After 21 years officiating matches around the globe, legendary U.S. Soccer referee Mark Geiger retired from the field earlier this year to become Director of Senior Match Officials for the Professional Referee Organization. One of the most decorated American referees of all time, Geiger was the first U.S. Soccer referee to officiate a FIFA World Cup knockout round match and spent his career at the game’s highest levels both domestically and abroad. ussoccer.com sat down with fellow FIFA referee Jair Marrufo and U.S. Soccer Director of Referee Development Rick Eddy to discuss Geiger’s storied legacy.
Mark Geiger is retiring at the very top.
“If he had come back to referee another year, he’d start the season as the number one referee in the United States at any level,” said Rick Eddy, U.S. Soccer Director of Referee Development. “Worldwide? Boy, he’s got to be in the top ten. Maybe the top five. He had three of the most difficult games at the World Cup and went through them. He made them really easy. That England-Colombia game would have been a difficult match for any referee in the world and he made it look easy.”
Former colleague Jair Marrufo agrees with Eddy’s assessment.
“You would have to say, during these past two World Cup cycles, he’s been one of the top ten referees in the world. Domestically, he’s one of the top officials that we have.”
Following a 21-year career, Geiger hung up his boots to become Director of Senior Match Officials for the Professional Referee Organization (PRO). He served as the center referee for nearly 300 matches over the course of his professional career. In addition to World Cups, the Confederations Cup, Gold Cups, and the Olympics, Geiger also officiated games in the Concacaf Champions League, the Asian Football Confederation Champions League, the 2016 Copa America Centenario and the FIFA Club World Cup.
While Geiger will no longer be working from box to box, he’ll continue to contribute at every level of refereeing, from his new position with the Professional Referee Organization to the youth clinics he conducts with fellow referee Rob Faraday in Maryland and New Jersey.
Born in 1974, Geiger began refereeing as a 14-year-old, working his way up the youth ranks in his home state of New Jersey. Years later, while still a full-time math teacher, Geiger officiated in the A-League, a predecessor to United Soccer League, in 2002 and became a Federation-certified National Referee a year later.
Geiger made his Major League Soccer debut in May 2004 when he took charge of Columbus Crew SC vs. San Jose Earthquakes. The match served as the first of 186 regular season games in MLS.
In 2011, he took home his first MLS Referee of the Year award and won the award again in 2014, a year to remember for the New Jersey native. That year, he also officiated the MLS Cup Final between the LA Galaxy and New England Revolution, took home the league’s top officiating honor and was named Concacaf Referee of the Year.
Geiger made history at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil when he became the first U.S. referee to take charge of a knockout round match. He was assigned to the center referee spot as France took on Nigeria in the Round of 16. While the U.S. bowed out in that round, Geiger’s tournament continued as he served as the fourth official for Germany’s dominant 7-1 semifinal victory against Brazil. Despite the trophy-laden, history-making year, Geiger never changed his approach or his mentality.
“He was the same from the first World Cup to the second World Cup,” Marrufo said. “He’s not very flashy. He’s very down to earth; a great guy. We didn’t see one bit of a difference from him going to these major events. He’s still the same old Mark.”
Marrufo says that Geiger hasn’t just set the bar for American referees; he’s set it extremely high. It’s not just about his work on the field, but the way he has carried himself in public.
“You would see him and see the discipline he has.” Marrufo said. “Sometimes you have to have discipline on and off the field. I think he showed the way a true professional behaves. I picked up on that and I try to mirror him as much as I can now.”
Just three years Geiger’s junior, Marrufo worked as a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in Geiger’s first game of the 2018 World Cup in which Portugal downed Morocco by a single goal. A few days later, Marrufo served as the center referee in Belgium’s 5-2 group stage win over Tunisia. Geiger was assigned to be the VAR for the match, and Marrufo was thrilled to see his colleague on the crew.
“For me, it was an incredible opportunity to be at the World Cup and to have him [Geiger] be my VAR,” Marrufo said of his favorite moment working with Geiger. “It was great to have him there by my side and cheering me on. This guy has refereed every major tournament in the world. To have him next to me, there to help me, it’s one of the greatest memories I have of my career.”
Overall, Marrufo believes that Geiger’s best attribute as a referee was his ability to manage players.
“He’s very approachable,” Marrufo said. “You could see that in his games. The way he spoke to players with respect, the players noticed that. He was never that type of referee to yell at players or be too strong. He was just down-to-earth and really listend to what they wanted. I think they respected that approach more.”
As with every referee, player or coach, there are ups and downs. It wasn’t all smooth sailing from Brazil to Russia, but learning from the rough patches are what Eddy believes truly define Geiger and his qualities, both as a referee and as a person.
The biggest lesson from Geiger’s career? According to Eddy: “perseverance.”
“If things don’t go right, you get back up and go back about your business. Don’t let the critics, don’t let colleagues that are jealous of your success get to you,” Eddy said. “You just do your job and at the end of the day that’s how you’re judged. Right now, without a doubt, you can say that Mark is the best international referee that the United States has ever produced.”
The most significant of those tough stretches came during the 2015 Gold Cup semifinals when some of Geiger’s decisions came under significant scrutiny. What stood out to Eddy from the tournament was the referee’s response.
“A lot of people said, ‘Ah, he’s done. He’s never going to do anything internationally again.’”
“Most people in Mark’s shoes would say, ‘That’s it! I’m done! This is not the way I wanted to finish, but so be it.’ Mark was the unique case that says, ‘OK, I had a bit of a hiccup, a speed bump. But I’ll make this better.’ And now everyone has forgotten about that game. Everyone’s like, ‘Wow! Mark Geiger, world class!’ And he truly is.”