game.
The flip side sometimes is that not having played or watched the game growing up, could be an advantage as these inexperienced referees only view the game in a binary way. They then become more purists applying the laws of the game per the textbook. In my opinion, referees who played the game have a more intuitive feeling and appreciation for the game and as a result, allow a greater fluidity of the game. Unfortunately, most referees who did not grow up playing or watching the game do not pursue the profession at a higher level as they do not feel properly equipped (protected) with the tools to succeed.
Another reason that deters individuals from pursuing officiating as a career is the growing recertification requirements. Associations do not make it simpler to desire any serious involvement in it. Furthermore, it’s a profession pretty much monopolized by the referee assignors. In my local soccer association (Keller Soccer Association), if you are good friends with the assignor, he will assign you competitive games; otherwise, referees may be doomed. I get it, assignors need reliable referees and in some cases need to prioritize repaying favors to referees who were promised games during recruitment.
US Soccer requires each referee to undergo an annual recertification process. The online education consists of seven modules with an approximate total duration of about 5 hours if taken back to back. However, realistically speaking, nobody takes all this training in one sit-down, therefore, for a working adult, the training could easily take 3-4 days.
- Intro to Safety
- Laws of the Game Changes Review
- Reference Cards
- Grassroots Referee Refresher Assignment
- Online Test
Appropriate training needs to be taken (and test passed) corresponding to the current referee level desired at the end of the calendar year. The most basic recertification level is called the “Grassroots Referee License Fee”.
There is an initial equipment cost to become a referee. Between uniforms, a reliable watch, whistle, flags, etc. a beginner young referee could easily spend $200 to get started. This startup cost is very steep for a young teenager who is trying to make some quick cash. If in addition to that, the youngster has to put up with constant criticism from the experts, it can easily be justified why so many quit within the first two years.
There’s a cost associated with the recertification of each officiating grade in the previous section (and a late fee if registered after mid December). The lowest recertification cost is for the Grassroots Level. That annual cost is about $60
Official Sports International (OSI) has a USSF approved monopoly on referee gear. US Soccer has allowed this throughout several decades. As a result, OSI has a huge market share of the referee equipment market domestically. Their merchandise is constantly being pushed/advertised by USSF. The gear is not inexpensive. For example, a short sleeve yellow pro referee shirt is about $50 (the economy version is about $30). You then add socks, shorts, tennis shoes, whistle, flags, cards, etc. and the startup costs for a young referee can easily add up to $200 – $300 in between different color referee shirts (short sleeve vs long sleeve). All that is “conveniently” provided by OSI.
In the North Texas Association, anybody 18 years of age or older is subjected to a mandatory annual background check. Successfully completion is a requirement for eligibility to either recertify or become a referee for the first time.
The background check does not take any training time; instead, it requires the submission of some personal information so that the State Soccer Association uses that information to process the background check. If the background check is passed; the training required for recertification can begin.
Safety Certification Courses
Introduction to Safe and Healthy Playing Environments
US Soccer requires a yearly certification of the “Introduction to Safe and Healthy Playing Environments” online module with an approximate duration of 45 minutes. The training is available for coaches, referees, and staff over the age of 18 to ensure adults give some consideration to having an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). The EAP would be triggered in the unfortunate event of a medical emergency. Specific scenarios like concussions, cardiac arrests, heat strokes, and more are covered. Similarly, action items such as CPR, AED, calling 911 are described in detail.
Although the training is a great tool to have (not only for football related emergencies), it does place a good deal of responsibility on adults who may be in an emergency situation. That said, the yearly requirement, which doesn’t change from year to year, is a deterrent for some referees (especially the young ones) to recertify.
In addition to the “Introduction to Safe and Healthy Playing Environments” training above, US Soccer also requires individuals 18 years of age and older to be “Safesport Trained”. The course contains information about fostering a safe and positive environment for athletes while preventing the different types of abuses/misconducts.
For the very few interested in advancing their officiating careers through the different refereeing grades, annual fitness tests must be paid for and passed in order to prove physical fitness proficiency. There’s an additional cost to undergo that physical assessment during the annual certification periods. Aspiring referees must undergo the fitness assessment on a Saturday morning and preparation is key. Otherwise, it could turn out to be a harsh reality check for those older/heavier set referees. Let’s be honest, it’s no ninja warrior type of course but it’s no cake walk either. Fitness proficiency helps referees’ credibility as they are trying to keep up with 18/19 year old players. Few individuals want to stay fit to advance their officiating careers though.
For those interested in advancing in their careers, there are annual referee assessments (at a cost of course) to make it to the next level. These are yearly assessments that referees must undergo in order to re-certify at their current (or higher) level. Honestly, it really helps to “know” the assessor as some referees, given their mobility on the field, knowledge of the game, etc. have no business passing their corresponding assessments.
Different laws of the game
One of the main complains that you will hear from soccer referees is that IFAB annually approves revisions to the laws of the game (ex. definition of a handball). FIFA then, in an effort to make the game more attractive and easier to understand, approve those changes. As the revisions are cascaded down to each countries’ football associations, they complicate the learning of the laws of the game which few referees care to keep up with. As a result, constant education is key to the success of the soccer referee but many fail due to the inconsistent application of the law changes from their peers. To exacerbate the inconsistent application of the laws of the game, the laws of the game also change based on age group, and competition type. Law changes are the only constant in refereeing.
