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Development Academy Referees Learn from U.S. Soccer Full-Timers

Midway through the first half of the U-16 Crossfire game vs. the Michigan Wolves on Sunday, two players charged after a loose ball near midfield. The Wolves player reached the ball first, but that didn’t stop the collision from coming, as Crossfire’s Chris Brundage knocked his opponent into the ground.

Ricardo Salazar blew his whistle, immediately approached the two players, whipped out a yellow card and showed it to Brundage. He also held up two fingers as he delivered the booking, making it clear to the player what the caution was for.

“There was one a bit earlier that we allowed to go,” Salazar said. “I said, ‘you know what it’s for.’”

The coaching staff didn’t know what the card was for, being too far away to hear the communication on the field. They asked for an explanation, and Salazar obliged, quickly telling the coach about the previous warning.

The explanation was apparently enough, as the coaches turned and told the player to not make risky challenges anymore.

And just like that, the situation was resolved. There was no yelling or complaining, and the game moved on without incident.

Salazar, who works as a full-time U.S. Soccer referee and officiates every week in Major League Soccer, said that type of communication is essential for referees to develop and reach the next level. And those skills are being passed down to a new generation of referees that have the opportunity to work with Salazar through the Development Academy at the Summer Showcase.

“I’ve learned how to talk to the players, and how to talk to the coaches differently,” said sixth-year referee Paul Putnam after working the game with Salazar as an assistant referee. “It’s great to just pick up points here and there that I can use.”

Paul Tamberino, director of referee development for US Soccer, said referees should not always try to explain themselves to the coaches, because it could escalate the conflict. However, Tamberino added that with Salazar’s experience and presence on the field, he could understand the situation and know how to diffuse it.

“The first thing is that any of the full-time referees display is an automatic vote of confidence,” Tamberino said. “It’s how they carry themselves on the field. They certainly get immediate respect from the players and coaches.”

Larry Stroud – who joined Salazar and Putnam on the field for the Crossfire match – said the professionalism of the more experienced referees at the Showcase has rubbed off on him. The sixth-year referee said the way officials like Salazar carry themselves has a direct impact on the players’ attitudes on the field.

And, like the players he has been officiating, Stroud believes he is developing as a referee this weekend.

“It’s been great getting the chance to referee with some of the best refs in the country,” he said. “I’ve been having an experience just like the players’ experience.”

After officiating with Salazar, Stroud looked at his own game to see what he could improve. Based on what he saw from the full-time referee, he said he could learn from several lessons on Sunday.

“It’s just the details,” he said. “Eye contact is very important. Based on the competition and the players, you want to really focus on communication.”

The wisdom Salazar, and other full-time referees are imparting on their protégés goes beyond knowing when to make a call. Sure, Salazar could tell them why he called a foul, or decided to give out a yellow card, but they’ve heard those lessons before, and as Salazar said: “These guys know how to referee a game.”

The real knowledge comes in areas few fans see on the field.

“Their pre-game is much more in depth,” Tamberino said of the full-time officials. “They’ve been there before, so they cover all the what-ifs.”

One point of emphasis this weekend has been to try to let the little things go on the field. The level of play is so high at the Summer Showcase, so the referees can officiate the game like it is more than just a youth soccer game.

That’s something Salazar is used to from refereeing at the professional level. And his presence helps the other officials understand what calls to make, and ensures that the players and coaches will buy into the system.

“We want referees that will take a risk,” Tamberino said. “That’s a complete change in mentality from what they’ve been taught in the past.”

It’s important for the inexperienced referees to have a new voice telling them how to improve, especially a new voice with credentials like Salazar. It never hurts when someone who has reached the highest level of officiating can tell a younger referee how he got there.

“Experience is the key,” Tamberino said of Salazar. “He’s conveying messages to these referees they’ve never heard before. That’s the biggest jewel for them.”