The month of May is a blur… and I’m glad it’s in the rearview mirror.
I split my time between willing my Los Angeles Kings into their second Stanley Cup Final in three years (those overtime games were exhausting!), and overseeing the rather complex Clippers transition of power (it’s been damn-near impossible). It’s a good thing I have Commissioner Silver, Donald Sterling, Steve Ballmer, Rochelle Sterling and V Stiviano all on speed dial. We hope to wrap it up soon so that everyone wins: the Sterlings get a check, the Clippers (and their followers) have a future, and V gets her book-and-movie deal.
Spoiler Alert: Sorry, Seattle… you can’t have my Clippers.
I hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend… many of you probably languished through incredibly long stretches of heat and humidity (and heated coaches?) at soccer tournaments across the country. My highlight? I was relieved to learn that someone found a practical new use for RFK Stadium (well played, Magneto!)… if you haven’t seen it, I recommend “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
Speaking of classic films, today’s blog is inspired by a line that goes back to my roots (geographically speaking). Written by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, “The Untouchables” is a 1987 film about how Elliot Ness and a small band of men took down Al Capone. Chicago beat cop Jim Malone (played by Sean Connery) delivered several now famous lines… including this one that I embraced throughout my officiating career:
”This is the job. Don't wait for it to happen.
Don't even want it to happen.
Just watch what does happen.”
How often have we said to ourselves – either while we are still on the field, or driving home after a game, or while watching colleagues perform – “That situation could have been handled so much better… why the rush to make that call?”
As soccer officials, we are expected to make accurate, fair and consistent decisions – treating all players from both teams equally for the full 90+ minutes. But, unlike other sports, we are also expected to evaluate the need to immediately stop play after recognizing a foul (or misconduct) vs. allowing play (at times, encouraging it!) to continue in accordance with the advantage principle in Law 5.
To “play on” or not to “play on…” not having a good feel for this rather delicate balance can get us in trouble, especially at the highest levels of competition.
Another nuance unique to our sport: Assistant Referees communicate to the Referee via silent (but extremely visually noticeable) flag signals… and we empower our AR’s to make game-critical offside decisions and communicate them via the bright (neon-colored) flag.
To our aspiring AR’s, we preach – over and over and over and over again – when judging offside, it’s far better to be “slow and right” than “fast and wrong.” We remind them to maintain optimum position to judge, then at the precise time the ball is played by a teammate, take one of Alfred Kleinaitis’ mental snapshots to determine whether or not players are in offside position. That’s Step One. Step Two? Let the film develop (it only takes a second) to make sure – please make absolutely sure – that the player in offside position interferes with play or an opponent before you raise the flag. And when in doubt, please keep it down.
In a recent special “Play of the Week Extra” featured on the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) website, Paul Rejer offered guidance on a key aspect of Law 11: Offside - Interfering with an Opponent. PRO's Training & Development Manager said, “If we remind ourselves of the guidelines in FIFA Laws of the Game, Interfering with an Opponent means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or challenging an opponent for the ball.”
He went on to give the following astute interpretation of a recent controversy, wherein a goal was allowed despite a flag being momentarily raised for offside:
“In the third minute of the New York Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire game (played May 10), Mike Magee is in an offside position, but it is clear that he is not obstructing the keeper’s line of vision. The next consideration is whether he is challenging (NY keeper) Luis Robles for the ball… in law, it does not specify exactly how close the players have to be to constitute a challenge. However, in this play, Magee is too far away to be considered as challenging Robles. The Law for this was changed last year. It used to say that a player is offside if he 'deceives or distracts' an opponent. In this play there is no doubt that Magee clearly distracts Robles but unfortunately for Robles, that is not a consideration anymore.”
In the video clip, veteran MLS Assistant Referee Brian Poeschel is in excellent position, and he correctly identifies Chicago’s Mike Magee as being in offside position. Mission accomplished on Step One. Unfortunately, after taking his mental snapshot, he reacts far too quickly – raising and then quickly lowering the flag in Step Two.
In the clip, Referee Kevin Stott correctly (and decisively) awards the goal to Chicago’s Harrison Shipp. Mr. Rejer clearly states PRO’s position on this decision – this is a valid goal that must be allowed (again, refer to the definition of offside in the updated Law 11). But, as a result of the unfortunate AR decision to raise and then lower the flag, we have confusion on the pitch, unsettled nerves throughout Red Bull Arena, ruffled feathers in the technical area, and a loss of confidence in the game officials.
