Transcription of Media Teleconference to discuss the Professional Referee Organization
March 7, 2012
Peter Walton, General Manager of PRO
Nelson Rodriguez, MLS Executive Vice President
Asher Mendelsohn, U.S. Soccer Director of Refereeing
Peter Walton: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for taking the opportunity to join this conference call. First of all, I just want to say how privileged I am, and honored, to be asked to create this new organization. Yes, it’s an exciting challenge – it’s an exciting challenge for everybody involved. What we hope to do and what we want to do is to project North American officiating to the next level and keep people in the world aware of how good the officiating is in North America. So I welcome you all to this conference, and I wish you good afternoon.
Nelson Rodriguez: As all of you know, MLS is committed to making MLS one of the best leagues in the world. And in pursuit of that vision, we continue to make sizable investments in improving all aspects of our business, and in particular, in our game. The roots of today’s announcement were really born in 2010 with the creation of a referee task force which was co-chaired by U.S. Soccer and MLS and had representation from the referee community, the Canadian Soccer Association, an ex-player, an ex-coach, even a current owner of the MLS Board of Governors. And through the course of 2010, a lot of different initiatives were discussed, and the idea of pursuing an independent company that would be responsible for professional referees was germinated at that time. I need to acknowledge U.S. Soccer, the CSA and the PSRA (Professional Soccer Referees Association) for their continued support of this initiative. We are excited to be working closely with U.S. Soccer and have the continued input from the CSA as this organization evolves.
We think it’s the right time and a necessary step to help the professionalization of refereeing and officiating in North America. We’re very excited to welcome Peter Walton as the General Manager. We think it’s a singular opportunity to hire someone who has such a special and unique combination of skills and experience – serving as an active whistle in the Premier League, a former assistant referee, a great administrative background. So we think this is an extraordinarily positive step for the development of our game and for the careers of officials moving forward.
Question: Nelson, can you tell us what went in to choosing Peter Walton for the position?
Nelson Rodriguez: Throughout the entire process of trying to find a general manager, Major League Soccer was lockstep with U.S. Soccer in this endeavor, and constantly sought the input of the CSA as well. We interviewed candidates literally from all over the world. We interviewed candidates out of Mexico and Argentina, out of Spain, Germany, Scotland, as well as some domestic candidates here in the United States. At the end of the day, Peter seemed to have an extraordinary resume that seemed to fit. And equally important, he had a real desire and thirst for this challenge. He recognizes that what we’re doing is nothing short of a bit revolutionary and that it will not be easy. But he’s committed to the long term, as are we, as is U.S. Soccer.
We regard our current state of officiating as good, probably better than the credit it is given by fans, by our coaches and players, and even by some media members. But it is not to the level that we want it to be. We have set a vision, by 2022, for Major League Soccer to have the highest standard of officiating worldwide.
Asher Mendelsohn: If I could add to that, another part of our search was to look even outside the sport, and we looked for people with experience on the administrative end of running small companies, which is essentially what this new endeavor will be. Ideally, our candidate would have experience on the field as a referee, in soccer, and also off the field as an administrator. Very few people in the world possess both those skill sets. Peter Walton happens to be one of them. We think he is someone who will be very qualified to lead this new endeavor, both for U.S. Soccer and for the CSA.
Question: How much is this founding of PRO a reaction to last year’s criticism on referees?
Nelson Rodriguez: As I mentioned, this was actually discussed, and debated for a while in 2010. Last year, U.S. Soccer made a huge commitment in relocating a group of full-time officials to New York to create a full-time referee department. So I really believe that this is at least two years in the making.
Interestingly, last year we suffered some grave and serious injuries that were the result of unfortunate or mistimed tackles, or however you want to characterize those plays. Importantly, in each of those instances, though, the referees actually made the call on the field correctly. Now, what I think is more relevant is that the League is making a lot of commitments to improving its product quality and is grateful to the Federation for serving as an equal partner in this endeavor. We’re pouring millions of dollars into player development; we’re working on a lot of different avenues to improve our technical staffs and coaching. We think that the referees themselves merit the same attention and the same level of investment, so that they too, can participate at the highest levels of the game in the fullest sense.
So it’s been two years in the process, the keys are now being given to Peter to help set the direction for the future, and we’re committed to providing him with the resources he feels he needs so that we can fulfill that officiating vision that we’ve set forth for ourselves.
Question: Logistically, how do you plan to incorporate Canadian officials into the program? Will there be a lot of travelling on their part?
Nelson Rodriguez: Well, there’s no change to the current set up. You know that as soon as we introduced a Canadian team into our League, U.S. Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association reached an agreement on how games would be officiated in each country. That agreement held from that first day and is still in place and unchanged moving forward. The CSA has been an excellent contributor to this process and we fully expect them to continue to contribute to the influence and direction of the company. But there are no immediate changes to the current understanding.
