Will Referees be Demoted? New Certification Requirements are troublesome — at best

A strange month of January has come to a really strange end. As we flip the calendar, our attention turns to The Big Game in New Jersey and the Bigger Weekend in Orlando for our PRO brothers and sisters.

Strange month, indeed. A week ago, after months of advance promotion, more than 50,000 local hockey enthusiasts filed into Dodger Stadium (and my Los Angeles neighborhood), “witnessed” a great NHL game (about half of them only saw the puck on the Jumbotron) and a totally thrilling fan experience… some even picked up their trash on the way out.

NHL Stadium Series: Mission Accomplished. Well done, Gary Bettman. You found a way for the NHL’s per game attendance to surpass MLS’ (for now).

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Soccer Referee Development Program ruffled some feathers (to say the very least) and raised a lot of eyebrows by unveiling its reinvented Referee Grade system. No billboards to tease the announcement, no Wayne Gretsky to drop the puck, not even KISS performing between periods. But we all took notice just the same when U.S. Soccer released an 11-page document “Referee Certification Requirements (Effective July 1, 2014).”

What’s it all about, anyway?

Well, the document provides a bit of clarification about the relationship between the Federation and State Referee Associations. More important to many of us (or perhaps to many thousands of us), it introduces substantial changes to our current system of Referee Grades. If you are a referee registered with U.S. Soccer, pay attention… some of this just might curl your hair.

Let’s start with the one new idea that I like (my mother once told to me to try to say something nice when I start a conversation): I like the idea of a reinvented Grade 7 Referee – there, I said it. It’s now basically the amateur game’s equivalent to Grade 8 for youth soccer, and that makes it an entry level grade… well, sort of. State Referee Associations will be left to decide what (if any) game and/or grade experiences are required to attain Grade 7, along with how much (and what modules of) instructional training. The only absolutes from U.S. Soccer are to complete its new “Grade 7 Referee Course” (more on that later) and pass “the Grade 7 Referee Test.”

Now, one could argue that the single most problematic area with our referee development program today is the recruitment, training, mentoring and retention of qualified referees to adequately serve what the Federation refers to as “the adult game at the amateur level” (or AGAL. I will suggest that mastering the unique challenges and unpredictable dynamics of AGAL is the single most critical test for developing referees.

My opinion is formed from experience. Like many referees, I performed very well at the youth level after I was discovered, encouraged and mentored. An invitation to Youth Regionals was a dream come true: a whole week of soccer and not a care in the world (except for the gopher holes) in Sioux Falls. Sure, a parent or two yelled an occasional discouraging word, but the skies were not cloudy all day.

Then someone recommended taking the next step (“You mean Dr. Silva wants me for the Major Indoor Soccer League?”). Not exactly. Not yet. Amateur ball seemed like a good idea… until I found myself being shoved into the cauldron of officiating extremely volatile AGAL in parts of Chicago I didn’t know existed. Fortunately, some of these parks had grass on the field, most goals had nets, and all locations had on-site parking. (I was once warned that the BEST part of a particular field was the concrete walking path that dissected it – and it was!)

It’s a shame that not every state association has the proving grounds found in our metropolitan ethnic leagues. IMO, too many State Referees have attained Statehood without being chased to their cars by an angry mob. Refereeing AGAL is baptism by fire: it’s all about developing effective man management skills while honing your survival instincts.

As I said, I am (for the most part) in favor of the new Grade 7 concept.

The Online Training Grade 7 Course Introduction Video (see the video below) gives support for the cause, and it provides a decent overview of the goals and objectives of developing referees to focus on AGAL. I happen to think it’s one of their better videos, with two minor flaws: (1) It appears that every referee in the video is wearing a State Badge (I guess we are inspiring the future Grade 7 to reach even higher), and (2) Michael Kennedy is AGAIN wearing that same red U.S. Soccer polo shirt (wasn’t he also issued black, gold, blue and green?).

U.S. Soccer took the challenge a step further – posting on the Online Training section of the website 12 corresponding PowerPoint presentations (with lecture notes for instructors). OK, fair enough. As suggested in the new Certification Requirements, it is now up to the individual State Referee Associations to recruit, teach and mentor the new sevens. I will be particularly interested to see how well this works in states with one or fewer registered adult amateur leagues… will there be enough AGAL to go around? One State Director of Instruction astutely pointed out that the Grade 7 course has absolutely nothing in it about the Laws of the Game. Good point, and I think his state will say NO to entry level Grade 7.

