U.S. Soccer
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National Referee Camp: A Family Reunion

The referee cuts a lonely figure on a soccer field. They’re often blamed, rarely thanked and always outnumbered. But that’s certainly not the case at the National Referee Camp in California, where a group of the best young refs in the country are gathered to learn lessons in the never-ending pursuit of excellence. For one weekend at least, in among the natural splendor of SoCal, everyone’s a referee.

“This is a place where refs can come together and admit their mistakes and be encouraged to learn from them,” said Rick Eddy, a Major League Soccer (MLS) ref for a full decade and now Director of Referee Development at U.S. Soccer. “Here they can learn and grow as one. There’s a camaraderie and bonding, a feeling that we’re all in it together and we can be honest and get better in an environment that’s non-threatening. You can say ‘hey I made a mistake in this game. How do I get better?’ We support each other here.”


(On-field tactical sessions are a big part of the National Referee Camp)

A hand-picked group of 94 male and female referees and assistant referees were invited to the Chula Vista Camp at the Elite Athlete Training Center to be put through a battery of rigorous physical testing and classroom work. If they come out clean on the other side, the officials become (or re-certify as) National Referees, and can officiate Major League Soccer (MLS) games, USL, NASL and NWSL too. Also in attendance are 120 Referee Coaches, most former National or FIFA Referees, whose job it is to pass on their knowledge and experience.

All eyes on the Master

Everyone sat in rapt attention under the arched wooden ceiling of the Easton Archery Centre of Excellence when a man was invited to the podium. Among American refs, Essie Baharmast needs no introduction. He’s often referred to, simply, as The Master. A trailblazer for American referees, he took to the fields of the World Cup in France in 1998. It’s safe to say he’s as close to a rock-star at this Camp full of humble refs and ex-refs.


(Esse Baharmast, former FIFA World Cup referee, works through scenarios)

“Who’s here for the first time, the first year?” Baharmast asked the crowd of eager young officials looking to soak up his wisdom earned on thousands of soccer fields through the years. They all sat on folding chairs in the archery target area-turned classroom. A few hands went up furtively and Baharmast insisted on a hearty round of applause for the new ones, welcoming them to “the Family, the Referee Family.”

When he asked the first-year referees a tough question, some of them turn timid. Public speaking isn’t everyone’s forte. Opinions aren’t always treated gently. But Baharmast chastised them with the kind of care a father might. “If you can’t stand up and talk to your Family openly, how are you going to stand up and face 100,000 fans in the stadium?” he asked the crowd. After that, no one’s shy. Hands go up, conversations are had. Scenarios are dissected in search of the right call for the right situation. Agreement is reached.  

Family is a word you hear a lot around the Training center in Chula Vista this weekend. “It is kind of like that, like a family,” said Lee Suckle, a Referee Coach who still works college-level games around his home in Long Island, NY. “Camaraderie is the word for what you have here. It’s good to see friendly faces and share our experiences. We’re trying to work and help the younger refs coming up. We’re trying to build that camaraderie with them as a Referee coach.” 


(94 male and female referees were invited to Chula Vista, CA for the 2018 National Referee Camp)

It’s not just classroom work at the Camp. The aspiring National Referees (and those aiming to keep their status) are put through rigorous field-work and fitness testing. In the heat of Southern California, dehydration is common. The referees, a team or a family or whatever you want to call them, roar each other in support. They’re not competing against each other. They’re competing with each other. They offer support and a pat on the back, sometimes the kind of jokes and ribbing you might find among siblings. Here in Chula Vista, they’re not alone. They’re deep in their element. Last year, close to twenty percent of the invited National Referee candidates failed the physical tests. This year, only seven candidates out of 94 came up short in the fitness program. The improvement is tangible.

“The refs who are here are some of the best at the State Level, but what they’re aspiring toward is an even higher level,” said Nigerian-born Referee Coach Abiodun Okulaja, 2004's MLS Referee of the Year now based in the Chicago area. “You get to learn a lot from each other when you’re in the same place and working toward the same goal.”

Youth & Experience – a Cycle
“We’re here to support each other,” said Referee Coach Jose Corro. He was born in Veracruz, Mexico before emigrating to the States and becoming a well-known ref in the early days of Major League Soccer. “We’re trying to pass on our experiences and give the younger guys coming up a sense of what we lived when we were referees. I think that reflects in a lot of the newer refs we have – they’re getting that part of the knowledge and experience of the past from the older guys like us.”


(120 Referee Coaches spent the weekend putting their younger counterparts through their paces)

So many of the Referee Coaches here have been to the places that we want to be,” said Tom Felice, 29, a State-level Assistant Referee from Connecticut looking to get his National certification. “These are National Referees and FIFA Referees, they’ve been at World Cups, and we can draw on their knowledge of what happens at that level. We can bring it into our games and incorporate it into what we do and try to reach the heights that they reached.”  

All families are imperfect. Not everything goes smoothly all the time. It’s the same with the Referee Family. There are disagreements and confusions along they way, but everyone in Chula Vista is working toward the same goal. “We’re here to pass on our experiences to the ones coming up,” said Suckle, a small man with a warm manner who got into coaching years and years ago to help make his car payments. “Hopefully they’ll do the same thing with the next group of even younger ones coming up behind them.”