Question: In what ways is [officiating in MLS] better than people give it credit for, and what are the ways that it needs to be better?
Nelson Rodriguez: Sure. For starters, we live in a society right now, particularly in competitive athletics and as it relates to officials, where technology has allowed every call to be examined from multiple angles, multiple speeds, reverse angle – and that has empowered people to dissect an official’s job and performance in ways that were never contemplated or done previously. What is lost in that analysis is the absolute speed at which these decisions really need to be made. A big part of the speed is also the angle [of the referee] to the play itself, the distance to the play in question. With U.S. Soccer, we have had some groups analyze the calls over the last two years for accuracy. Asher Mendelsohn, who’s on this call can provide details, but what we’ve found is that our officials, in terms of the accuracy of their calls, is extraordinarily high. And certainly within parameters that would suggest world class. So in that regard, that’s why we believe our officiating gets a bad rap.
In terms of improving it, it’s really quite simple. Our country, and when include our three Canadian brethren (Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver), is huge. It’s actually more like a continent than it is one country. The amount of travel that we ask our referees to endure in order to referee games is substantial. No less substantial than that of the teams themselves. Yet while the athletes who are competing on the field as players have the benefit of preparing on a full-time basis, with rest, nutrition, the best sports science available to them in preparation and recovery, our officials are not accorded the same benefits. With the exception of our full-time guys, the rest of our pool has other full-time work. So getting time off from work, returning to work from a game – all of these, it stands to reason, would logically keep these athletes from performing at optimal levels. What we believe is this new organization, that will be focused and dedicated only on the professional ranks, allowing U.S. Soccer and CSA to continue to focus on youth and amateur officiating and the identification of young, promising officials who may rise to the professional rank. Allowing this company to focus on those professionals, we think can substantially improve their performance.
Asher Mendelsohn: In terms of the quality of officiating, one thing I would say is that throughout the process of the last year and the year before, when we looked to independent technical experts, who are not associated with the team, the league or with U.S. Soccer, and we asked them to provide evaluations, typically the responses we’ve gotten from a qualitative standpoint have been that the quality of officiating in the U.S. is very similar to officiating that we see in professional leagues in Europe. The quality of officiating last year in MLS is very similar to the quality of officiating in previous seasons.
From a quantitative standpoint, we have done some research in terms of call accuracy, specifically the most accurate findings we’ve had were on [assistant referee] performance on offside calls. It’s a less subjective decision and when we’ve looked at that, we fare very favorably to published studies on EPL AR accuracy, as well as World Cup AR (Assistant Referee) accuracy. If people are interested in obtaining more information, more specific data on referee performance, reach out to Neil Buethe and we’d be happy to provide that.
Peter Walton: As Nelson said, the standard is good. But just as the players and the infrastructure of the professional game in North America has improved and will improve in years to come, so we now need to look at the officials and see that they move along in tandem and parallel with them.
Certainly from my side, when I joined the ranks of a professional athlete, a professional sportsman, that helped me. Nelson touched upon tangible things like rest and relaxation, making sure that my recovery from any injuries, making sure I got the full support of medical treatment and physiotherapy. Making sure that I was physically prepared for my next game and even on a mental capacity as well – relieving myself of tension and stress caused by other issues outside of soccer. Hopefully, together we’ll be able to put the support mechanism in place for our officials to match the standard that are now being displayed and will be displayed in the future by the players and coaches at the professional ranks.
Question: How important is transparency of disputed calls in the aftermath of those calls?
Peter Walton: Transparency is a two-way thing. Yes, I would support my referees when they make the calls right, and in fact when they make them wrong. If they make a mistake, they make a mistake, and we learn from that. What I wouldn’t be doing is coming out in public and try to defend the indefensible. People know and people can see for their own eyes. My aim is to make sure that those mistakes are limited and that those mistakes that are made are then acted upon and people learn from that. The other side, of course, is to engage the clubs, the players and the managers to understand where they’re coming from as well. Looking at their tactics, looking at how they want the game to evolve in North America and match the officiating accordingly so that we’re in tandem with one another. What the players do, the referees will expect it, and what the referees do, the players will expect it, so that we don’t have a gap between the expectations of each individual.
Question: How many languages besides English does Mr. Walton speak?
Peter Walton: I speak English and no other language. I have a smattering of Spanish and a smattering of French, but I wouldn’t say that I can speak either fluently. However, as part of the support group and mechanism, I will make sure that I have people around me who can converse in that language. Just one point there: FIFA has decreed that English shall be spoken during football matches, and I think that any aspiring international referee knows that and will accommodate that as well.
Question: About addressing referee decisions publicly – perhaps making referees available to the press. I’m wondering if you have a vision for what you would want that to be. Is that something that you would want to address here in 2012?