The entry level for young soccer referees is recreational youth soccer. Starting with the little ones (U4, U5), it’s by far the easiest level to officiate where innocent referee mistakes can be made and they won’t impact the outcome of a match. Unfortunately, more often than not, you find the parent (not coach) who wants fouls be called because their son was tripped “on purpose” by a 4-year old when their team was already winning by 10 goals.
As older age group games are officiated, the main challenges in recreational soccer become learning the different rules (ex. no heading of the ball) AND trying to position yourself correctly on the field. A wide spectrum of playing experience often cause random and unexpected ball touches/bounces which are just unpredictable for the unprepared referee when seeking best positioning. It takes a lot of experience and focus to position (not so much to officiate) these types of games as the player and ball movement is not logical. I have always found that more competitive games are easier and more fun to referee; however, with greater fun comes more responsibility and required knowledge and certifications.
High school certification has its own annual costs, assessments, and of course rules (outside of USSF) which in Texas are dictated by the University Interscholastic League (UIL). The rules are very similar to college level NCAA rules. Everything that you can imagine that shouldn’t be changed with regular FIFA football laws of the game is changed in high school soccer. For example, officiating with one, two or the regular three referees is allowed, stopping the clock is permitted and frequently used by the referees, different card colors are allowed, in case of a tie at the end of regulation, overtime is an option, etc. Those are only a small sample of rules that are different that most referees must stay current on to establish credibility.
The annual revisions in high school soccer rules (and FIFA too) justify the recertification process but it’s a deterrent. Simultaneously refereeing club soccer and high school soccer can be confusing for referees as their seasons overlap. This potential confusion could make a referee look like a novice if rules switching is not applied properly. The annual revision of rules (the system itself) makes it very challenging for referees to learn all the different sets of rules of each competition level.
Similar to high school, college NCAA soccer rules are very different than regular FIFA soccer’s. At least the referee remuneration for officiating any level of college soccer is generous but nothing to write home about. However, that doesn’t justify the different rules. I wrote the above post about that topic a few months ago so I will not rehash that discussion.
Officiating club is a level above recreational. The laws of the game are similar; however, the environment is more competitive and the fans are more involved. The american “pay to play” model puts additional pressure on parents and players to win at all costs so typically, club players, even at young ages, push the envelope on the application on the laws of the game. Despite that challenge, competitive club is my favorite level to officiate.
Let’s be honest, soccer is not the most prestigious sport in the United States; that combined with being a profession that is constantly scrutinized by the “experts” due to its constant decision making (no time outs) do not make it very appealing for pursuit. As a result, the United States has very few competent referees that represent the country at the highest level. Hats off to the trailblazers who paved the way for others to follow despite the many challenges cited above.
As somber as the preceding paragraphs may have sounded, the future of US soccer is bright. As the women’s game becomes more popular in the United States and the world, the need for women referees will organically grow in parallel. Qatar marked the first time a men’s finals world cup game was refereed by 38-year old, French native, Stephanie Frappart. The December 1st, 2022 Costa Rica vs Germany match also marked the first time an all-women crew refereed a men’s world cup game. Stephanie, had already engraved her name in the soccer history books by being the first female to have refereed a male’s UEFA Champions League and Ligue 1 games respectively.
US Soccer is gradually growing and has established a well-structured referee program with mentorship programs, quarterly newsletters, continuous education, and other tools to better equip aspiring referees. I am confident that with the right support, the US will see a greater amount and more competent referees not only at the MLS level but also at the world stage level. Will this effort keep up with the rest of the world? We shall see…
The sport has given our family so much that it would be unfair to not give back in some capacity. In full disclosure, I have selfishly used refereeing as a tool to grow my leadership skills in my other life endeavors. It does require a lot of patience, and more importantly thick skin thereby building character. Unfortunately, the perks are quickly offset by its challenges making it a tough profession to progress in for a great majority.
Personally, I have found these 19 years so fulfilling as they have provided me a different understanding of the game. As a result, both Johan and Jonathan pursued refereeing for many years which proved to be not only a great way to make decent money but doing so in a field they were passionate about. Unfortunately, at some point it became difficult to refereeing along with their academic and dynamic soccer schedules.
In my current home association, we have an excellent core of experienced referees who have established a young referee mentorship program. Maybe my next phase is to become a full-time mentor. Unfortunately, the current shortage of referees, is forcing recently-recruited referees to behave and officiate like experienced professionals soon after recruitment. The higher expectations played on young referees is yet another reason, that soccer associations have such high referee turnover. Just like the sport itself, refereeing requires a lot of repetitions to become competent. High expectations from the fans linked to high expectations from the Director forced upon on newly recruited referees/assignors are common deterrents. Therefore, most teenage referees normally find alternative sources of income through high school and young adults are very unlikely to start their refereeing careers especially after they have finished a college degree and are entering the “corporate world”.
As I wrap up this post, our high school aged daughter is expressing a strong interest in becoming a recreational soccer referee. Who knows? I may stick around for at least one more year (20?) to help her decide whether refereeing is for her or not. BTW, if you know anybody interested in refereeing, visit this page. Until next time…#theGomezway
In memory of Terry Vaughn…