Like so many initiatives, the devil really is in the details. The more I read, the more fault I begin to find with the new Certification Requirements, though I continue to support the Federation’s impetus to better service AGAL (again, that’s “the adult game at the amateur level”.

My friends, we are in a period of transition. As we re-re-read the fine print of the new requirements, we identify some troubling potential ramifications, such as:

Tuesday, July 1, 2014 might be remembered as “Reclassification Day.”

No, it’s not something out of “The Hunger Games.” Thousands of referees might awaken on 7/1 to discover that they are no longer Referee Grade 7… they will find themselves demoted “reclassified” to Grade 8 for the 2015 registration year. Why? Upon review of their game logs (or not), their State Referee Associations might determine that they have primarily worked youth games… consistent with the standard for Grade 8. Conversely, a few dozen Grade 8 referees might be invited to take a quick course and a quicker test to attain Grade 7 since they have been primarily servicing AGAL. There certainly are important details to work out on that one, and when they come out, please don’t share them with officials who went through the complete upgrade $$$ process…

A small price to pay to implement a better system. Enough about the great Grade 7 debate.

Also on July 1, certain State Referees might awaken to find that they are no longer Grade 5 State Referees; they risk being “reclassified” to State Referee Grade 6 if not “selected and managed directly by U.S. Soccer” as 2015 National Referee Candidates. Now that sounds like a bit of a buzzkill to those not invited to the dance … especially those who just completed the upgrade $$$$ process from State 6 to State 5, the testing and the field assessments featuring the very best of – you guessed it – AGAL.

So, sometime next summer, we can anticipate welcoming (and/or consoling) the new sevens and a bunch of reclassified sixes. Prediction: It won’t be pretty.

Next issue: How NOT to issue a policy changing document. Everyone is capable of the occasional typo – even me (just ask the SRA from Minnesota … her name is spelled Hildman, and despite my recent heroic efforts, I am told the Minnesota SRC remains in turmoil). While reviewing the updated Grade 5 National Candidate and Grade 4 National Referee requirements, I couldn’t help but notice this little gem of an oops:

Nationality: U.S. Citizen

There it is my friends, in black and white. The same error appears for both Grade 5 and Grade 4… and thank goodness, it is an error and not an open invitation for legal action. After I reviewed the document a week or so ago, I sent an E-mail to the Windy City, hoping for a quick clarification and clear resolution.

Here’s what came back:

It’s been long understood that members of the International Panel of Referees (Grade 1) and Assistant Referees (Grade 2) need to be United States Citizens. But to extend this requirement to National Referee Grade 4 and National Referee Candidate Grade 5?

As for updating the file, these things take time. The E-mail from Mr. Mooney was sent on Wednesday, January 29… one day before the following went to the entire soccer universe:

As of this writing (on Friday, January 31), the erroneous requirements published on the website have not been corrected, and I am starting to think this document will best serve as a birdcage liner… and I don’t even own a bird.

We’re not done. The other end of the referee continuum won’t fare much better come July. I am told that not many states offer the Grade 12 Assistant Referee, but for those that do: References to Grade 12 are entirely missing from the new Certification Requirements (that doesn’t mean the 12’s escape unscathed). It appears that, like Pontiac, they were modestly successful in their final years, but not enough to stave off extinction. Grade 12 Assistant Referees will apparently be re-badged (not as Buicks or Chevys) as Grade 9 Recreational Referees. There might be a few details to reconcile there: “My daughter went with her girlfriends to an AR class… and now she’s a Ref?” Or, better yet: “Young man, you have no business wearing that Recreational Referee Badge!” You can say that again… the kid wants to be an AR just like his clinician (“If that stupid instructor can wave a flag in MLS, then I can do it at Village Green in Glen Ellyn”).

So there it is, and there you have it: the new Referee Certification Requirements slated to take effect July 1. The plan certainly isn’t perfect. Some might suggest it’s less than logical. Others will argue it ISN’T better than nothing. I kind of see it as a Swiss cheese with really big holes (but I’m not a big fan of cheese… or Zurich).

Anyway, I still think I kind of like the idea of a new Referee Grade 7… at least a little bit… for the betterment of AGAL, and for the continued growth of the World’s Game on American soil. Then again, I’m still over the moon about NHL hockey played outdoors in a California baseball stadium. Go Kings!

Categories: USSF

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