The saying goes, “A good referee is one that is hardly noticed.” But have you ever wanted to notice a referee, wondering what match day is like for a top soccer official? Maybe you were curious about how much preparation the officiating crew does before the match? Or what they talk about at halftime? And of course, if they know when they make mistakes?
Well, to answer those questions, ussoccer.com tagged along with U.S. Soccer Full Time Referees Baldomero Toledo and Ricardo Salazar, who were part of the four-man crew for the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Chicago Fire and D.C. United on Oct. 25 at Toyota Park.
Toledo, who was the man in the middle for the match, and Salazar, the fourth official, let ussoccer.com be a fly on the wall during their pre-game routine, their halftime discussions and the post-match analysis. What follows is an in-depth look at match day for an officiating crew.
5 p.m. – The fourth official for the match, Salazar, is a local Chicagoan, so he was kind enough to pick up the rest of the crew at their hotel and carpool to Toyota Park.
6 p.m. – The entire crew arrives at the stadium about two hours before kickoff and heads to the officials’ locker room located nearby the Fire and visitor (D.C. on this night) locker rooms. The locker room isn’t big by any standards, but includes a few lockers, a small bench, a couple individual shower stalls, bathroom stalls and sinks. There are also a variety of drinks (water and Gatorade) and snacks (granola, Gatorade bars and gum) laid out on the table, all of which are provided by the Fire. Salazar: “Depending on the venue, the snacks get better or worse. This is pretty good.”
6:10 p.m. – After dropping off their belongings in the locker room, the officials make their way to their workplace for the night – the field. As a group, they inspect every aspect of the pitch, spending about 20-30 minutes checking a range of items and getting a feel for where they’ll be earning their paychecks for 90 minutes. Here’s a quick rundown of some of their inspections:
- Look for holes or depressions in the field itself that could cause injury to players. Also, remove any rocks, twigs or other debris.
- Make sure the nets are securely fastened to the goal posts, and make sure the nets themselves don’t have any rips or holes.
- Correct placement of corner flags.
- Make sure field is lined properly. “This is especially important when you’re playing in stadiums where they also play American football,” said Salazar.
- Since this was a ESPN2 match, the crew also had to check the microphones placed around the field, especially near the goals to make sure nothing would interfere with the play on the field.
6:50 p.m. – After checking the field, the referees return to the locker room and start changing into their uniforms. There’s a smattering of small talk, just like any locker room, mostly about the MLS playoffs, but also about their families and other non-soccer topics.
6:55 p.m. – Salazar takes a moment to fill out the envelopes for the crew’s complementary tickets, writing the names of the recipients so they can be left at will call. Each referee gets two tickets and, just like the players, they get requests from friends and family. While he’s filling them out, Salazar actually gets a call from his friend wondering if he can get another ticket. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says.
7:01 p.m. – Team officials from both Chicago and D.C. come in with their uniforms for the match. The Fire will be in all red, United in all black. Both teams present similar grey goalkeeper jerseys, which is not allowed according to the letter of the law, so the Fire are asked to change (home team has to make the change). Toledo explains the reasoning: “Lets say for some reason one of the ‘keepers come up for a free kick or corner kick in an attempt to score a late goal. If they both end up challenging for the ball, it makes it difficult to decipher between the two in instances of a hand ball or a foul.”
7:03 p.m. – Team line-ups arrive. Toledo looks them over to make sure everything is filled out properly before handing them off to Fire personnel, who will bring them upstairs for the media and stadium announcer.
7:04 p.m. – Fire equipment manager brings in the other jersey option – a light blue with yellow trimming – which is approved by the referees.
7:08 p.m. – Salazar checks the pressure of the game balls one final time.
7:10 p.m. – The crew gets together and talks quickly about a few scenarios to be prepared for, and players to pay attention to, during the match. Sometimes they’ll spend more time on it in the hours before the match, but fortunately in this instance they arrived into Chicago yesterday and were able to get together and go over their pre-match preparation a day early.
Toledo explains while treating everyone fairly, there are a number of players they will need to be prepared to possibly deal with more than others as these specific players have personalities that tend to be expressed more than others. “That doesn’t mean we go into the game saying we’re going to call a foul or not call a foul when a certain player goes to the ground, but we know his style of play and need to be aware of it and work together to make sure we make the right call,” explains Toledo.
They also go over instances on the field that could happen, such as yellow and red cards, or on how they’ll communicate on certain calls to make sure every call is as accurate and fair as possible. It’s basically a three-minute refresher course. “I know they all know this stuff, but we need to be ready to react. If we’re ready, then that will make for a better game,” says Toledo.
7:20 p.m. – The officials head back to the field for their warm-ups alongside the players from both teams. For about 15-20 minutes they jog along the sideline and stretch near the midfield stripe. Just like the players, they need to be warmed up so they don’t pull something.
7:40 p.m. – Back in the locker room, they finish up their last-minute preparations. One of the assistants puts on a long sleeve shirt underneath his official shirt as the temperature steadily dropped since they first arrived. Unfortunately, they’ll have to deal with cold legs at least for the first couple minutes as they’re required to wear shorts. Except for the fourth official, that is: Salazar throws on a warm-up jacket and pants and makes a joke about how he’ll “be nice and warm.”
7:45 p.m. – Dressed in their yellow uniforms tonight, the officials take one last mirror check and comb their hair, tuck in their shirts and even put on some lip balm. They give each other a hard time since they’re worrying about their appearance, but they know they’ve got to look presentable – especially for a nationally televised match.
