Behind the Scenes: See how PRO monitors its refs on matchday

Even in the rain, referees will have their decisions scrutinized. PRO executives gather data and review decisions from every match in a command center in New York.

John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK —

Some 120 miles away, Jack McInerney plays Vincent Nogueira through the offside trap. The assistant referee’s flag stays down. The Frenchman bears down on goal and beats goalkeeper Troy Perkins with a fine finish, putting the Philadelphia Union up 1-0 on the Montréal Impact during a Saturday afternoon match at PPL Park. In a bare back room awash in fluorescent light, half-way up a non-descript Midtown office building, a middle-aged man watching a foursome of television screens pumps a fist.

But Ken Heller isn’t a fan of the Union. Or Nogueira. Or McInerney. Nor is he an Impact-hater.

Heller is rooting for the referees – and this correct on-side call at this particular moment. Earlier in the game, he had clapped when Edvin Jurisevic rightly played the advantage. Because supporting the refs is the point of this place, the Professional Referee Organization’s Referee Review Center, nestled in a corner of Major League Soccer’s digital offices. Here, all MLS games are monitored in real-time for difficult refereeing decisions.

Heller, a veteran referee himself, is one of the men who keep on eye on every league game, as he endlessly sips from a tall class of cola. Alan Brown, PRO’s assignment coordinator, sits beside him. “We always cheer for the ref, they’re the third team on the field,” he says. “You want the referee to succeed so badly you’re excited for him when he makes the right call.”

When it was started three years ago, this place was called the Referee Command Center, but that sounded a tad Orwellian, so it was renamed. “We didn’t want to have the appearance of an absolute army looking at every individual call as being correct or wrong,” says Brown from below his tidy, silver mustache. “Here, the emphasis is always on helping the referee. It’s not all just beating the referee up.”

PRO is funded by the United States Soccer Federation and MLS, and the Referee Review Center is but a cog in the larger mechanism driving American soccer forward. Its point is to produce data and provide instant feedback on match officials as part of a kind of continues internal audit designed to push progress. It tries to pick up trends and weaknesses, but it identifies strengths, too. Its analysts produce reports spread around to the match assessors and the PRO brass – but not the referee in question – and video clips of all significant moments.

“It’s a tool that we can use to squeeze every benefit out of the program that we can,” says PRO general manager Peter Walton, who concluded a 14-season career as a Premier League referee in 2012 to head up the new organization. “We have to take into account every piece of information we can glean to make our guys better.”

Soccer is becoming increasingly data-driven, and the American referees are following suit. “I need to benchmark how we’re doing against the rest of the world,” says Walton. “I know the percentage of free kicks that were correct, that were wrong; the percentage of penalty kicks and offsides that were correct, that were wrong. We have that data.” He wouldn’t share how the US stacks up internationally, only that it is “beyond where I expected us to be.”

The construct is uncommon. Only Australia, England, Italy and Spain have an equivalent to the Referee Review Center. “It was beneficial in my development,” says Walton. “The main benefit is really to look at trends and to look at the group in general rather than just specific plays.”

Peter Walton spent more than a decade in the Premier League before moving to the United States to start PRO.

Under Walton, the development and the professionalism of the American referee has accelerated dramatically. Two years ago, two full-time referees and 35 independent contractors were employed by US Soccer. Today, PRO counts nine full-time referees, 11 part-timers and one independent contractor. They are subjected to tough conditioning testing. A sports scientist helps them optimize their physical performance; a nutritionist their diet. When a referee trains on his own, PRO gets a report from a heart monitor.

All of the referees get together every two weeks in rotating locations while the full-timers also attend 19 training camps per year – the part-time refs go to 10. Before Walton came along, there would be just two referee meetings per year. “Could you imagine someone like [Seattle Sounders head coach] Sigi Schmid getting his players together just twice a year?” Walton asks. “It wouldn’t happen, would it? As my team are the 20th team in MLS, I like to get my team together as well.”

Like all American soccer teams, that 20th MLS team needs to improve to unlock this country’s potential in the sport. “US Soccer and MLS understand that the development of top level officials is critical to the growth and popularity of the game at the highest level,” says US Soccer president Sunil Gulati. “As MLS continues to expand and improve its on-field product, we’ll continue to support that process by dedicating additional resources to training elite officials.”

Over the years, MLS refs have taken a lot of criticism. And if we’re being honest, much of it was warranted – hence all the efforts. Walton thinks a shift is already noticeable. “Perception of our referees, I think, has changed over the past two years,” he says. “I think people are realizing now that they make great decisions and the odd mistake.”

“Because our referees are like good goalkeepers,” Walton continues. “They make fantastic saves for 89 minutes and they make one error and everybody remembers that error.”

Whether or not their perception has really changed is hard to ascertain. These things are measured over long stretches of time, when the decreasing occurrence of high-profile mistakes becomes noticeable. Walton argues that American sports culture works against soccer referees.

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“Within [other sports] in North America, there are mainly very objective rules and we have video replay and people being allowed the time to get the decision a 100 percent correct,” he says. “So the public are being brought up on officials having the ability to get the judgment calls 100 percent correct. In soccer, we don’t have that luxury because soccer, as a free-flowing game, is very subjective.”

Up on one of the screens, in the Philadelphia-Montréal game, Heller and Brown replay a desperately close offside call again and again. It concerns the movement of number six – just as referees are mostly anonymous to your average fan, the players are but numbers to them now. It takes several minutes to work it out, even with the frame totally frozen, that’s how tight the play is. They conclude that the assistant referee was wrong to flag the player offside, robbing him of a scoring chance. In fairness, it was the sort of call the naked, human eye could hardly be expected to get right every time around, I offer. They pay my comment no heed.

Spend some time with the men charged with making referees better and you get a profound sense of just how hard calling a game dead to rights really is. And that, perhaps, this is a utopian aspiration. The rulebook is black and white, but out on the field, almost everything is gray and subject to context, interpretation and circumstance. The referee is both judge and executioner. His job is to be the law, but follow the laws to the letter and the game becomes unplayable. Ideologues don’t make for good referees. To underscore the point, Brown pulls a soft rulebook from his bag and folds it every which way. The rules are firm, he says without saying it, but a certain flexibility is required in applying them.

And perception is everything. With every call, the credibility of the referee, his crew, the game, the league and even American soccer as a whole is at stake. Nothing looks quite so bad as bad refereeing. A referee having a good game isn’t noticed but is nevertheless in charge. He enforces the rules but isn’t draconian about it, sensing the rhythm and tone of the game. Within these contradictions, he must operate. “Rather than just throw cards out there all the time, we want them to use their personalities to control the players and control the game,” says Brown.

With a malleable subject, there can be no perfection. Yet these men are so very hard on themselves. The mistakes linger in the mind. “I have calls in my mind from 12 years ago,” says Brown. “We clearly remember calls and try to learn from them.”

“I remember a stinker I had in 1998 in New Britain,” says Heller, referring to a USL game. “I don’t know who was in my uniform that night but it wasn’t me.”

As this team of referees marches onwards, the stinkers ought to become increasingly rare. And they will cheer for one another every other time.