In my last two blogs, (fairly or not) I grilled a few of our colleagues… So, who’s performance has put him on “The Chopping Block” this week?
Sorry folks, but this isn’t a cooking show. We’ll leave the chopping to the Food Network, where it takes eight hours or more (a full day of takes, re-takes and more re-takes) to film a 30-minute culinary competition. We all know that, unlike our favorite television programs, competitive soccer gives game officials just one take – only one shot to get key decisions correct.
And when we say correct, we mean consistently making the best decision…
In Major League Soccer, the stakes are extremely high, demanding near perfection on the pitch: Just as coaches expect their athletes to make consistently sound decisions, we EXPECT our professional American and Canadian referees and assistant referees to consistently make the best decisions in every game situation.
As they say, it’s lonely at the top...
While reviewing our colleagues’ recent body of work, more than once I’ve borrowed a phrase from Alfred Kleinaitis:
“Players win the game… Coaches lose the game… Referees spoil the game.”
We’ve seen weekly examples in MLS – amazingly creative, determined flashes of brilliance by our favorite players resulting in highlight reel game-winning goals, coaches failing to react to swift changes to the dynamics of play… and on at least a few occasions, officials making poor decisions given the options available in their “referee toolbox.”
In just a few weeks, 2014 World Cup Brazil will take center stage, and many of us will divide our attention between supporting Uncle Sam’s Boys as they battle their way through the Group of Death, and cheering our own “band of brothers” (Geiger, Hurd & Fletcher… and Boria) as they go all out to earn FIFA’s respect for being the outstanding officiating team we already know them to be.
No, this blog isn’t a rave for Mark Geiger and his colleagues. But I will take a moment to send a shout out (and to raise a glass) to one Marco Antonio Rodríguez (aka “Chiquimarco” and formerly aka “Chiquidrácula”), who will also deservedly represent CONCACAF referees in Brazil this summer.
Spoiler alert: If they’re not careful, aspiring assistant referees might learn something from this blog, and it won’t be about x’s and o’s. The story within the story will (hopefully) remind some readers exactly why we preach about the importance of total concentration, anticipation and hustle – for a full 90+ minutes.
We know that referees make several key decisions throughout a game… critical decisions (especially penalties and send-offs) can potentially influence the outcome, and because of the lasting effects and implications, these decisions become water cooler topics for days, weeks, even months…
And this makes great fodder for journalists and aspiring bloggers alike (“How could the referee make such a howler of a mistake? I caught it straightaway after reviewing only four replays on my 70” screen from the comfort of my recliner!”).
But, for our assistant referees, in competitive matches, there might be one (in rare occasions, two) truly critical decisions to be made, and they, too, can absolutely effect (dare I say decide) the outcome of a game: offside/not offside with the ball ending up in the net, a ball in play/out of play before a goal is scored, a foul committed inches inside/outside the penalty area, or a ball being stopped from entering the goal by – wait, was that a HAND?
90+ minutes of fun: As assistant referees, we have absolutely NO IDEA when such a game-critical decision will need to be made, which makes it that much more important to maintain our concentration, anticipate the next decision to be made, and continue to hustle – with no mental lapses! We expect assistant referees to consistently be in the best possible position to judge offside – even with the second last defender (subject to exclusions) – and to chase the ball to the goal or goalkeeper.
As I used to say when instructing, “If you are NOT in proper position, you are, in fact, GUESSING,” and we really need to exclude guesswork whenever possible (yes, I know some of us are REALLY good at it based on our decades of experience!).
I’d also like to think that all of us who have worked professional games care – we acknowledge that athletes’ playing time or even their future employment could be impacted by the outcome of a game… and we care to the extent that we lose sleep if we later realize (or are shown… “the video never lies!”) the seriousness of some of our errors.
Like I said, officiating mistakes can spoil the game… leaving coaches and general managers searching for answers, sometimes putting players out of jobs, and potentially placing ourselves on the shelf for weeks or months…. or put out to pasture for good.
