U.S. Soccer Referees Work More than 400 Games in the U.S. in July
More than 1,600 Referee Positions Required to Accommodate 400-Plus Matches During Busy Summer Month
CHICAGO (Aug. 3, 2004) - At the end of July, U.S. Soccer Referee Ricardo Valenzuela could breath a small sigh of relief. He would finally have some rest, nine days to be exact, before officiating another match. In one month, Valenzuela had been the referee in five professional matches and the fourth official in one match. The last five games took place within a span of 12 days and three of the last five involved an international team playing in the United States.
Valenzuela's schedule, which involved traveling from his hometown of Richmond, Calif., to Clarkson, Ga., back to California and, finally, to Pittsburgh, Penn., was symbolic of the workload that U.S. Soccer Referees endured during July. "It's always an honor do to big matches," Valenzuela said, "The travel is exhausting, but it's exciting because the expectations are high."
Throughout the month of July in the United States, the tally of matches being played that required U.S. Soccer to place an officiating crew in charge of the game read like this: 17 U.S. National Team games, 364 professional games and 33 international games. Those matches included everything from games on the U.S. Women's National Team's Olympic send-off tour to a number of games involving European powerhouse clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea and Bayern Munich. The overall tally of games also included international friendly matches like El Salvador vs. Guatemala in Los Angeles.
Without a doubt, the month of July was one of the busiest in U.S. Soccer history for referee placement, and that put officials like Valenzuela and several others in high demand.
As the governing body of the sport in the United States, the U.S. Soccer Federation is not only in charge of the development of the U.S. Men's and Women's National Teams, as well as a dozen youth national teams, it is also responsible for assigning referees for all of the international and professional games played in this country.
"I like to do international games because it is such an honor," said Valenzuela during his hectic month. "An international game is what we're made for, as FIFA refs. I have the U.S. Open Cup game in Atlanta and then a game in San Francisco. They keep us busy ... It's hectic but I'm pretty organized, so it doesn't bother me."
Before U.S. Soccer can assign referees, though, it must first train and certify them. That process includes training courses and clinics, general regional professional clinics, two national referee certification clinics and a national assessor program, in which designated assessors go to different matches across the United States to review and evaluate the performance of the referees before they can be moved up to the next certification level.
Valenzuela and fellow referee Ali Saheli both began officiating in 1982. They became members of the FIFA International Panel of Referees in 1999.
Despite having more than 500 referees in the pool for international and professional matches, finding referees for busy months like July 2004 can be difficult. There were 414 professional games played in the U.S. in July, including scores of international friendlies. The Federation assigns a team of four officials for each match while working around referees' full-time jobs and family vacations, among other things.
That makes referees like Valenzuela highly valuable because, as a schoolteacher, he has summer months off and can make the necessary trips back and forth across the U.S. The open summers allow him to officiate six or seven professional games a month as assigned by U.S. Soccer, Valenzuela said.
Other officials, like Saheli, have a more difficult time adjusting their schedules for games. Saheli, a computer programming analyst at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, used his vacation time to referee four games in San Diego, Columbus, Dallas and Philadelphia within a 10-day span.
"It's a constant challenge," said Saheli, who hasn't been on a personal vacation in more than six years. "We sometimes have to use our vacation and extra free time to get off work and do games. It's always a constant juggling act."
Referees must have national certification to be considered to officiate an international or professional match. A national license is obtained by being invited to the National Referee Certification Conference conducted annually by U.S. Soccer. With a national certification, an official can be recommended to be a member of the FIFA International Panel of Referees. Referees with state-level certification begin their career officiating games at all sorts of regional levels, with Division III professional matches being the highest level. From there, referees with a state license can move up to the national and international level.
State-level certification is obtained by going to a number of training courses, passing assessments, passing a physical fitness test and attending one of the 11 regional professional clinics that U.S. Soccer hosts each year.
When considering referee assignments for international matches played in the United States, a referee's ability, location and availability are taken into account. That information is also considered when assessing the intensity of the match and how much referee experience might be needed.
In addition to the high volume of games in the United States, referees on the FIFA panel may also be chosen for FIFA assignments such as World Cup qualifying matches or the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Despite the hectic schedules, Saheli says the personal sacrifices are more than worth it.
"It's the love of the game," he said. "Those two hours on the field with some of the best athletes in the world makes it all worthwhile. Being part of it is a privilege and I feel very privileged to be involved at the level that I am. That's the driving force and there's no price you can put on that."
U.S. REFEREE PLACEMENT - JULY 2004
Professional Games U.S. National Team Games International Games
# of Games 364 17 33
# of Officials 1456 68 132