Effective Refereeing: From Minute 1, Be Ready… for Anything!

One of my recurring criticisms of MLS Referee performances this season is that on too many occasions, officials seemed hesitant, intimidated or just not ready – for whatever reason – to assert their authority from Minute One. As the athletes try to get a feel for their opponents’ tactics, officials have demonstrated excessive patience (or just taken too passive an approach) in reacting to fouls that appear reckless and behavior that looks intimidating… just because they occur in the first few minutes.

As our youth and amateur referees grow and advance, their instructors, assessors and mentors stress over and over and over again: like the competing athletes, game officials must be ready to perform from the very first whistle. “Carpe Diem” – Seize the day! Get the game off to a solid start through intense concentration. Set the tone early on. Hustle. Show everyone that you are there to perform. And when the opportunity presents itself, calmly and decisively assert your authority.

For the referee, give us a good solid whistle to start the game… and an equally firm whistle, sprint to the ball and crisp signal for the first foul. And, we absolutely want to catch the first caution, show empathy for the first injury, and effectively manage the first emotional flare-up.

For assistant referees, establish your concentration level from the opening whistle. Get the first boundary decisions correct: throw-in direction and goal kick/corner kick. Nail the first close offside decision by being in perfect position… and don’t rush your decision by remembering to “Count to One.” (Remember my Blog posted on June 2?) Be ready to help the referee with the first off the ball incident, or by diffusing the first heated moment between opponents.

This past weekend of MLS games showcased at least two examples where match critical decisions were made (or missed) in the first ten minutes of play… and in the one I will discuss today, there was the demand of a “Moment of Truth” decision just 33 seconds into the match.

Yes… 33 seconds into the match. Gulp. Fellow referees, are you ready?

The atmosphere surrounding Friday evening’s LA Galaxy vs. Colorado match at Stub Hub Center seemed surreal, as teammates of A.J. De La Garza were still trying to make sense of the tragic news that the Galaxy defender’s newborn son had died the previous day due to a rare and degenerative heart disorder. Galaxy players (and coaches of both teams) wore black armbands embroidered with the infant’s name “LUCA.” Spectators hung emotional banners and held up signs of support. A moment of silence was observed before the National Anthem. And, the Galaxy faithful stood and cheered as one during the game’s 20th minute in tribute and respect to Mr. De La Garza (who wears jersey #20 for Los Angeles).

As challenging as it was to concentrate on soccer, both teams needed to focus on the result… with less than 10 games remaining on the schedule, and with both sides very much in the playoff chase, there was a lot riding on the outcome.

We’ve set the stage. Now, let’s take a look at the play in question… and the decision made 33 seconds into the game.


I applaud the anticipation, concentration, positioning and decisive action taken by referee Baldomero Toledo. Go back and watch the replay as many times as you like, and then remember this: Mr. Toledo saw this once, recognized that Rapids goalkeeper Joe Nasco had unfairly grabbed the leg of Galaxy striker Alan Gordon, and by doing so, he Denied Mr. Gordon an Obvious Goal Scoring Opportunity. Houston, we’ve got DOGSO! Whistle. Send off. Red Card. Reserve goalkeeper Clint Irwin enters the game as a named substitute, replacing a field player (in this case, Dillon Serna … who was spared 89 more minutes of additional humiliation… the Rapids lost 6-0).

But wait a minute. A red card in the first minute of the game? Isn’t the penalty kick sufficient punishment, especially since the foul was committed by the goalkeeper? Couldn’t the situation have been managed with less severe consequences? Can’t we talk ourselves out of giving this Red Card?

My friends, DOGSO is DOGSO is DOGSO. The Laws of the Game are clear on this matter, as is U.S. Soccer’s Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game. We use the four D’s to evaluate, and when all four criteria are met… the offending player must be sent-off and shown the red card… regardless of the score, the level of competition, or when the incident occurs…

… even when the incident occurs in the game’s first minute. In this case, the correct decision was made, and all proper mechanics, procedures and protocols were followed. Well done, indeed.

With his team trailing 3-0, one has to wonder what locker room encouragement Rapids coach Paolo Mastroeni might have had for his undermanned troops. I don’t think he told his players to commit another foul in the penalty area to see how Mr. Toledo would react… but players do the darnedest things, even in MLS.

More kudos to Mr. Toledo… In the opening minute of the second half of play, the Rapids’ Chris Klute decided to grab Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes around the waist as he attempted to turn and shoot the ball. The result? Another courageous, decisive and correct decision to stop play and place the ball on the penalty spot. This time, nothing more than a penalty was warranted (or given), but how many times have we talked ourselves out of giving such a penalty? Too often! What if the Rapids had the necessary resolve and managed to make a game of it after the penalty wasn’t called?


So now many of you are thinking “OK, both decisions were made in the first minute of their respective halves, but these are examples of pretty clear calls… we would expect nothing less from an effective referee at the pro level.”

OK, fair enough. So riddle me this, my friends…

Labor Day Weekend signals the start of the collegiate season, when many of us take our NISOA uniforms out of storage. For some, we are finally given an opportunity to whistle a probably meaningless (expect it to be lopsided), non-conference game at the University of Impossible to Get an Assignment… and we’d sure like to show the assignor and the host administration that we are qualified and deserving of the chance.

Show of Hands: How many of you would have the courage to make the first minute DOGSO decision against the Home Team? You all would, right? Knowing that if you blow the whistle, you might never, ever be given another opportunity to whistle, line or even watch a game at the University of Impossible… you’d make that call without hesitation, correct?

It’s OK. You don’t have to answer. And besides, there are plenty of colleges playing varsity soccer these days. So much for the University of Impossible. That’s one of the reasons we recommend that officials take a photo or two before each game…

A lot more of us referee competitive youth games, some at the Academy Level. Teams travel great distances to compete. A college coach might be in the stands to evaluate the goalkeeper, who could be a candidate for a full-ride scholarship. Red card in the first minute?

Even more of us (the new Grade 7’s) work adult games played at the amateur level. On any given Sunday, you might find yourself whistling a game between ethnic teams in the local park or forest preserve… and this scenario is dumped in your lap in the first minute of play. Now what is your decision? And by the way, where did you park the car?

From the professional level on down through the collegiate, amateur and youth levels, DOGSO is DOGSO. Have the confidence to recognize when an Obvious Goal Scoring Opportunity has been Denied, and when you do, act decisively with your decision making and the procedures to restart play.

The World’s Game is a demanding sport, indeed. As referees, we are expected to be fair, consistent, impartial and fearless from Minute 1 to Minute 90+.

Oh, and it’s still OK for you to “Count to One.”

Categories: MLS

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