To help me better illustrate my point about the importance of AR decisions, please take a walk with me down my own memory lane… those who know me will confirm that I don’t much enjoy sharing my own experiences. Today brings the exception.
Back in 2006, the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup wasn’t the celebrated competition it has become today: Games were often played midweek in near-empty stadia, and the match referee was the only referee who travelled internationally (joining local assistant referees and fourth official).
On February 23, in the opening round of the 2006 CCC, the defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy hosted Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa at The Home Depot Center, presenting my one and only opportunity to run the line for a rapidly up-and-coming FIFA referee by the name of Marco Antonio Rodríguez. Game one of a home-and-home series was intense and a back-and-forth affair. It was either team’s game to win, or as fate would have it that night – neither team’s game to win… but it wasn’t the officials’ game to spoil, either.
Every AR decision can potentially be a game changer…
Perhaps the most critical decision in my six-year pro career came in the 57th minute of a scoreless draw, when my instincts told me to sprint, to chase (and match stride for stride with) a much younger Landon Donovan as he went one-on-one with the goalkeeper, then chipped a ball towards the vacated net. As I reached the corner flag, I hit the brakes, and fixed my stare at the goalmouth. Mr. Donovan and his teammates turned up field to begin their celebration… as Saprissa defender Jervis Drummond (a Costa Rica national) desperately slid the ball cleanly off the goal line. For the one and only time that demanded it in this match, I was precisely where I needed to be – on the goal line and in full concentration to make a 100% accurate decision.
Watch… watch…watch. No goal (instinctively, and for better or worse, I shook my head to demonstrate my absolute certainty). Exhale. Now stop thinking about what just happened, keep working and concentrate for the remaining 33+ minutes!
The game ended in a scoreless draw, and as we reunited in the center circle, Chiquimarco couldn’t wait to shake my hand and congratulate me for correctly making our team’s most critical decision of the game. I think he was actually patting me on the back as we neared the tunnel… but I don’t think any of the 8,000 in attendance offered to do the same.
Galaxy fans of eight years ago still remember all too well what came next…
I wasn’t in the stadium when the series resumed in San Jose, Costa Rica 13 days later, but I read all about it in the Los Angeles Times shortly thereafter. There’s a HUGE difference between going into the away leg of a home-and-home “up a goal” (if that ball had travelled just one more circumference…) as opposed to being level.
Forced to “play for the win” in the away leg and not merely to preserve a lead (in total goals), LA managed to take a 2-0 advantage into halftime, but Saprissa quickly and relentlessly wore them down after the break, eventually leveling the score 2-2 and forcing added extra time. The Galaxy caved five minutes in, dropping a 3-2 result and with it, the series.
Galaxy faithful were soon shocked to learn that during his return flight the next day, president and general manager Doug Hamilton suddenly died of an apparent heart attack just a few minutes after lift-off.
To this day, I know it wasn’t a goal. I got the call absolutely correct. The scoreless draw was deserved by both teams. And I had no influence on what transpired two weeks later in San Jose.
And yet... had that ball traveled just one more circumference…
Pardon my flair for the dramatic. I am sure you see my point: AR decisions do matter, and some decisions end up mattering a great deal. This is precisely why, in order to consistently make accurate “black-and-white” decisions, we expect assistant referees to concentrate for the full 90 (no mental lapses!), keep a high work rate to be in the best position for offside decisions (a “half step” out of position can result in a totally blown call), and to know when to help the referee identify fouls or misconduct.
Questionable AR decisions due to poor positioning, lack of hustle, or lost concentration do the game (and your team) a disservice… at every level of play. For most of us, when we carry the flag in a local park on Sunday afternoon, we are one of only three participants being paid for our efforts… so let’s be sure to work hard and earn our keep!
Back to World Cup Brazil 2014 and to happier times… and I am putting away the antacid. When the quest for the Cup resumes in June, you’ll hear me cheer as loud and long as anyone – both for our national side and for our most-deserving crew of USSF and CSA officials. I certainly hope both teams advance beyond group play and well into the knockout stages.
And with more restraint, I will quietly wish the very best for my not-soon-forgotten friend and colleague, Chiquimarco.