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Development Academy Matches a Key Part of Elite Referee Development

  • Local Mentor Program Utilizes Academy Games for Elite Referee Development
  • Academy Games are Used to Identify Referees Across the Country

Across the country, high level Development Academy games have marked a turning point in referee development. Prior to the inception of the program, referees often had to travel hours each way, every weekend, to obtain the number of games required to advance up the ladder.

With the Academy program now reaching 77 clubs across 24 states and Washington D.C., more than 900 referees have been exposed to high level youth games every week within a reasonable distance of their homes.

“The Development Academy has opened the doors for many referees to be exposed to a high level of competition on a weekly basis without traveling to other parts of the country,” said Paul Tamberino, Director of Referee Development at U.S. Soccer. “More so, good referees are now able to be identified by members of the U.S. Soccer Referee Department and other highly qualified assessors who then track these young referees progress.”

U.S. Soccer full-time referee Ricardo Salazar, who grew up in California, remembers the difficulty of getting noticed before there was a national platform.

“Obviously the Development Academy wasn’t around when I was first starting out, and neither was Major League Soccer,” said Salazar. “We had to drive all over the country to try to get good games and be identified. The sheer amount of quality games that it takes to move up the ladder made it very difficult, and being identified was just as hard.”

Now, Academy clubs, technical advisors and scouts have the opportunity to evaluate referees in a national database every week. Promising referees are invited to Academy Showcase events, with the best traveling to Playoffs and Finals Week.

“It’s a lot easier for these young guys to be identified,” said Salazar. “Where we relied solely on word of mouth and trusted eyes, they have the chance to do games in front of important decision makers quite a bit. I still think there is more we can do to get these young referees up to the highest level, but I think we’re making that process available to so many more people now.”

Tamberino agrees that the Academy has become one of the best platforms for referees to get their start. In fact, 26 of the 66 American referees attending the Professional Referee Preseason Training Seminar have worked Academy matches.

“We think of the Development Academy as a pathway to the professional level, and there have been many who, through these games, have reached their goal and are now working professional games,” he said.

Cesar Calderon is a young referee who grew up in the soccer hotbed of Southern California, home of two Major League Soccer teams nine Development Academy teams and, of course, U.S. Soccer’s National Training Center.

Calderon, 26, played soccer for many years, but soon realized that the opportunities available to him in the game were greater as an official.

“I first got into it when I was in college, trying to make money to be honest,” said the Development Academy Referee of the Week for Feb. 8. “Once I started, I really liked it and ever since I’ve just been trying to move up the ranks.”

After moving through the gauntlet of the highly competitive referee program in Cal South, Calderon has put himself in a position to become a national referee candidate along with others from the area, all of whom currently referee U-17/18 Development Academy matches.

The requirements for referees to advance varies by state association, but U.S. Soccer has set minimum criteria for certifying and upgrading referees. For example, one of the requirements to move from Grade 6 to Grade 5, is 150 games as a referee plus 50 as an assistant. Referees usually begin their career as a Grade 7, with full international games managed by a Grade 1 official.

“Having opportunities in the Development Academy is very important to a lot of people, but I think it has really changed the way referees are able to progress,” said Calderon. “We have high level games now every single week in our own backyard, and using those games as part of our program in Southern California has really helped us.”

Nasser Sarfaraz, Director of Referee Instruction in Southern California, takes great pride in both the number and quality of referees who have gone through his rigorous program. There are at least six professional referees who are products of the system, in which young referees first start by observing Development Academy matches and work closely with a trained mentor.

“We think it’s important that they watch a lot of games before they even step onto a field,” Sarfaraz explained. “Once they’ve seen a certain number of games, then we’ll put a flag in their hand for a U-15/16 game. Then they may work the middle of the younger Development Academy match and spend some time running lines for the U-17/18s before taking over as a referee for the higher level games.”

The process is not a quick or easy one, but it is vital in terms of development. Sarfaraz has incorporated trained mentors, referees who have officiated high-level matches and understand the ins and outs of the program, to work with the younger men and women throughout the process.

“We don’t make it easy for them, that’s for sure,” said Sarfaraz. “It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s just like getting to be a player at the highest level. Things like that don’t happen overnight, they take a lot of work and a lot of coaching.”

He knew that the quality of officials in Southern California had to match the number of quality games played in the area.

“The sheer amount of good teams coming through our area means that our program has to keep up with the demand,” said Sarfaraz.

Officials in Cal South meet twice per month for four hours to do fitness and field work before moving to the classroom to discuss the latest trends and hot topics going on across the world of soccer. They work on projects, watch games and write reports to discuss at the bi-weekly meeting.

“We put a lot of time into becoming a good referee, it takes a lot of patience,” said Calderon. “We really take comments and feedback to heart, and listening to referees at a higher level is the only way to get better.”

Calderon has been involved with Academy games since the 2008 Winter Showcase in Lancaster, Calif. Since then, he has taken advantage of the opportunities that the Academy provides, refereeing 13 games and moving up to Grade 5. With high quality games year round, Calderon knows that if he works hard, the opportunities will continue to come.

“It’s up to each referee to get where he wants to be,” said Calderon. “We have all of the resources available to us now with the Academy. We have high level games relatively close to where we live, year round. We have educational opportunities at the national level at our fingertips. What more could we ask for?”