Peter Walton: It probably wouldn’t be addressed in 2012, in fairness. But it will be addressed going forward from that. What I wouldn’t want is to put my officials in front of cameras or journalists immediately after the game, because I think that’s putting extra pressure and tension on them. What I will do is to make available a public relations man, a media man that the press can then dial in directly about calls. I wouldn’t foresee putting my referees in front of the cameras immediately after the game to justify or not, as the case may be, their decisions. They give what they see on the day, and they stick with those decisions. But if a more detailed answer was required, then either myself or part of my media team would be available to answer those questions.
Question: How will referees be [assigned] to matches?
Peter Walton: Nothing changes from last year. Last year was a committee that took into account a referee’s geography, whether or not he had refereed the games before, whether they’re in form, and taking all sorts of items into account. Going forward, I would have a say in that final assignment because I think it’s right that I should, and the referees in form will be getting those games that they deserve. There will be templates put in place through match evaluations, assessors, to see that those guys who are deserving of high-profile games get those games.
Question: If there is one thing in England that you would like to see implemented in MLS, what would it be?
Peter Walton: What I want to do first of all is make sure I evaluate what we’ve got there at the moment, and that will take some time. I’m not going in there with any preconceived ideas. I want to give everybody the opportunity to show me how good they are, where they are in the standings, and take some best practices from that.
From a personal point of view, one thing that professional refereeing allowed me to do was to focus on the pressures that are exerted on a match referee on particular days. That’s something I’d like to instill on my referees when I get to North America – the advantages of understanding how to deal with pressure in pressurized situations.
Question: How will this impact the relationship among the teams, the officials and the MLS Disciplinary Committee as far as the reviews of plays and red cards?
Nelson Rodriguez: The parameters by which the Disciplinary Committee operates are independent of this new company, PRO. The Professional Referee Organization is its own separate entity at this point. The Disciplinary Committee falls under the auspices of Major League Soccer, exclusively. The parameters have remained constant for the last several years, although this year there has been a slight modification, one that will allow the Disciplinary Committee greater latitude to administer supplemental discipline, if it felt necessary. The primary driver of that decision, however, is unchanged: The five members of that Disciplinary Committee must be unanimous that the action on the field was worthy of a red card. If that does not hold, then the committee will not act, and cannot act. But otherwise, the committee will be given a little more latitude than it had in the past to offer punishment, if it deemed necessary, to defenders.
Question: Is there a system for coaches to challenge red cards?
Nelson Rodriguez: We worked with U.S. Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association and we have been able to secure a red card review process. This is intended for only instances of serious and obvious error. In principle, and broadly, how review would work is if a club and a player felt that they were the victim of a serious and obvious error of a referee’s decision, they would within 24 hours submit evidence and their case as to why there was an obvious error. That evidence would be turned over to a completely independent panel made up of representation of U.S. Soccer, the Canadian Soccer Association and PRO and that three-person panel would review the evidence and render a judgment rather immediately. Look, from our perspective, if the three-member panel needs time to debate whether or not serious and obvious error occurred, then it’s clearly not obvious, and therefore should be rejected. Clubs will be given up to two failed appeals. So if they ask for two appeals and fail on both, they’re through for the year. If a club makes an appeal and it’s deemed to be frivolous – they appeal a red card decision where it was clear by the action and the intent that the red card was warranted and, god forbid there was a serious injury suffered that further cemented the validity of the red card decision – if it’s considered frivolous, the club will lose its right to appeals that year and the following year. In order to participate in the appeals process, the clubs have to post a bond at the beginning of the year. [A club making a frivolous appeal] would lose that bond as well.
Question: Why did you decide to make this a company, rather than some type of organization or non-profit?
Asher Mendelsohn: We felt that a limited-liability company would be the best vehicle for U.S. Soccer and MLS to fund this new organization and for it to operate within the structure that FIFA asks for professional referee programs, as well as protecting our non-profit status.
Question: Is the intention to bring on more full-time referees?
Peter Walton: Yes, the number of full-time referees will almost certainly rise. When and by how many, that hasn’t been determined yet. Again, if I reflect back into my own studies, when I became a full-time referee it certainly allowed be to focus much better on the art of officiating, and that’s really where I want to go.
Question: Peter, can you compare Major League Soccer to the English Premier League … are there any differences or similarities in refereeing in those two leagues?
Peter Walton: In fairness, I’ve only refereed in the English Premier League. I’ve never refereed in MLS. I’ve seen many, many MLS games and even more games since I was fortunate enough to secure this position. In terms of the differences – yes, there are differences, but there are differences in the play as well. I’m not about trying to import the English style of refereeing. What I am about is to look at and cultivate what we’ve got in North America so that the North American officials match what the game is about in North America. Specific points of difference, there are a number, but that’s not part of my arrangement. My arrangement is to make sure that our officials are good enough to take MLS and other professional leagues to world standards in 10 years’ time.