Every year or two, we read with great interest about the arrival of a new referee in Major League Soccer, and it’s usually all about reaching the pinnacle of a career after a journey of 12+ years of dedication, determination and incredibly hard work. Mental anguish, battling burnout, overcoming the taunts of abusive parents (yes, the antics of spectators at a U10 game)… so many of our MLS referees were tried-and-tested first at the competitive youth level, and were then thrown into the deep fryer of ethnic amateur games for several years, where survival instincts advance the best and bravest to the next level.
And it certainly helps if the ball takes a favorable bounce or two along the way.
The predominant unwritten rule (or at least the prevailing trend) suggests that officiating talent must be “discovered” before age 25 and continuously refined over ten or so years, so that we can herald the arrival of the next Brian Hall, Kevin Stott or Mark Geiger before the referee turns 35.
Of course, there are notable exceptions to nearly every rule, and that’s a very good thing.
Making up for lost time, Robert Sibiga, all of 41 years young, has arrived on the scene in Major League Soccer, and deservedly so after dedicating the last seven years of his life to studying, growing and advancing with the World’s Game. To say he made up for lost time is an understatement, and if his first two MLS performances are a true indication of the man’s talent, we’re probably going to see a lot more of him.
On Saturday evening, while whistling his second career Major League Soccer match, Mr. Sibiga showed the poise of an MLS veteran when he coolly and calmly sent off Houston Dynamo defender Kofi Sarkodie for a wild, ill-advised, studs up sliding tackle against Real Salt Lake’s Abdoulie Mansally.
Incident starts at 1:50 into the highlights below:
Welcome to the big show, Robert.
Mr. Sibiga’s success story is an inspiration to other would be referees who aspire to achieve greatness, but wrongly assume that because of their age, they are too late to enter the fray. “Realistically, I knew I had to be much better than a referee 15 years younger than me, but that was a challenge I accepted happily,” he noted. After arriving from Poland, like many quality amateur players, he competed in local leagues until he was kicked one too many times – in his case the result being a torn ACL and meniscus that required surgery.
At the time, no one realized how his club’s loss became the soccer officiating community’s gain.
In 2008, Mr. Sibiga started his referee journey and quickly accelerated through the ranks. While the assessments continued to be favorable and opened more new doors, the unwavering support of Magda, Robert’s wife of 20 years, allowed him to focus on his chosen path. “I sat with my wife and decided to give myself three years to focus 100% on my refereeing,” he explained. “I would go to every tournament possible. I’d knock on doors, make phone calls, do whatever it takes to get experience.”
That’s not to suggest that his home life with Magda and their two daughters comes second to pursuing his dream, or that he takes their support for granted. He credits the advice of Eastern Pennsylvania Director of Assessments Robert Ong with helping him achieve a successful work/life balance. “He told me that when he is away on soccer duties, he knows his family misses him. So when he is home and he wife wants something, anything from him – he’d drop whatever he is doing,” Mr. Sibiga explained. “I took it to heart and I do it exactly the same. When I am away on soccer duty, she is supportive. And she knows that when I‘m back, we’ll go for a walk or drink or to the beach.”
When the opportunities came, Mr. Sibiga capitalized on them. Dallas Cup. Development Academy Showcases and Playoffs. US Club Soccer. Youth Regionals. Youth Nationals. The Disney Showcase. And in 2012, he was invited to participate in US Soccer’s Platinum Program, which meant observation by as many as six assessors at various competitions including the Nike Friendlies, the Armed Forces Tournament and Development Academy Finals. “We were held to the highest standards on and off the field,” recalled Mr. Sibiga. “It made us realize the requirements and pressure of being an official at the top level.”
And it makes me wonder exactly how many frequent flier miles he managed to rack up.
Having cleared all hurdles at the competitive youth and amateur levels, and having passed his tests with flying colors, Mr. Sibiga earned the right to at least walk onto the pitch with some of the world’s greatest athletes… and a placement with the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) as an MLS Fourth Official.
In 2013, he served as the Fourth Official in 13 MLS games, followed by 22 games in 2014. Having roamed many an MLS touchline, I can attest to the endless gamesmanship and constant lobbying to get the next call, the even-out call, or the one break the underdog needs to steal a victory or escape with a tie. The pressure to win at the MLS level is extraordinary, and those who thrive as Fourth Officials are very much in the center of the mix and have found a way to persevere. These assignments are not for the faint of heart, but Fourth Officials who successfully build rapport with coaches from the touchline benefit from that groundwork when given an opportunity to whistle games in MLS.
This year, Mr. Sibiga whistled a pair MLS pre-season matches in February (Philadelphia vs. Costa Rica’s U23 National Team on February 18, followed by Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls on February 25), and worked three games in the North American Soccer League. He represented US Soccer officials at the prestigious Toulon Tournament in France from May 25 to June 9, all of which prepared him for his long anticipated debut as an MLS referee. And, after a two-hour weather delay, the real estate broker by trade had a successful performance in the Columbus Crew vs. Los Angeles Galaxy match on Saturday, June 13.
“Refereeing is a combination of talent, hard work and luck. You control what you can and can only hope for the rest,” noted Mr. Sibiga, who became the third MLS referee to hail from the Polish youth club Stal Stalowa Wola, following in the footsteps of Janusz Weselak and Alex Prus. “If you are good, you will get noticed. And you will get your opportunity. What you do with it is up to you.”
“Managing athletes who are stars and bring people to the stands is a challenge, but I embrace it,” he continued. “Most of them are real professionals who understand referees’ role and are willing to work with you if they see that you know what you are doing.”
Now with two MLS games under his belt, we can hope for more opportunities and perhaps even greater exposure for the league’s rookie referee. And perhaps our friends at PRO might consider updating their website by moving Robert Sibiga from the page of Fourth Officials to the roster of MLS Referees.
And for those of you who think you might be of too advanced an age to warrant consideration to whistle games at a higher level, just remember that 50 is the new 30. Or is 30 the new 50? Either way, my hips still hurt long after retiring, but I hope we just might discover another Robert Sibiga or two taking one too many kicks on the grassless fields of our ethnic amateur leagues. Such late bloomers might not all make it all the way to Major League Soccer, but they can certainly give the less experienced youngsters a challenge at Youth Regionals, they can show that they know how a foul feels at Amateur Nationals, and they can remind some of the game’s future starts that there’s no shortcut to success at the Development Academy.
Well done, Robert Sibiga, for dedicating yourself to achieving a very lofty goal.