Who Are PRO Referees, How Are They Judged, and How Are Their Decisions Appealed?



Many of Orlando City’s struggles this year have come down to discipline problems. Rafael Ramos‘ red card Saturday afternoon in Toronto was the team’s ninth sending off this season. With so many red cards during their expansion season, many fans have placed their frustration on the referees. But who are the MLS referees?

MLS referees have always been criticized as not being good enough, especially as the league continues to improve year after year. In November of 2012, U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer joined forces in an attempt to find a solution to this problem.

The solution they found was the creation of the Professional Referees Organization (PRO). According to the organization's website, the goal of the organization is to:

"develop a higher standard of officiating at a younger age and to produce referees who can represent the United States and Canada at FIFA competitions."

To make sure the organization was producing referees of the highest order, PRO brought in someone who had taken charge of games at the highest level. That man was Peter Walton, an Englishman who had been a professional referee for nearly 20 years and had officiated nearly 200 matches in the English Premier League. Today Walton remains PRO's general manager.

Since its formation, PRO has become the sole body producing referees for American soccer games. "We are dedicated to the identification, training, assessment, assignment, and employment of male and female professional soccer officials," the organization's website says.

The organization is now responsible for all referees for Major League Soccer (MLS), the North American Soccer League (NASL), United Soccer League (USL), the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. They also provide referees for other events, such as the MLS All-Star Game and FIFA competitions.

When PRO started three years ago, the organization employed just two full-time match officials and 35 independent contractors. Since then, the organization has grown to now employ nine full-time referees, 11 part-time officials, and just one independent contractor.

While the referees used to meet just twice a year in working to improve, they now meet several times throughout the year. Full-time referees are brought into a training camp 19 times throughout the year, where they go through physical and mental evaluations. Part-time referees take part in the camps 10 times throughout the year. The camps are held on a two-week rotating basis as not to interfere with the season.

On match day, the referees' performances are evaluated by PRO from the Referee Review Center — originally named the Referee Command Center. Specially selected former officials are placed in the MLS digital offices in New York, where they view live feeds of each game to produce data and provide instant feedback of a referee's performance. The review officials provide the referee with both their strengths and weaknesses in the game. The United States is just one of five countries to have a review system like this, joining Australia, England, Italy, and Spain.

So where do these referees come from? There are 55 state referee associations around the country that have produced approximately 140,000 members, who officiate the nation's amateur games at the youth and adult levels. In addition to helping these associations develop referees, U.S. Soccer sends a network of "highly qualified staff" to elite regional and national events to evaluate the officials in order to identify the nation's up-and-coming and top performing officials.

U.S. Soccer then uses a highly selective process to choose officials who will be invited to be trained as national candidates and national officials. A finite number of these amateur officials are selected on an annual basis to be a part of this group. After completing their training, these officials will be eligible to referee some of the nation's most elite events and leagues, including professional matches. Once they finish the training by U.S. Soccer, the officials can become PRO referees.

So what about those red cards that seem a bit too harsh? If a player is sent off during a match, his team can request a review to "rectify a case of serious and obvious error of the disciplinary decision of the referee." The club must submit the request within 24 hours of the completion of the match.

Prior to the start of each season, every MLS team provides a $25,000 refundable bond to the league office for the right to make up to two unsuccessful appeals. If the appeal is upheld, the red card will be rescinded, as was the case with Cyle Larin earlier this year.

But if it's unsuccessful, the team will lose one its appeals. If an appeal is ruled to be "frivolous" by the ruling body reviewing the case, the team will forfeit its bond and will lose the right the appeal any decisions for that season and the following season. The punishment of the offender will also be automatically doubled if the appeal is ruled to be frivolous.

If the sending off is of a player, the appeal goes to an independent three-member panel. The panel includes one member of U.S. Soccer, one member from the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), and one member of PRO. MLS does not have a member on the independent panel.

If the appeal is for a coach or staff member that has been sent off, it goes to the MLS Disciplinary Committee (DisCo). No one knows who the five members of DisCo are, as the league keeps their identities secret.

When the independent panel receives the documentation from the team appealing the red card, they ask two questions:

Did the referee correctly identify the offense in accordance with the laws of the game?

Is the disciplinary sanction applied appropriate for the offense?

If either of these questions are yes, the appeal will be unsuccessful and the panel will then decide whether or not the appeal was frivolous. For a successful appeal, the panel must be unanimous in its findings, including whether it's frivolous. If the decision is not unanimous, the answer to the questions automatically defaults to yes and the decision is upheld.

Much has been made about referee decisions this season, especially in Orlando where the Lions have suffered nine red cards. But many people don't know where the referees come from or how they are selected. Further, many don't understand what can be done about red cards that many deem unfair. Hopefully this gives a little insight into U.S. Soccer officiating, PRO, and the process of red card appeals.


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