New Referee Development Process Provides Pathway to MLS
U.S. Soccer created the Development Academy in 2007 after a comprehensive review of elite player development in the United States and around the world. The goal of the Development Academy is to provide soccer referees, players and coaches the best possible opportunity to achieve their utmost potential as elite soccer performers.
In forming the Development Academy, U.S. Soccer and its Referee Department have created the pathway to officiate in Major League Soccer and other professional arenas. The Academy is used as a developmental platform to both educate and identify elite officials and place them in increasingly competitive environments.
The Development Academy focuses on strengthening the national referee pool through the challenging environment created by league games and event-based educational initiatives. The program features teams from the nation’s top youth clubs competing for a national championship, creating the most competitive youth environment in the United States. These matches are officiated by a pool of the nation’s top young referees in order to prepare both players and referees alike for the next level of competition.
The Development Academy Showcases, Playoffs and Finals Week are the nation’s leading events in referee training and education. These events offer opportunities for referees to mature and be recognized. Staff from the national team and national assessors have the access and opportunity to watch these games and identify the elite referees.
Once identified in the Academy in their local environment or at national events, U.S. Soccer places the up-and-coming referees in more competitive environments in a variety of leagues and divisions. These referees gain experience in Amateur play, United Soccer Leagues, Women’s Professional Soccer, North American Soccer League, MLS Reserve and MLS as a fourth official. These officials are also invited to referee the Open Cup and international games. While the Academy is used to identify the officials, the amateur adult and professional games provide the necessary training and experience before referees are considered for MLS.
These top emerging referees have the opportunity to enter MLS in unprecedented numbers. As the program completes its fourth season, it has already dramatically impacted player development and referee identification in the United States. Seventeen current and former Development Academy standout referees have advanced to the professional level, officiating scrimmages and exhibition games in the 2010 MLS season.
Many officials from the Academy are now receiving fourth official assignments on a regular basis in MLS. This year, there are seven rookie officials that will each receive ten league games. This means that 70 games will be officiated by rookie referees, while last year there were only two.
These young officials are receiving greater support as they move up the ranks towards MLS. The officials are assigned a referee team where they can establish mentoring relationships with veteran officials. Each referee is assigned two referee coaches and two former professional referees that will follow the team over the course of the year.
Ismail Elfath provides a great example of a young referee who, through his hard work and dedication, is taking advantage of this process.
Elfath became a registered referee in Texas South in 2006 and began in the Academy two years later. In just three years, Elfath has officiated more than 100 games and was quickly identified within the Academy for his efforts.
“The Development Academy has tremendously helped me move along and be exposed to different teams and higher levels of professionalism,” said Elfath. “You also get close to the U.S. Soccer referee program and learn from their philosophies and leaders.”
“I began with the local Development Academy games and then went to the Showcase in Dallas. I was involved with the inaugural program and showcase. I listened to the idea and the approach they had, so I went to other showcases, which put me in the playoffs and then Finals Week after my third year.”
Elfath attended two Winter Showcases with the Academy in 2008 and 2009 where staff from the national team and national assessors had the access and opportunity to watch. Because of his previous performance in the Development Academy Playoffs, Elfath was invited to officiate the 2010 Development Academy Finals Week, an honor only 16 referees receive. Elfath was the referee for the U-15/16 championship game and the fourth official for the U-17/18 final.
Because of his impressive performance, Elfath quickly rose on the referee grade scale, now as a Grade 3, and was then integrated into MLS. He received his first assignment when he refereed a scrimmage on Jan. 29, 2011, in Houston, Texas. He then refereed an exhibition game on Feb. 2 between the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas. He also went on to referee three more preseason games. During the regular season, Elfath has been the fourth official for two games and refereed a MLS Open Cup play-in game on April 6 between Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo.
“All the credit goes to the mentoring program and the education from U.S. Soccer at the local level in the South Texas organization that I was a part of, and also at the national level when we go to the tournaments and learn from the staff that accompanies the showcases,” said Elfath. “There is also the dedication on my part.”
Elfath was then honored with the invitation from U.S. Soccer to participate in the Lisbon International Tournament with the U-18 Men’s National Team where on May 25, he officiated the Portugal vs. Finland game. The thrilling 2-1 Portugal win marked the most advanced and competitive match that Elfath has officiated in his career.
“It was an honor to represent U.S. Soccer referees in Portugal,” said Elfath. “I officiated the opener for the host country and the game went well. I had the opportunity to work with referees from Portugal, Holland and Finland. The Portuguese Football Federation recognized my performance with a plaque and a medal.”
Don Wilbur is Elfath’s coach mentor after the two first met two years ago in the Armed Forces Tournament. They spent the week together getting to know each other, and through this bonding experience, Elfath asked Wilbur to be his coach mentor.
“What Ismail is doing with his games is getting visibility, and with a coach mentor, he will get credibility,” said Wilbur. “We will talk about his strong points and what weak points he needs to master to get to the next level. It is really key to have someone to talk to because the coach mentors have already been through it. I can help raise the valleys and lower the peaks so there’s a fine adjustment for him to move on.”
The U.S. Soccer Referee Department is confident in the long-term success of the Development Academy. While the number of U.S. officials in FIFA is currently decreasing due to a lack of experienced professional referees, this next generation of referees will be well-equipped and easily identifiable to fill those roles.