USSF Development Academy - One Referee's Experience

by Jan Halaska

The Development Academy Showcase was the first time that all Development Academy teams were brought together in one place. The games were played over the four day Memorial Day weekend at the Sportscore complex in Rockford, Illinois.

It was obvious that U.S. soccer and its sponsors put a lot of time and effort into setting up for the event. There was plenty of food and beverage, nice facilities, and a full slate of activities for the players, including EA Sports FIFA® game stations, a disc jockey, and live soccer matches on display all weekend. Along with college coaches, professional scouts from U.S. soccer were on hand to observe the games. Each game was taped and made available to the players and scouts, as well as referees.

Overall, I had a very positive experience. I was really impressed by the organization and professionalism of the showcase. For the most part, the weekend featured quality games and quality refereeing. In most of my games, I worked with at least one national referee, as well as national candidates from all over the country. There was a competitive spirit among all the referees and this elevated everyone’s performance. Every game was taken seriously and as a result, we were forced to maintain our focus, composure, and professionalism throughout the weekend. Each game was followed by a post-game debrief, which I found to be very valuable. Experienced FIFA and National referees and assessors had a lot of great advice. I think that the purpose of the weekend – to bring together the top teams and referees in the country – was evident throughout.

Tournament Diary

Thursday, May 22nd

My flight to Chicago got delayed – no surprise! As a result, I arrived a bit late to the Thursday evening information session. Dick Triche, who was in charge of the Referee Academy, went over the tournament logistics, format, and expectations for referees. He mentioned that we would be seeing some top-notch play and our refereeing would need to live up to that standard. Some of the points of emphasis included: promoting game flow, managing players, being professional, and employing the recommendations posted weekly on “Topics of Interest.” We were warned that this tournament was not about how many games we did, but how we did in the games we had!

Friday, May 23rd

Match Fit Academy (NJ) vs Metro United (IL) U17/18’s – AR1

This was my first game of the weekend and featured two very skilled teams. Overall, the game went very well and I managed the benches and substitutions without issue. The one lesson I took away from the match was the importance of communication between the referee crew. There were a couple of occasions where the referee and I did not make eye contact and it resulted in restarts being taken before we were fully ready. It is imperative that the crew is on the same page at all times. Eye contact, thumbs up, whatever the crew agrees to in its pregame – these are essential tools that keep the crew involved in the match and working together.

Michigan Wolves (MI) vs. FC Portland (OR) U17/18’s - R

My first game in the middle was quite a disappointment. The two teams were very unevenly matched and neither team looked like it wanted to play. The result was a poor game and a blowout score. One of the criticisms of the league (which was evident at times this weekend) is that there is often a big disparity in the quality and skill-level of certain teams. I came away from the game unsatisfied with my performance and disappointed at the effort level on display by the teams. The challenge for me was to stay focused and elevate my game despite the low-quality play. The assessor mentioned to me following the game that there were several instances where I should have displayed more personality and where I should have taken the game more seriously. I could have handled certain situations better by being more vocal and proactive in talking to the players. In a game that was very easy-going, I myself was too easy-going.

Saturday, May 24th

The weekend was formatted so that each team had three games in four days, giving each team a day off. The result was a lighter schedule on Saturday. During the lunchtime pause, the referees gathered for a mentoring session. Brian Hall and Herb Silva discussed some of the things they had seen from the first day and a half of the tournament. The points of emphasis were on “style” and on game management. First on style, Brian talked about the importance of having presence on the field. The referees who have been successful this season in the MLS all have some things in common. They are always close to play and they make their presence known by having a strong whistle, good posture, proper mechanics, excellent communication skills, and unwavering focus. A lackadaisical style is not acceptable, no matter what level game it is.

One of the things that U.S. soccer has been implementing this season via its referee program is to encourage referees to take risks to allow better game flow. This has been evident in the MLS this season with the average number of fouls being down. Referees are taking risks by not calling trifling fouls and by promoting a more active flowing game. The referee must recognize that there should be a balance between the following three things: risk-taking, game flow, and control. The referee should take risks to allow game flow, but must recognize situations that must be dealt with in order to keep full control of a match.