It’s unfortunate… but it happens, and it has happened to nearly all of us. So let’s learn from it and try to improve Step Two. Why the quick flag? Anticipation? Lost concentration? Nerves in the third minute of a competitive game? Hard to say, but with 74 career MLS games (and a VERY good track record), I will suggest that Mr. Poeschel continues to be a consistent, steady and reliable AR.
Our professional AR’s get offside decisions consistently correct – to the point that when they do miss one, it makes the lowlight reel. Effective Assistant Referees apply this same level of concentration and poise to identifying fouls and misconduct not observed by the Referee (due to distance and/or angle). Good AR’s realize the importance of correctly observing the incident (usually a challenge for the ball), then finding the referee on the field (to quickly determine his/her ability to judge correctly with AR involvement) and finally, considering the possibility of “advantage” BEFORE raising the flag.
In both scenarios – offside decisions and observation of fouls/misconduct – effective Assistant Referees understand the need to be decisive yet poised. Observe. Anticipate. Identify. Check for advantage. COUNT TO ONE. Then raise the flag.
Wait… Count to One? Seriously?
Yes, I mean it. Force yourself to count to ONE (not to ten, not to five, not even to two). Just count to one. It will take you about half a second, and it will afford you one last look before you commit to raising the flag. I will suggest that half a second delay WILL NOT bring your credibility into question, and going back to the video example, it might have convinced Mr. Poeschel to keep his flag down.
”This is the job. Don't wait for it to happen.
Don't even want it to happen.
Just watch what does happen.”
So now you might be thinking, “OK, I suppose it makes sense to use this COUNT TO ONE idea to keep AR’s from raising the flag unnecessarily or prematurely. But does it also work for the Referee?”
Yes, it does.
For Referees, whether your assignment is in (what’s left of) RFK Stadium, the local youth soccer complex, or at an amateur club’s grounds, it’s important to remember that, as the person entrusted to ultimately manage the game, it’s OK if you aren’t THE first person to recognize a foul challenge or a handball in the penalty area. Let someone else be THE first to “see” it… you need to be the one who consistently reacts appropriately and makes the best decisions – in order to be an effective Referee for the full 90.
Apply the same process: Observe play. Anticipate what might happen. Identify what IS happening. Check for advantage. Count to one. Then blow your whistle (or hold off blowing it when play demands it).
Remember my rant about MLS Referees not giving sufficient cautions for Persistent Infringement (published here on March 30)? In that article, I expressed my disappointment with Juan Guzman in the 21st minute of the CD Chivas USA vs. New York Red Bulls game for his “failure to recognize Chivas USA’s only real offensive threat of the first half as they ran out of their own half with a numerical advantage.” Let’s take a look at the following clip. We all see the foul committed by Armando, and we sense his desperation in committing the foul. Why the rush to blow the whistle? (For those wondering how many NYRB defenders are not in the frame… the answer is… goalkeeper Luis Robles.)”
If only Mr. Guzman had taken an extra half second to “watch what does happen.” Observe. Anticipate. Identify. Check for advantage. Count to one. Then blow the whistle... or in this case, recognize Chivas breaking through, signal for the advantage, then come back to caution Armando at the next stoppage.
An example we can all relate to… and there are others wherein we revisit (hindsight always being 20:20) and think, “If only I held the whistle a bit longer…” Like when a player is fouled, loses his balance, staggers a bit… and then just as you sound the whistle, he REGAINS his footing and sprints into the clear. Or when a player is being held – you know, the one where his jersey is being pulled off his back – and yet he manages to place a perfect through-ball to a teammate running into acres of open space…
We don’t have to be the FIRST one to see it… we need to be the expert who knows how to consistently best MANAGE it.
Some will find the next video example to be a bit extreme – but let’s remember the importance and consequences of DOGSO (player suspensions!) when considering the 34-game MLS season. The clip again comes with guidance from our colleagues at PRO… and it presents another great opportunity to apply my directive to count to one.
We all agree that playing advantage inside the penalty area is one slippery eel. But, without showing the whole universe that we are applying advantage (arm signal, verbal instruction), why can’t we simply count to one before awarding a penalty?
Yes, it requires taking a leap of faith. In the Houston vs. Real Salt Lake match on May 11, thousands of mothers were forced to endure a humiliating Dynamo home loss, and as much as we all feel for Referee Allen Chapman and his sense of fairness, his inability to hold the whistle just a half-second longer tied his hands for the next-best decision … and then he tried to untie his hands by doing his own Houdini thing. Take a look.
The last thing we need in the 89th minute of a long ago-decided game is misconduct – so I am the first to suggest that I can understand a quick whistle: Jump on it, blow the play dead, and leave no reason or chance for retaliation or further incident. I get it.
