Serious foul play by MLS

The MLS via its mostly owned subsidiary Pro Referee Organization (PRO) locked out the regular MLS referee pool today.  The Washington Post has a bit more:

Major League Soccer will utilize replacement referees after the officiating union and management failed to settle a labor dispute on the eve of the season openers….

The head referees this weekend include Alan Kelly, a FIFA referee originally from Ireland; Ioannis Stavridis (Greece); former MLS officials Abbey Okulaja and Ramon Hernandez; a second-division NASL ref; a former MLS fourth official; and two refs from Puerto Rico….

The biggest area of contention was pay for the assistant referees (the two guys on the side with flags) and fourth officials (the guy with the substitution board. )  The referee union wanted a pay scale where if a non-whistle referee works a full MLS season (approximately twenty assignments) plus training camp, they would get paid a season fee sufficient to keep from qualifying for Medicaid. Currently, the whistle referees (the centers) are full time employees and get paid decent wages. The goal is to get decent wages for all game-day officials.
Right now a US assistant referee who is World Cup eligible will make approximately $15,000 from MLS for the regular season and then a bit more during play-offs.  Assistant referees who are still very good but not FIFA level won’t get a full schedule and they get paid a lower per game rate as well.  4th officials get even less than junior assistant referees.

MLS has recruited international referees, former MLS refs who are former MLS refs for a good reason, and lower division referees who weren’t being fast tracked to the MLS as the whistle scabs.  The same applies to the non-whistle scab pool.  I am at a major tournament this weekend where a good number of people who are good enough to get into the scab pool (non-platinum program 5 NCs, National-4s who topped out, National Emertii etc) will be working.  I think I know what we’ll be talking about at the bar tonight.

I just want those potential scabs to think about the non-professional level of economic organization for refereeing in the United States before they make a major decision.  But first, I’ll tell them about the NFL referee lock-out and the after-effects on people’s careers.

The NFL referees stayed strong and were significantly supported by their most likely scab pool (major conference Division 1 college football referees).  Most of the NFL scab referees were refs who had topped out at the bottom of Division 1 or more often Division 2 and Division 3 football.  Some of the high level solidarity was because the high level D-1 NCAA refs know that they have a good thing going for themselves, and giving back an Alabama v. Auburn game for a Tampa Bay v. Atlanta game won’t make them that much more money while pissing off their college assignor who has been sending good games to an official for a very long time and would continue to send good games their way.

More importantly, the NFL referees are part timers.  Most of the NFL referees are involved in other aspects of the sport.  They are the college conference assignors, evaluators, trainers and mentors.  They are the high school referee administrators and assignors.  The NFL refs controlled a significant number of choke points of advancement.  There are scab referees who worked NFL games last year that can’t get a high school game anymore.

Soccer is organized the same way.  Most of the MLS referees are involved in other aspects of refereeing.  I’ve worked with MLS referees on local  amateur games.  I’ve been assessed and mentored by MLS officials.  Former MLS officials control many college schedules.  MLS referees and former MLS referees play a significant role in the selection process of the next generation.

99.94% of the referees in this country are solely independent contractors.  That means we have no right to a game.  We can ask assignors for a game (or get a call at 11:42 on a Friday night from a desperate assignor who needs to get an 8:00AM game covered on Saturday — and yes, he owes me several), but assignors have no obligation to give any particular referee a schedule.

What I think will happen is significant solidarity among the top tier of the potential scab pool.  The MLS can dangle an early whistle to a candidate who probably would be on an MLS game in three or four years anyways, but if they take that whistle, they’ll lose all mentoring, all informal knowledge building sessions over beer and burgers, and their assistant referees may just hang the center out to dry.  The same logic applies to the top tier assistant referees who are in the pipeline for the MLS.  I know several of the top tier potential scabs personally (and have worked with them for a decade,) and they are all sitting this one out.  They value the chance of a real shot with a good crew more than a cheap shot.  They also value their continued access to major conference Division 1 NCAA games.

This will reduce the referee scab pool for the MLS to internationals, retirees and people who fucked up at the minor league levels below the MLS thus destroying their normal professional hopes.  They’ll fuck up several games fairly quickly.


NB: I’m not at the level where this decision would ever be something that I would have to face (I’m too slow).



36 replies
  1. 1
    West of the Cascades says:

    This is horrible on so many levels, not least that the level of officiating in MLS was not improving as quickly as the standard of play, and the level of replacements Richard describes will be execrable. Can’t wait for the Timbers’ home opener tomorrow, but this definitely puts a damper on it.

  2. 2
    japa21 says:

    And we all remember the quality of the substitute NFL refs.

  3. 3
    Yatsuno says:

    Nice branching out Richard. I like the subject matter.

    Refereeing has been fucked up all three ways from Sunday for a long ass time. An old friend does it for Little Leagues and he complains constantly about the assignment system. I’m glad the MLS folks are hanging tough like this. It only took a few shittily called games for the NFL to fold.

  4. 4
    Mnemosyne says:

    I’m very confused as to what the point of contention is:

    The referee union wanted a pay scale where if a non-whistle referee works a full MLS season (approximately twenty assignments) plus training camp, they would not qualify for the Medicaid expansion as a single adult if they did nothing else.

