It’s been a busy year for U.S. Soccer referee Jeremy Kieso.
As a part of MLS All-Star Game festivities, he officiated the MLS Homegrown game that saw some of the league’s top young prospects take on Chivas de Guadalajara’s U-20 squad. Two months ago, he crossed off a long-term goal in refereeing his first MLS game: a late-season showdown between LA Galaxy and Minnesota United FC. Now, he’s officiating his first full-international matches at the 2017 Men’s Nike International Friendlies.
“It’s one of those selections you are always hoping for.” Kieso said. “It’s humbling. The higher you go, the faster the game is the stronger the players are, the smarter the players are. You have to use all aspects of your referee abilities.
While the Friendlies highlight a week of action in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., the Premier Sports Campus’ other 22 fields are hosting 228 games of the Development Academy Winter Showcase, bringing together 76 clubs that make up the nation’s highest level of youth soccer. It’s also a hotbed for some of the nation’s top referees, and it’s the environment that brought Kieso to the level he’s reached today.
“Being part of the Development Academy Showcase events is huge for me,” Kieso said. “It gives you the experience to work with other officials and work higher-level matches with teams from around the country.”
Top U.S. Soccer referees from around the country are gathered in Lakewood Ranch to further their own development. At Academy Showcase events, they are assessed by some of the country’s highest-level referees. U.S. Soccer referee Guido Gonzales is officiating this year’s Nike Friendlies after rising through the referee ranks at Academy events.
“It’s the highest level of youth soccer,” Gonzales said. “These are big tests. These are players that are on the road to professional programs. We have to perform at that level as well. That’s the next step for them, and it’s the next step for us as referees.”
At a past Summer Showcase, Gonzales had the opportunity to get feedback on his game from U.S. Soccer referee Mark Geiger, the first-ever U.S. referee to officiate a knockout match at a World Cup. The lessons learned at Showcases are invaluable.
“When we’re not on the soccer field, we’re in our groups debriefing with national-level educators,” Gonzales said. “We’re taking in as much feedback as we can. These guys are the experienced people out here, breaking down our game in bits and pieces. Not many people see the kind of evaluation we go through. We spend as much time as we can in the classroom.”
While Kieso and Gonzales have used Academy events to rise to their current level, U.S. Soccer referee Alyssa Pennington is now earning her stripes in the Academy, rising through the ranks and soaking in every bit of the experience. This year’s Winter Showcase is her third Academy event, but each one is a special opportunity for her on-field development.
“To come to this event is a great opportunity, you feel like you’ve accomplished something really great when you’re accepted,” Pennington said. “I decided to apply to referee here to learn more, enhance my understanding of the game and get more experience at a higher level.”
In 2018, Pennington wants to earn her grade five referee certification, which would make her eligible for selection as a national referee. Kieso’s goal is to become regular in overseeing Major League Soccer matches and Gonzales strives to continue his improvement. The referee development pathway never truly ends, as officials continue to work to be the best they can be.
“You always want to get into a tougher game,” Gonzales said. “I have a lot of points where I need to improve. Next year’s goal is to hash out the wrinkles that I had this season. It is a competition. I’m up against the best referees in the country, trying to fight through the battles of performing.”
The 2017 Men's Nike International Friendlies kick off on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., as a new crop of U.S. U-17 Men’s National Team players begins its cycle building towards the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Here are five things you should know about one of the U-17 MNT’s premier annual events:
History of the EventThe Nike International Friendlies were established in 2001 to provide top-level competition for the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team, and evolved into one of the premier annual events on the youth soccer calendar.
Originally, the U-17 MNT would face mainly U.S.-based club teams with an international opponent sprinkled in. That changed in 2008 when the competition reached its current four-team, round robin international format.
The 2017 tournament will see the USA pitted against a strong field featuring England, Netherlands and Brazil. While all three opponents are quite familiar with the Nike International Friendlies, having attended multiple editions of the competition in the past, previous tournaments have also included appearances from Australia, France, Portugal and Turkey.
In 2008, the competition joined forces with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Winter Showcase, which features the top club teams in the U-15/16 and U-17/18 age groups from around the United States. The Nike International Friendlies act as the event’s centerpiece and the combined event highlights the cohesion between the Development Academy member clubs and the U.S. Youth National Teams.