As the play on the field continues to improve year after year in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, so too does the standard of refereeing. But that improvement doesn’t happen by accident, it is the result of many initiatives put in place by U.S. Soccer that continue to raise the level of refereeing in the United States.
One of the key places where the development and continuing education of referees takes place is at the annual Development Academy Summer Showcase and Playoffs. As Rick Eddy, the Director of Referee Development for U.S. Soccer, explains, referees do more than just work the games at the Summer Showcase.
“Referees get one game a day at the Summer Showcase,” said Eddy. “They get to be evaluated by their coaches and the next day we put it into practical application by using field sessions. We do classroom sessions, we do video review and we bring in special guests so they can see a different perspective. We had Matt Hawkey (Director of Performance and Sport Science) from the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), run through a warmup and a presentation of how they measure a referee’s performance using analytics.
“We had (NFL referee) Jeff Triplette attend the Showcase because we want a different perspective from a different sport. It doesn’t matter what sport you referee or officiate, it is all about people management, how you build relationships with players and how you manage them during stressful situations.”
Not only does the Development Academy Showcase provide an opportunity for additional referee education, it also provides a platform for increased interaction between referees and referee coaches, a group that is comprised of former referees from the highest levels of professional and international soccer.
“That’s where the real development happens,” Eddy explained. “In those one-on-one situations with the referee coach and the referee crew. Everyone is encouraged to speak freely and since we have gone from an assessor model to a coaching model, the referees are more receptive of that. They are more apt to open up and say things like, ‘I really did make a mistake here, how can you help me?’ That is a big plus we have had in the last two years.”
Just as the players playing in the Development Academy Showcase hope to advance to higher levels of the game, so do the referees. One such example of an official who worked in the Development Academy and has moved on to the professional ranks is Cameron Blanchard, an assistant referee who made his MLS debut in 2015; then worked the NASL Championship match in 2016.
Many of the referees working the Showcase and the Academy post-season in general are hoping to follow in Blanchard’s footsteps, including Nick Balcer. A 15-year soccer official from Hudsonville, Mich., Balcer worked his third U.S. Soccer Development Academy Summer Showcase and sees this event as a great place to give back to the game while also developing as a referee.
“I love being a referee in the Development Academy for the fact that I’m around the game that’s given me so much for so many years,” said Balcer. “I played for 17 years, my entire family has been involved in the game and to be able to be around the game that so many people around the world love and have it at such a high-level right here in the United States, it’s a lot of fun and it’s a passion of mine.
“To be able to see every single day what we do to grow the game, both from a player and referee standpoint, in a Development Academy event like this is really exciting.”
Like Eddy, Balcer sees the Development Academy Showcase and Playoffs as a great platform to learn and grow as an official because of the opportunity the event provides.
“An event like the Showcase is great to develop us because of the coaches and teams that we have here,” said Balcer. “The referee coaches are the best in the country and they are able to see us on top-level matches, so they are able to breakdown our game from watching the top players at the youth level.
“This is where it starts, our development and training toward the next level. To me, that’s where it’s so important for us as referees to absorb as much knowledge as we possibly can because they are the best of the best and that’s how you learn, that’s how you grow.”