National Soccer Hall of Famer has been Sought After Voice and Public Figure in Officiating Community
In the early years of the U.S. Soccer Referee Program, the setup of training, testing, assigning and promotion were based locally, while referee guidelines were not spelled out into something more than a pamphlet.
Fortunately the structure of soccer officiating in the United States has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past four decades.
As U.S. Soccer honors its Centennial in 2013 and takes a look back at its constantly growing referee program, it goes without saying that one of the most exemplary figures has been former North American Soccer League and FIFA referee Alfred Kleinaitis.
It is not just the longevity of Kleinaitis’ involvement that stands out, but rather the culture and sophistication with which the referee program has grown through his tenure.
Kleinaitis, a former attacking midfielder, put his playing days behind him at 34 and with a family to think wholeheartedly about. But he continued to keep his focus on soccer with a profound interest in the laws of the game. The referee picture came to the fold in 1974. At that time, a National Referee Development Program had not been instituted, and Kleinaitis said the bulk of U.S.-based officials were foreign-born.
“When I was a referee you had about 95 percent of the referees who were born in another country and the other five percent were born in America,” the Lithuanian-born Kleinaitis said. “Today, it is completely the opposite.”
Kleinaitis was a FIFA international referee from 1985-90 and is probably best known for being the first American assigned to referee a game between two European teams in Europe – an Ireland-Soviet Union match in 1990. He was a regular official in the NASL and World Cup qualifiers. He also refereed five different NCAA championship games during the 1980s.
While these accolades and accomplishments unquestionably defined Kleinaitis’ officiating career, he also looks back at the challenging matches as essential toward both his refereeing days and during his educational role.
“I was the referee of a match between Brazil and Mexico in 1988 at Comiskey Park, and the conditions were not ideal,” Kleinaitis said, referring to Brazil’s 3-2 victory in front of more than 25,000 spectators at the home of the Chicago White Sox. “The grass on the pitch was really high, and for a Brazil team that likes to play with pace, it affected their game and for a while played to Mexico’s advantage.”
Kleinaitis said managing the game for both teams, their coaches and players was one of the most arduous of his officiating days. Nevertheless, it served as a fitting example of where Kleinaitis stood in the progression of his field in the U.S. He had the ability to handle a powerhouse Brazil side that has won five FIFA World Cups, and his meticulous nature bode well throughout his referee career.
“I studied the game and was a perfectionist,” Kleinaitis said. “I could anticipate situations on the field or when substitutions would probably take place. Every time I went out there I knew that I could not make a mistake.”
In the early 1990s, Kleinaitis transitioned from referee to the Manager of Referee Development and Education for U.S. Soccer. With a referee base of more than 60,000, his guidance was advantageous during one of the Federation’s most important periods that included hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
Kleinaitis was inducted to the National Soccer Hall of Fame as a Builder in 1995.
Though Kleinaitis has “retired” from a full-time capacity with the Federation, he continues to serve as an educator and consultant for U.S. Soccer and a referee pool that can always utilize his expertise.
“Alfred has been critical as both an official and an administrator,” U.S. Soccer Manager of Referee Education Resources Ryan Mooney said. “He continues to instruct, teach and mentor the people involved in the referee program, and his participation over the past several decades has been invaluable. We would not be where we are today without him.”
Kleinaitis is a sought after voice in the officiating community, both at U.S. Soccer and internationally, articulating the game from a referee’s perspective that few others can and seeing firsthand how the game has changed.
“Many years ago it was a culture of the referees against the coaches,” Kleinaitis said. “Today, the coaches, players, referees and spectators are all under one blanket. We all have the same purpose toward the game.”