    So, the whistle referees want to block the non-whistle referees from getting health benefits? And this is a good thing?

  5. 5
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Yatsuno: The assignment system is jacked up.

    I’m in a sweet spot where my primary assignors know what I am ( a damn good workhorse) and what I’m not (a thoroughbred who wants to do NCAA D-1 Finals or the MLS). They know that I solve their problems and that I don’t create problems for them as I can handle basically every USSF game within 100 miles of my house with three exceptions ( a minor league pro team with several MLS prospects and MLS retirees on it, and a pair of semi-pro teams) without multiple red cards, without calling the police and without the captains calling the assignor to bitch about my calls or non-calls. So I get work and I get a lot of it. Most weekends I have to turn down more offers than I accept.

    But for the younger refs who are looking to move up, or the teams that are decent but not really good nor problematic, the system tends to fail. The assignor is mainly looking to get warm bodies with a pulse on those games, and it is frequently a case of playing the good old boys network for easy cash games instead of young but potentially good refs who need some older mentors working those games.

    I’m not sure how to fix that level of problem as long as the system relies on volunteers, part timers and 2nd jobbers.

  6. 6
    japa21 says:

    @Mnemosyne: No, they want them paid enough so they would be above the demarcation line.

  7. 7
    Calouste says:


    No, they want them to earn more than the maximum level to qualify for Medicaid, at least that’s how I read it.

    I wonder if FIFA is going to have anything to say about this. They shouldn’t be happy about US FIFA referees not getting any match practice, but they are more concerned that someone doesn’t smuggle in a bottle of Pepsi to a World Cup match.

  8. 8
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Mnemosyne: No, the whistle refs are getting paid decent money (they’re full time employees of US PRO), but the non-whistle refs (the ARs and 4th Officials) are contract employees who get low per game rates and few games. The whistle refs want to either increase the per-game rate, or increase the number of officials who are full time employees who get professional level wages.

    I was using Medicaid Expansion limits as a backhand reference to the total sum the best non-whistle referees can currently earn. The top ARs might get $15,000 from the League a year. The goal is to get that to perhaps first full time job with benefits out of college level.

  9. 9
    Yatsuno says:

    @Richard Mayhew: Hey as long as your 1099-MISC make it on your return I’m happy. My friend did get asked to do a couple local college games so his name is out there but he still gets shit assignments also. It’s whackadinghoy I tells ya.

  10. 10
    Old Dan and Little Ann says:

    I watch the World Cup every 4 years to remind me why I ignore soccer.

  11. 11
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Richard Mayhew:

    Ah, okay. It was a confusing way to put it, because it made it sound like the more senior refs were trying to prevent the non-whistle refs from getting something.

  12. 12
    BGinCHI says:

    Is Grover Norquist running the MLS now?

    No regulation/refereeing!

  13. 13
    Freemark says:

    @Mnemosyne: That is the way it reads. I would edit that Richard, if you can.

  14. 14
    TimE says:

    @Old Dan and Little Ann: So you took the time to read an entire post about something you hate, then post a comment saying that you hate it. What a great use of your time. Thanks for contributing.


  15. 15
    jl says:

    Thought this was a health care post and was extremely confused for first few sentences.

    Thought it was about some insurance company no-goodery. Alarmed at my ignorance in not recognizing any of the damn acronyms.

    But, it was about real football. OK, then, carry on.

  16. 16
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Mnemosyne: Paragraph is clarified as to what the union goal is.

    and as a side note, it is not a matter of seniority vs. junior MLS refs. At the highest levels, there is a split in duties. Some refs will only work the middle/whistle, and others are permanent linesmen. It is two very different psychological profiles. Linesmen tend to be very black and white, snap decision makers with minimal context needed to pop a flag. The best centers are masters of the gray area, masters of waiting, waiting and waiting some more to see what the actual implication of a hard challenge could be. One of my favorite centers to work with is a full time prison psychiatrist in his real job, so he is basically running a therapy session on the field as he is talking to players and getting in and out of their heads. I’ve seen FIFA level linesmen working amateur and low level college games and blow chunks at it because their heads don’t work that way, but they can get the offside right in front of 80,000 people who may riot if you got it wrong.

    So on a professional game, you often will see a first or second year A-league center being supported by a pair of 10 year vets on the line. The AR on the bench side might be the “senior” referee on the crew, but he should not be in the middle unless you want a riot. Now if it is the game of the week, all three refs on the crew are long term vets, but the typical professional game will either have a young center, old AR, or vice versa.

  17. 17
    EdTheRed says:

    Abbey is baaaaaaaackkk!!!! Silver lining: I can now refer to him as “Scabbey” Okulaja.

  18. 18
    Thomas says:

    I thought referees were assigned by US Soccer – that’s how it’s supposed to work and how it does work (I think) in other countries. Unless things have changed.

  19. 19
    Mandalay says:

    Almost but not entirely OT, here is a video of rugby match filmed by a drone. The soundtrack is not my cup of tea, and the quality of this particular game is nothing great, but I still find the video itself pretty cool, and remarkable – you can watch the game from angles never ever seen before, by players, spectators or conventional cameras.

