“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.”
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.
(On-field tactical sessions are a big part of the National Referee Camp)
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.”Read more
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 lifelong learning.
From a league representation standpoint, the Pro Course License diploma has now reached the hands of at least one person from each of the country’s top tier leagues: Major League Soccer, North American Soccer League, the National Women’s Soccer League and United Soccer League. In addition to the concentrated effort to improve the highest levels of the game across the top domestic leagues, the Pro Course has also impacted U.S. Soccer’s national team programs with representation from the Men’s and Women’s National Team programs, and the youth National Teams.
Perhaps the most interesting storyline of the 2017 Pro Course was the fact that candidates Brian Schmetzer (Seattle Sounders) and Greg Vanney (Toronto FC) ended up competing for the MLS Cup against each other. With numerous meetings, small groups and an open dialogue constantly setting a precedence throughout the 12-month process, it was to no surprise that the pair’s focus on the course was unchallenged despite the recent faceoff for the top prize in American professional soccer.
“When you talk about Brian Schmetzer, he lost to Greg Vanney last weekend at MLS Cup but both are here,” U.S. Soccer National Coach Educator Wim van Zwam said. “They were respectful to each other, and all of the candidates for that matter were respectful to Brian and Greg.”
If the coaches of the two MLS Cup teams weren’t enough to headline the 2017 class, U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis became the first female to complete the license. With a critical year of World Cup qualifying on the horizon in 2018, the knowledge absorbed from the Pro Course could not have come at a better time.
“I’m very proud to have been a part of this program,” Ellis said. “The course was very comprehensive and yet it really was able to dig down into the details. It looks at all aspects of coaching, from the tactical side to periodization. It really digs into all the facets of what I do. Not only were the instructors very experienced in how they navigated us through this course, but you learn a lot from your peers. Overall, I think it was incredibly valuable and added more in terms of growth and knowledge to who I am as a coach.”
The Pro Course also expanded for the first time to include coaches from NASL, NWSL and USL. Paul Buckle, head coach and Technical Director of Sacramento Republic FC Head Coach, was particularly pleased with the two site visits he received from coach educators, in particular from his mentor, van Zwam.
“Professionally, they showed so much respect to me as a head coach in terms of when Wim came in to analyze me in my working environment twice,” Buckle said. “He would always ask, ‘Can I do this? Do you mind me being here?’ And I opened every door, from the training field, to individual meetings with players, group meetings, pregame, postgame and halftime. Wim was there. So he was brought in as part of the staff. I received invaluable feedback, incredible feedback. The details that U.S. Soccer have put into this license have been phenomenal.”
As the course concluded and candidates officially received their diplomas in Chicago, the greatest commonality was the responsibility that even the best coaches in the United States have to continue to grow and develop in order to raise the level of soccer and develop world class players.
“I think we need to continually use our experiences as we evolve the game. We have another generation coming through of coaches that have played at a high level,” Sporting Kansas City assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin said. “So to take that experience and now pass it on the younger generation, it’s certainly an obligation that I feel strongly about, trying to improve myself and share my experiences with players that we work with today but also to become better ourselves, because at the end of the day coaching is a lot about becoming an effective teacher and communicator. As we try to improve our players, so must we improve ourselves so that we can create an environment where we are all growing together.”Read more