7:49 p.m. – A buzzing sound can be heard in the locker room as the linesmen check to make sure the alert system on their flags are working. When they make a call, they push a button on the handle and it buzzes the device strapped to Toledo’s arm to alert him. Salazar also checks the electronic substitution board one last time.
7:51 p.m. – A Fire employee alerts the crew that it’s time to go and they head out to the tunnel along with the players.
7:54 p.m. – The referees lead the players out and line-up at midfield.
7:58 p.m. – Anthem is played, players take their positions.
8:07 p.m. – The teams and Toledo wait for the signal from the TV broadcast to begin. A few minutes later, Toledo blows the whistle to start the match.
Here are some first-half incidents Toledo and his crew have to deal with:
- Early on in the match, Blanco is already ornery and complains about not getting a call near the sideline. Toledo and his linesman communicate well with each other and do their best to explain to the displeased Blanco that there was no foul.
- Chris Rolfe pounces on a loose ball and buries it into the upper-left corner for the game’s opening goal.
- In the 31st minute, a bit of an unusual situation occurs when a Fire clearance hits the sky camera. Toledo correctly stops play and conducts a drop ball at the site of the incident.
- A couple minutes later, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Ben Olsen get into a bit of a scuffle. Toledo handles the situation calmly and is able to diffuse the fracas before it can escalate.
8:55 p.m. – Toledo blows the halftime whistle and everyone gets a respite from the weather as they head to the locker rooms.
At halftime, Toledo and his crew talk about a myriad of situations.
On yellow cards: Toledo goes over the yellow cards he handed out, explaining the reasoning to his crew so everyone is on the same page. They also make sure the correct player was marked on the halftime match report.
On managing the players: Player management comes up early in the conversation as well. Toledo says he feels they’ve communicated well to make sure they’re handling all the players fairly, while doing their best to make the correct calls.
On the ball hitting the camera: Toledo says he actually didn’t see the ball hit the camera, but noticed the odd movement the ball took on the way down. One of his linesman was all over it, and quickly signaled Toledo on what happened so he could make the appropriate call (a drop ball).
On the conditions: With the field being slippery, Toledo reminds the crew they need to make sure they keep the players safe as there is a concern of players sliding into tackles more. Also he says, “Don’t let the players use the slippery field as an excuse either for a reckless tackle.”
On things they missed: The crew openly talks about things it may have missed, or possibly should have called a different way. A specific example is when Toledo calls a goal kick incorrectly (it should have been a corner kick). One of the assistant referees had a better view of the play, but didn’t assertively alert Toledo in time. Toledo: “We’ve got to talk about these things as we don’t want to miss them again. We always have to improve.”
On the second half: Similar to what is happening in the Fire and United locker rooms, the crew encourage each other before they head back out there. “Keep the game in control and be ready for anything in a game like this,” says Salazar.
9:01 p.m. – The crew is informed they need to go out in about one minute.
9:02 p.m. – After a few last words of encouragement, Toledo leads the crew out of the locker room and back onto the field for the second half.
9:08 p.m. – Toledo blows the whistle to start the second half.
There are two hand ball incidents in the second half that Toledo and his crew have to deal with:
- The first comes just four minutes in when United gets a free kick about 30 yards out near the right corner of the penalty area. Gomez rips a shot into the wall that hits Chad Barrett in the arm, with him possibly in the penalty area. Toledo and his crew do not call a hand ball despite the complaints of the D.C. players.
- The second comes in the 86th minute when the ball hits Wilman Conde’s arm during a challenge with Jaime Moreno inside the penalty area. Toledo calls Moreno for a foul on the play (see his explanation below).
9:59 p.m. – Toledo blows the final whistle on Chicago’s 1-0 victory against D.C.
END OF MATCH
10:02 p.m. – The crew is back in the locker room and there’s some backslapping and handshaking for a job well done. Toledo: “Good job guys. That was not an easy game.”
10:03 p.m. – Not a ton of time to feel too good about their performance as they still have some duties to finish up, such as going over the official match report. Toledo and the rest of the crew each take a turn eyeing over the report to make sure everything from yellow cards, goal scorers and times, and substitutions are accurate. Toledo signs the report to make it official.
10:05 p.m. – The referee match assessor comes into the locker room and talks with the crew about the entire match. Here are some of the incidents they touched on from the second half.
- The assessor asks about the possible hand ball in the wall by Barrett, Toledo says his view was blocked (“I didn’t see it, so I didn’t call it”); but that he realized something had happened due to the D.C. player’s reaction. The linesman on that side of the field tells Toledo he saw it, but felt it was an incident where he had his arms crossed across his chest and was just protecting himself, therefore he didn’t raise his flag. It’s agreed it was the proper call.
- As for the one on Conde, Toledo explains the foul (a careless elbow) by Moreno was committed first, which in turn caused the hand ball. He adds: “I’d like to see the tape though. I think I made the right call, but I’ll check it out.”
- Player management once again is a topic of conversation. The crew feels like they were fair in how they handled each player.
10:30 p.m. – They finish their recap of the match and take a quick shower as they get ready to go back to the hotel.
10:45 p.m. – With all their belongings packed up, Toledo and his crew leave the stadium. Overall, Toledo says he was happy with the crew’s performance. “We tried to manage the game as well as we could. It was not an easy game, but I felt good. I think we did well.”