US SoccerUS Soccer
Robert Sumpter (2).jpg

Centennial Referee Interview Bob Sumpter

The growth of soccer in the U.S. can be attributed to many different factors. However, one of the most important factors over the past 100 years has been the selfless dedication from countless individuals to see the game thrive in the United States – individuals like Bob Sumpter.

The difficulty of starting and sustaining a referee program in American soccer could’ve chased many people away, but for Sumpter, he does not hesitate in expressing what he loved most about the once monumental endeavor.

“The challenge of it,” Sumpter said. “When you get a volunteer doing something he or she likes to do, it’s easy to get caught up in it and you just develop a desire to do the best you can. As long as you’ll be volunteering your time doing something, it makes sense to do it as best you can. Of course we were in a growing program and it was an exciting time for everybody. That’s how I got in and I stayed as active as possible over the years.”

Sumpter’s long career started in the late 1960s as a parent-volunteer on the youth fields of Georgia. It didn’t take long for him to leave his mark as Sumpter quickly became one of American soccer’s biggest officiating pioneers.

“I organized the first group of youth soccer referees in Georgia and formulated training courses for them,” Sumpter said. “I trained other people to help instruct additional referees as we got them in, set up assessment programs and other kinds of developmental efforts, we largely created a lot of instructional materials that weren’t available at the time. You had to do your own.”

As Sumpter was developing better referees it didn’t take long for his own career to develop as well. In 1968 he was recruited to be an NASL referee by Eddie Pearson and in 1969 he was appointed to a spot on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Referee Committee.

Sumpter called games in the NASL for 11 years until his retirement in 1980, a tenure that included receiving the NASL Service Award, becoming a certified CONCACAF Referee Instructor and being selected to help officiate the Soccer Bowl on two different occasions.

“I did a couple of championships; the first one was 1972 between the Cosmos and St. Louis Toros,” Sumpter said. “The other one was 1974 in Miami, with the Aztecs and the Toros, two great experiences to do really competitive matches like those.”

Even with reaching the highest level of his profession in the United States on the pitch, Sumpter was even better off it as he continuously worked with Pearson and the National Referee Program at training and developing American referees.

“As a member of the NASL staff, Eddie’s habit was to use all of us who were available as volunteer instructors to teach other referees wherever it was convenient to do so,” Sumpter said. “Since he had to send us to different cities to do games, he always tried to assemble a local clinic that we could teach at to help the programs develop.”

Sumpter may have retired from calling games in the NASL in 1980, but he certainly didn’t retire from officiating. In 1981 he became Director of the Georgia State Soccer Association and was appointed Director of Referee Instruction by the U.S. Soccer Referee Committee in 1983. Again, he quickly left his mark on his new position.

“I oversaw the creation of the first comprehensive published training and development curriculum for all U.S. Soccer referee grades,” Sumpter said. “I restructured the USSF National Referee Program into a yearly qualification requirement at a single location. This was important because it was necessary at that point when I took over to restore the credibility of the referee qualification program. Because of abuses that had crept into the system, I established that as a requirement.”

Under Sumpter’s guidance, referees around the country were receiving the same quality of training under the same guidelines and receiving resources referees in America never had access to before. He united American referees in pursuit of a common goal to grow the game in the United States as much as possible.

“We needed to develop a nation-wide network of qualified, certified instructors using the same curriculum and using the same instructional models for the development of course content and execution,” Sumpter said.  

For his efforts, Sumpter received the Eddie Pearson Award in 1989 for distinguishing himself through outstanding contributions as an American referee. He added to his collection of prestigious awards a year later when he was inducted into the Georgia Soccer Hall of Fame.

In the end, it was his love of the craft that made him so successful.

“Of course I love the actual experience of refereeing itself; it’s a very fascinating kind of activity,” Sumpter said. “It’s the one thing that’s set apart, its objective. You’re looking to be a fair and ethical overseer of the games that you manage so that everybody has the best possible experience. In the beginning the major activities were youth related and that has its own rewards of self-satisfaction.”

Youth soccer is where Sumpter’s incredible career as a referee started and it’s where it continues today. Over 40 years later, Sumpter still authors instructional content for youth referees on an annual basis. As long as the game never stops growing, Bob Sumpter will never stop educating.