DC United (DCV) vs. Colorado Rush (CO) U17/18’s – AR1

My only match of the day featured a very dynamic DC United team and an aggressive speedy Colorado Rush squad. The referee did a fantastic job in allowing the guys to play and stepped in with a hard whistle or caution when he had to. I learned a lot about player tactics in this match. The star player for DC was a big, strong forward who was always on the ball. He had many chances and was always surrounded by multiple defenders. He was constantly being held, tugged, and pushed. At half time, as a crew we discussed this particular player’s tactics. Although he was fouled several times, his own game tactics involved using his arms illegally to gain an advantage. Keeping both these things in mind, we went into the second half paying closer attention to his tactics and to the actions of the defenders covering him. Having this awareness helped me spot a foul by the forward, where he used his hands illegally to push a defender. Not making this call would have resulted in a breakaway and possible goal. As a referee crew, you must always recognize the skilled players and the tactics they employ.

Sunday, May 25th

The schedule on Sunday was again light, allowing me to watch some matches and to observe other referees. One of the showcase matches of the day featured the U.S. U17/18 National Team. The referee crew was made up of an all-female FIFA cast. It was a great learning experience watching the crew work. I was very impressed by their preparation, efficiency, and teamwork.

In the weekend’s second rendition of the referee training session, Brian focused on two topics of emphasis. First, he discussed the importance of wall management. Many referees, including at the professional level, have a hard time dealing with setting up walls and managing restarts. We went over proper mechanics as well as certain tactics to employ in order to effectively manage restarts at all levels of the game. The other discussion topic was recognizing “warning signs” in a game and how to deal with them. The referee has many tools at his disposal, not just his cards. By recognizing certain warning signs, like persistent fouls, dissent, and player frustration, a referee can move in early to prevent situations from escalating. Oftentimes, referees can deal with players even before they are forced to caution them or send them off. This discussion was extremely helpful because it stressed the referee’s role as a communicator and mediator on the field.

Arsenal (CAS) vs. Metro United (IL) U17/18’s – R

In what was my best match of the weekend, I refereed two teams that were fast, energetic, and extremely talented. I focused on some of the things I learned during the mentoring session. I stayed close to play and used my personality to talk to the players. I allowed the game to flow and avoided calling trifling fouls. Compared to my first game, I was thrilled with my performance.

Monday, May 26th

The Spring Showcase entered its final and most intense day on Memorial Day. The first kick-off was at 8am and I had the pleasure of being up nice and early for the first round of games. The fields were soaked from the heavy rain that fell all night, making it very difficult to move.

Internationals SC (OHN) vs. Aztec Force (CAN) U17/18’s – AR1

I worked with a national referee from Minnesota, who did an excellent job in allowing dynamic game flow in this match. My only challenge of the game was to deal with one of the coaches, who made a few dissenting comments. He had a very strong personality and I had to be both assertive and calm to settle him down and keep him in the game. Part of our jobs as referees is dealing with people. You must be an effective communicator and be able to manage your on-field relationship with the players, coaches, and technical personnel. We are forced to deal with people of various cultural backgrounds, personalities, and playing styles and must adapt to communicate with and manage everyone. This aspect of the game is essential, especially at the highest level.

FC Westchester (ENY) vs. San Diego Surf (CAS) U17/18’s - R

The game featured two top teams from opposite coasts. It was a very fast game filled with tactical play by both teams. I tried to include some of the advice from the previous day’s mentoring session in my match. For the most part, I let the teams play and avoided calling trifling fouls. I called the first foul in the 30th minute. The players were not used to officiating that allowed them to play, and it took them some time to adjust. There were certain instances where I could have called fouls, but overall I think my “risk taking” proved successful and appropriate for this game. I could tell that the players were tired (after three days of matches) and the game wasn’t very physical.

Closing Remarks

I am very glad that I had the opportunity to work with and observe some of the top referees in the country. It was also a pleasure to meet in person the people from Soccer House. The weekend featured what are supposed to be the top youth players/teams in the country. Refereeing these matches required the highest level of focus, commitment, and professionalism.

Massachusetts has a top-notch referee program, and I think I did a good job in promoting what we are all about. With further expansion of the Development Academy in the state, the MSRC should really use it as an opportunity to develop its referees. This league, along with the showcases, will be an important part of the National Referee track.

Again, I would like to thank you all for supporting me in this opportunity.

Best regards,