“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.”