Simple foul, simple PK… only we have a mathematics problem here. Like it or not, the Laws of the Game require Mr. Hall to be sent-off for Denying an Obvious Goalscoring Opportunity for this foul. The four D’s of DOGSO show no mercy (score and time of the incident are not factors), and although we respect Mr. Chapman for interjecting his own spirit of soccer euthanasia, he failed to take the correct action.
The ideal decision, as noted by Mr. Rejer in his commentary, would have been to hold the whistle for just a half-second more… and allow RSL to score its fifth goal. “A slight delay of the whistle… would have prevented a mandatory red card, and a yellow card would have been appropriate.”
We don’t always make the ideal decision (allow the goal), and the next-best decision would have been harsh, but appropriate and defensible: a penalty kick and send-off for DOGSO.
Let’s be clear: When it comes to holding the whistle in order to COUNT TO ONE, I am not suggesting that officials should become indecisive. I am not encouraging referees to become more casual or laid back about their work – far from it – our sport is intense, and officials need to match the intensity of the players & teams.
Once you have convinced yourself that you observed the play correctly, that no advantage situation exists, and that you need to stop play, count to one, and then take decisive action! The tone of your whistle (intensity and length), your body language, facial expression, mechanics and movements will communicate your confidence… and remember, presence lends conviction, so always sprint to the location and give a clear, crisp signal for the restart.
As your officiating career progresses – from recreational youth soccer to competitive/travelling youth, to adult games at the amateur level, to regional competitions and national competitions, and for some readers, ultimately to our pro leagues – you will recognize that the game moves much faster at the more competitive levels, and with the increased speed of play (and players) comes faster decision-making demands on officials. All the more reason to remain poised. All the more reason to stay in control. All the more reason to count to one.
In a recent commentary about referee development, PRO Match Official Development Manager Brian Hall said, “You can be successful at NASL and USL PRO level, but if you look at any country, when you get to the top the speed is completely different.”
I can attest to Mr. Hall’s point… so for those who aspire, beware and be ready.
Back in 2001, as a rookie about to enter my first season as an MLS Assistant Referee, I was sent to work two pre-season games in central Florida. The speed of play and decision-making at the MLS level is absolutely daunting. What just happened? Was that a foul? Did I see that correctly? The first half of my first spring training game was a total blur. Then, after halftime, things got really fun as San Jose subbed in some celebrated rookie who, at the age of 17, was rumored to be one of the (if not the) fastest in the league. He was. And still is. I can attest to the breakaway speed of one Landon Donovan, thank you very much.
Even when the most competitive game is played at break-neck speed, it’s critical that we keep our wits, concentrate, and when appropriate, count to one.
One last related thought and request: Referees, please lock-up your red card in the pocket you find hardest to access. For most of us, this is our back shorts pocket (and if you are right-handed, it’s likely your back left shorts pocket). Make yourself work to get to it… and afford yourself an extra half-second to convince yourself that the red card is truly warranted.
Rushing decisions to be “the first to see it” leads to errors in judgment – for Referees and AR’s alike. And, although we point to MLS and PRO to illustrate these points at the highest level of professional competition here in the United States, COUNT TO ONE is a concept that we can all apply to our own games, regardless of the level of play… and I think Grade 7 referees will find it especially relevant for adult games at the amateur level – or as I like to call them, games in which you’ll see pretty much everything!
It’s Time for 2014 World Cup Fever
With the 2014 World Cup just around the corner, it’s time for tried-and-true followers of Team USA to get ready. That means three things that we all must do:
1. Run out and purchase your own “Bomb Pop” Team USA jersey… they look a lot better in person, right?
2. Plan on leaving the office early on Monday 6/16 (6:00pm EDT Kick-off), cancel your plans for Sunday 6/22 (also 6:00pm), and submit your vacation request NOW for Thursday 6/26 (Noon EDT).
3. Purchase your copy of “Passionate Soccer Love” and read it cover to cover before the opening kick. It’ll certainly get you ready for some fútbol! Tanya Keith offers a fun review of her 20-year romance kindled in soccer, galvanized through officiating (she is a retired Referee… married to a former National Referee), and tested by our U.S. National Team. It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it.
Let’s hope for a spirited World Cup competition marked by fair play, passionate creativity, and consistently spot-on decision making by game officials. Be sure to tune in and support our colleagues Mark Geiger, Sean Hurd and Joe Fletcher …along with Reserve AR Eric Boria.
USA! USA! USA!