Nostalgia time. I remember my first Major League Soccer assignment like it was yesterday: Old Mile High Stadium in Denver… April 14, 2001. This rookie was going to be the Junior Assistant Referee for Kevin Stott in the Colorado Rapids’ home opener against the MetroStars. In hindsight, I probably should have informed Kevin more than 30 minutes prior to kick-off that this would be my first career MLS game.
No worries. Mr. Stott has an amazing sense of humor. And an even more amazing presence on the field.
Two memories of that evening stay with me to this day: During warm-ups, rather than picturing myself making boundary and offside decisions, I kept envisioning Sammy Sosa smacking home runs (for my beloved and ever-cursed Cubs) out of the stadium (the Rockies called old Mile High home in the early 90’s); and, as our game wore on, I had this growing feeling of how incredibly close the Rapids faithful were behind me… it was almost like (if they had a crutch or Vaudeville hook) they could reach out and show me exactly how they felt about my last offside decision.
Fortunately, the rookie made it through his first assignment unscathed – overtime and all (no MLS Shootouts in 2001, thank goodness) – and I went on to enjoy six MLS seasons before my leg nearly fell off, causing my seemingly early retirement (although I am sure that a few coaches might suggest that retirement was long overdue).
Nearly every soccer official reading this article will serve as assistant referee in at least 25% of their game assignments this year. And regardless of the badge we wear on any given day (USSF, NISOA, High School, etc.), we all recognize the importance of game preparation… which culminates in the 30+ minutes we spend before kick-off, mentally and physically preparing ourselves (individually and collectively as our team of 3 or 4) to go to battle.
Whether your assignment is a recreational youth match, one between travelling competitive youth clubs, or the local amateur derby, all officials must arrive ready to work a minimum of 30 minutes prior to kick-off (considerably earlier for competitive amateur games, college matches, etc.). In addition to the pre-game discussion to get all three (four) officials on the same page, the introduction/inspection of the teams, and at least a brief warm-up to jog and stretch, time before kick-off must be carefully managed to allow for inspecting the field… and part of that inspection should include at least five minutes for the assistant referees to get to know the particulars of their work space.
Wait a second… Davidson’s suggesting that, even at the youth recreational level, assistant referees should spend time before kick-off getting to know their office?
Absolutely. Unlike the referee, who has the freedom to move laterally as much or as little as he/she chooses (my favorite: watching the referee avoid the full-color Iowa State Cyclones logo painted throughout their center circle), assistant referees move along the touchline as if they are on rails – ideally not less than 6 inches from the touchline and not more than a yard.
Reminder to AR’s: No, you shouldn’t finish the game with white paint on the toes of your shoes!
We expect our AR’s to start and stop movements on a dime, to change from a fast jog to sidestepping along the touchline with 100% concentration on their offside decisions. And, they are required to turn from sidestepping into a full sprint towards to the goal line when play rapidly advances. All the more reason for AR’s to inspect the space just beyond the touchline: know the location of any sudden changes to the surface – the drop-offs, divots and potholes. Are there drains that are covered (or not) just beyond the touchline? Does your running path come to an abrupt end (wall!) at the corner flag? Will you be “penned in” between the touchline and a fence or other barrier just a yard or two from the touchline (like me at Mile High Stadium)? If so, visualize yourself sprinting quickly to stay ahead of approaching players… or stepping back to allow players to quickly advance along the touchline past you (but be ready to sprint to quickly catch up with them!).
In the real world, assistant referees have to make decisions even as the action is coming right at us… so visualize your “outs” before you are pressed into making such movements. And when you can’t step back, or run ahead, or let the play pass you, it helps if you have a good vertical jump. Take a look at one AR in action… click on the link below and note the concentration!
In addition to becoming familiar with the location of hazards, assistant referees should also use their pre-game workspace inspection to visualize making accurate offside decisions across the field. Practice getting perpendicular to your touchline: Is there a fence, sign boards, or a wall a short distance beyond the far touchline? If so, is it truly parallel to the touchline (helpful with squaring up to the touchline!) or does it run at even the slightest angle (detrimental to your efforts!)?
Are there potential issues with the color of the wall, signage, or empty seats?
Since we expect our ARs to accurately judge offside by positioning themselves perpendicular to the touchline, you MUST determine if the fence/signage/wall can help with or hinder your accuracy. And let’s face it, fellow assistants: If we aren’t in 100% ideal position – even with the second last defender, facing the field and standing perpendicular to the touchline – even the most experienced AR is GUESSING at a close offside decision. So let’s eliminate the guesswork by getting into the best position every time.
It’s also important to become familiar with the location of the game participants around you. If you are the Senior AR and both teams are positioned behind you, know where the benches, reserve players and coaches are situated. For games without the luxury of a Fourth Official or clearly delineated team bench areas, the SAR must be proactive in communicating – either directly or through the referee – the importance of keeping coaches, reserve players and spectators a minimum of two yards off the touchline. AR’s should remind non-players that you need their help in order to effectively do your job… and referees should proactively advise them that they need to respect the space needed by the AR’s.
In more competitive matches, assistant referees should identify any other potential distractions, recognize that they are present and will be throughout the game (stop thinking about Sammy Sosa crushing fast balls!), and make sure that they do not break your concentration at any time throughout the game. Yes, I am talking about potential distractions such as these, which we are seeing more and more in high school, college and professional soccer.
In a few more weeks, as the grass turns greener and the skies become clear (and dry!), game officials in the northern half of the country will ONLY need to wear the USSF-approved jersey, shorts, socks and shoes. Soon enough, you’ll be putting the hoodies, rain parkas and black sweatpants back into storage… until late October.
My friends, get your 2015 season off to a great start… when working as assistant referees, please take my advice and plan to succeed by familiarizing yourself with your surroundings before the opening kick-off.
But even if we get out there early, familiarize ourselves with our workspace, and know the hazards that might limit our movements… sometimes, we just can’t help but become part of the celebration. Right, Rob? Click the link to see for yourself!