I am a bad soccer player but a pretty good referee.
Last night, I was working a high school game with a former MLS official and an up and coming USSF-5 who has a plausible path to the MLS, on my lines. I set the tone early with a caution for a dive in the box at the sixty third second. The players just played for the rest of the match. After the game, the ref crew stopped for a burger and a beer.
We talked through the first caution (ballsy but right) and a second caution for a crap tackle as well as a few other situations. And then we talked about a major tournament two time zones away. Both of the other guys had been invited to officiate. The former MLS guy had been invited as a “senior mentor” while the young guy had been invited as part of the US Soccer Federation (USSF) identification/winnowing process. I’ll never be a part of this process, I am slightly too old and more than slightly too slow, but it fascinates me.
Right now there are roughly 200 referees who are theoretically MLS eligible (Grade 4 or higher), of which roughly a third will get an MLS game this year, and third will never see an MLS preseason camp much less a game because they either blew their opportunities at one level below MLS or have other circumstances going on. The rest are either working towards the MLS or retired from the MLS. There are another 500 or so officials (Grade-6 States, Grade-5 States, Grade-5 National Candidates etc) who have been identified as potential top flight referees with appropriate seasoning/mentoring/opportunities.
The screening process is extremely steep with very high attrition rates. The intake phase, which is where my younger buddy is, basically has the USSF telling candidates to jump. He has been sent to Dallas, Phoenix, Orlando, Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland and Denver this year. Some of those tournaments pay, others cover expenses and nothing more. He has been called to cover a semi-pro game six hours away eight hours before kick-off. If getting to the MLS is a goal as a referee, refereeing is a full time job. Refereeing full time at the sub-MLS level is a better than poverty level gig but it is below first job out of college gig. He can do this because refereeing is his primary source of income, but he has a small sideline gig as a web designer and is on his mom’s insurance for another year.
Frequent and active refereeing hurts. In the past three years I’ve had a hip flexor injury, turf toe, bursistis and a couple of bone bruises from reffing. Quite a few refs remove themselves from consideration because they can not afford to take the risks. If health insurance is available to the cohort of potential future MLS at a price of one or two decent game fees a month, the MLS pipeline won’t be artifically restricted to guys who are both good and can afford to take the risk of running naked without health insurance.
We won’t see on field results for another five years as the refs who are halfway through the pipeline have already passed (on average) the point of deciding whether or not reffing without insurance is a tolerable risk. But the refs in the next few years who are just starting the pipeline won’t be forced through the chokepoint of health insurance risk. They’ll be included or excluded based on skill on the field.