    I can imagine drones being used in soccer matches to rule on offside decisions eventually, but given the speed FIFA moves on anything hell may freeze over a few times first.

    ETA: at around 0:52 of the video you can see the tiny shadow of the drone on the pitch.

  20. 20
    Kylroy says:

    @jl: No, it was about association football. Which I suppose is no more imaginary than gridiron football.

  21. 21
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Thomas: MLS and top minor league games are assigned by US Professional Referee Organization; that is a private corporate entity that is mostly funded by the MLS and USSF (US Soccer) kicks in a bit. US PRO has the center referees on as full time employees, and then has a pool of MLS eligible assistant referees and 4th officials who are paid on a per-game basiss. US PRO also assigns minor league professional games.

    The MLS referee pool unionized last year, and recently voted 65-1 with 11 absentions to authorize a strike if there was no CBA.

    US Soccer assigns the top amateur leagues (Development Academy) as well as the Regional/National amateur championships; after that, assignment is done locally.

  22. 22
    Cassidy says:

    @jl: Do you mean real football or that wussy shit where you just kick the ball?

  23. 23
    Roger Moore says:


    So, the whistle referees want to block the non-whistle referees from getting health benefits?

    No. They want them to get paid better, but as an Obamacare blogger he expressed the pay level in terms of them earning more than the upper threshold for Medicaid expansion.

  24. 24
    jl says:


    For the record, the the ‘real football’ is clearly the wussy stuff where people just kick the ball.

    Healthcare finance is a melee, too small to be a war and too cruel to be a game (thanks to Cassidy’s link for that phrase)

  25. 25
    Cassidy says:

    @jl: Check it out in YouTube. It’s actually really cool. I came across it when watching rugby one day.

  26. 26
    StringOnAStick says:

    I read the post title and thought it was about the national Multiple Listing Service, and maybe some realtors were getting out of hand. Carry on then.

  27. 27
    Kylroy says:

    @jl: Actually, real football is the kind played by athletes on a field. I’m of the apparently unpopular opinion that it’s valid whether the ball is round or oblong.

  28. 28
    Violet says:

    This is very interesting, especially considering they’ve got a real world example in the NFL that’s only a few years old. It’s not like they have to reach back a decade or more and half of the referees will say, “Yeah, but it’s different now because…” They can see exactly what happened to the NFL refs and it applies pretty well to them.

    I think this post is more about unions and their power and less about sports.

  29. 29
    ThresherK says:

    One more vote for “that’s gonna make the MLS officiating better?”

    Timely stuff, as we’re heading into my greatest bugaboo, the level of adjudication in the NCAA Womens’ basketball tournament, which will have waaay too much bad reffing as it is.

  30. 30
    Kylroy says:

    @Violet: Well, sports referees are in a uniquely strong bargaining position. Their skills are pretty rare, their only qualified replacements almost universally already have jobs in the field, and the effects of scabs’ subpar efforts are both immediately apparent and infuriating to consumers. Oh, and the money they’re paid is pissing in the ocean compared to the cost of the venture as a whole .

  31. 31
    Turgid Jacobian says:

    This is terrible news. Dammit. I’ve really been hoping that the quality of officiation and coaching would get on the upslope.

  32. 32
    Samuel Knight says:

    Sad that the MLS thinks this is the time to roll out a shoddy refereeing. Soccer is already in a little crisis since 1 ref simply can’t see the whole game and linesmen just get the offside all wrong far too often. The game has really outstripped the refs and soccer moves realllllly slowly on dealing with stuff like this.

    But now you want to add scabs to make it worse?

    Also this is probably a big marketing boo, boo since soccer fans tend to be younger and more liberal. aka more likely to not side with mgmt.

  33. 33
    Big R says:

    @Samuel Knight: Unfortunately, the traditional liberal/conservative divide doesn’t necessarily hold true in labor relations anymore. A lot of otherwise liberal young people are scared to stand up for workers’ rights, either their own or others’.

  34. 34
    Roger Moore says:


    Well, sports referees are in a uniquely strong bargaining position.

    Management tries to dick around with them anyway, because that’s the kind of people they are.

  35. 35
    Kylroy says:

    @Roger Moore: Essentially. I have to imagine the reasons I listed are why, prior to the NFL referee showdown a few years ago, this particular labor dispute never came to a head. I mean, I might have a slight bit of sympathy for management if these guys were all demanding seven figure salaries (which, after the NFL debacle, the refs might have been able to get…), but spending an additional 0.001% of your revenue to ensure that fans aren’t baffled by your league’s incompetence seems a good idea.

  36. 36
    Tripod says:


    MLS is run by NFL owners who don’t believe the NFL is avaricious enough. They funnel almost all revenue into a third party company called Soccer United Marketing while running the league at break even. If it was just rights to MLS properties, that would be one thing, but they control a whole host of rights that include the US and Mexican national teams, Gold Cup, defacto control of European club friendlies and US rights to clubs like FC Barcelona and Chivas. The players union points this out, but MLS counters with: “nice little soccer league you’ve got there, anybody remember the NASL?”

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