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Just one year after a pilot group of 13 candidates completed the first U.S. Soccer Pro License, a new set of 17 graduates received their diplomas, growing a list of some of the greatest Soccer minds in the United States to 30 to have completed the highest level coaching license in North America. The common denominator between the first and second group was ambition and an unquestioned desire for Read more
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Seventeen Coaches from U.S. National Teams and Professional Leagues Complete Second U.S. Soccer Pro Course

CHICAGO (Dec. 16, 2017) — As part of its ongoing effort to develop world class players, coaches, and referees, the second U.S. Soccer Pro License Coaching Course was completed on Friday, Dec. 15 in Chicago. A total of 17 professional coaches from Major League Soccer, North American Soccer League, National Women’s Soccer League, United Soccer League, and the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams completed a 12-month journey that began in January.

2017 Pro Course Graduates:
Paul Buckle (Sacramento Republic, USL)
Colin Clarke (North Carolina FC, USL)
Steven Cooke (Colorado Rapids, MLS)
Jill Ellis (U.S. WNT)
Jim Gabarra (Washington Spirit, NWSL)
Jay Heaps
Dominic Kinnear (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS)
Jesse Marsch (New York Red Bulls, MLS)
Pat Noonan (U.S. MNT)
Caleb Porter
Darren Powell (San Antonio FC, USL)
Brian Schmetzer (Seattle Sounders, MLS)
Daryl Shore
Mike Sorber
Greg Vanney (Toronto FC, MLS)
Josh Wolff (Columbus Crew, MLS)
Kerry Zavagnin (Sporting KC, MLS)

Added to the U.S. Soccer structure of coaching education to complete the pathway from grassroots to professional coaching, the U.S. Soccer Pro Course represents the highest form of soccer licensing offered in North America. One year after the pilot Pro Course was completed, the 2017 graduates went through the course curriculum with the same two primary objectives: to accomplish a custom, individualized plan and for the collective unit to set new standards for the next generation of coaches. Each candidate took on a tailored program based on an assessment of their needs, undergoing multiple group meetings and individual visits, while topics such as leadership and team tactical periodization were highlighted throughout the course.

The group accomplished its course objectives through in-person instruction, club visits, final assessment, expert guest speakers and webinars during the year long program. Guest presenters included Bruce Arena (former head coach – U.S. MNT), Jill Ellis (U.S. WNT Coach / Pro Course Candidate), Frank Ludolph (UEFA Head of Football Education Services), Gautum Mukunda (Harvard Business School), Daniel Coyle (Author of Talent Code), Thomas Schaaf (Manager - Hanover 96, Eintracht Frankfurt, Werder Bremen), Mark Williams (University of Utah Professor of Kinesiology), Cristina Fink (Sports Psychology, Philadelphia Union), Bob Bradley (LAFC, former head coach – U.S. MNT), Wade Gilbert (Coaching Scientist and Performance Professor, Fresno State) and Doug Lemov (Author and Teaching Expert, Uncommon Schools).

Upon completing the course, U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis became the first female to obtain the U.S. Soccer Pro License. Ellis, who also served as a guest speaker for the cohort’s first meeting in January, reflected on what the accomplishment means to aspiring female coaches across the country.

“Certainly I took this course for personal reasons,” Ellis said. “But I think it is important for young females out there, to see role models that commit to this learning process. I would encourage every coach out there to be an advocate for themselves, for their personal growth. To be the first female to complete the License, it’s great. But now I hope that more and more females will want to continue in coaching education.”

For 2017 MLS Coach of the Year and MLS Cup Champion Greg Vanney, one of the highlights of the course was the engagement and interaction with fellow candidates. Through open communication and peer to peer learning, Vanney found the environment to be a safe space for sharing and listening to the challenges professional coaches face every day.

“It’s one of the highlights of this course,” Vanney said. “Coaches around our leagues are willing to share, willing to open up and are trustworthy in that way. To listen to their experiences and to have guys share how they went through things, how they dealt with things, what you find is that a lot of us go through very similar things. There are best principles when it comes to dealing with things and it’s great to hear and talk to guys. Along the way, you find little tidbits you think are valuable that you use within your own setting.”

Alongside three collective meetings and a final presentation, the 17 candidates experienced two week-long club or national team visits from a U.S. Soccer Coach Educator. At each site visit, the Coach Educators observed the candidate within their performance environment structured to lead up to a competition. While on site, instructors observed a variety of coaching variables including the coach’s relationship and interactions with players, staff, assistant coaches, and others involved in the team development process.

Lead instructor Wim van Zwam reflected on what made the cohort a special group to work with and his gladness to see how every coach bought in and challenged themselves and their peers.

“What made this group immediately special was the diversity of coaches,” van Zwam said. “With MLS head coaches and assistant coaches, a USL head coach, a NASL head coach, a NWSL head coach, a U.S. Men’s National assistant coach and our Women’s National Team head coach in Jill Ellis, it made for a very interesting group to work with. From the beginning, this group learned to be very open in sharing information. They bought in to the club visits, an environment where they are not used to someone looking over their shoulder. This group made sacrifices in order to make themselves better and those around them.”

As the only organization able to license coaches domestically under FIFA standards, U.S. Soccer’s Pro License seeks to raise the minimum standard for an individual seeking to become a professional coach in MLS, NASL, USL or the NWSL.

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