How to fix soccer officiating? Common sense

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

American soccer doesn’t need goal-line technology.

Instead, MLS needs to engage the same common sense employed in the four other major pro sports: Add more referees to the field of play.

Soccer matches employ just three on-field officials. That’s not enough.

Consider the contrast with other major North American team sports.

Officials per sport

Professional SportMax # of Players on Field# of RefereesRatio (refs per player)
American Football2273.3/1

Professional soccer matches use just 1 referee per 7 players. Every other major North American team sport deploys 1 official per 3 players.

That’s almost all you need to know (match-fixing notwithstanding) when it comes to explaining why poor officiating is presumed to be a part of soccer. No other major North American team sport suffers that indignity with such regularity.

Referees are outmanned. There simply aren’t enough of them to adequately officiate a professional sport with 22 players on the field at once.

Stationing a referee on each end line could address the problem of phantom goals — and more.

It could improve officiating on the whole if an overall reorientation and improved delineation of the five referees’ responsibilities comes with it. Defining the endline officials as simply goal-watchers is too narrow, much like sideline referees should do more than just call offsides and support the primary referee when needed.

One person should not carry nearly the full burden of officiating a match, as is currently the case in soccer. Every other major North American team sport has shown that officiating is better when responsibilities are more proportionately diluted among a team of referees with clearly defined roles. MLS should do the same.

Does that sound too complicated? It shouldn’t. Four other major North American sports do it. The NFL operates a seven-ref system quite well and should serve as a model for how to delineate the roles. Why couldn’t MLS make five work?

The five-official system has worked fairly well when deployed before (although without the necessary overhaul of referees’ roles), such as in last year’s European Championships, save for one notable incident.

Can it completely remove human error? Nothing can do that, not even goal-line technology or instant replay.

Compared to what it costs to implement a thus far unproven goal-line technology system, the five-official system is absolutely worth pioneering.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Thursday that MLS would not implement goal-line technology for 2014 largely because of the prohibitive cost: $260,000 per stadium implementation, and $3,900 per game. That works out to $4.94 million for the 19 MLS stadiums and $1,259,700 for 323 matches over the course of a season.

Garber is spot on right. The cost is not justified, not when there’s another potentially better alternative. Plus, when you consider that American soccer’s lower tiers will likely be unable to afford the costs of goal-line technology, it makes it increasingly difficult to justify.

There may be a place for this technology in the game.

But first, fix the larger problem. See if the common sense move of adding more referees improves the overall level of officiating.

There’s no reason for MLS to wait for FIFA either. America has produced the world’s most successful and best managed sports leagues for a long time, and we never had to ask anyone in Switzerland how to do it.

Quick hits on the Union

This column isn’t focusing on Philadelphia Union this week, but here are a few quick hit observations just the same.

  • How is Gabriel Farfan not playing? He would upgrade two positions: Left back and outside midfield.
  • The Farfan twins are the Union’s two best wide midfielders. No one else is even close.
  • Zac MacMath just had his best game in a long time.
  • Some folks have lost faith in Sebastien Le Toux awfully fast. Give him time, and he’ll prove the doubters wrong — again.
  • One day, an enlightened coach somewhere will move Danny Cruz to right back, at which point he will become an all-star.
  • The Union are a mid-table team. They’ve beaten the bottom feeders, drawn with the mid-tier teams, and lost to the good ones. This should shock no one.


  1. I like the idea of additional referees. But I’d do it this way: instead of goal-line technology, add offsides-line technology. Offsides is an infringement that is literally impossible for an AR to see correctly, since they have to look in two places at once. But it’s real easy to see on camera if a player is offsides. Let an eye in the sky call offsides, and let the AR focus on possession and calls in the box.

  2. JediLos117 says:

    Leave the footy alone. Its perfect just the way it is. I fell in love with it flaws and all…I love a bad ref, a missed call…Its a beautiful game.

    • frankswild says:

      I can’t tell if you are joking

      • JediLos117 says:

        No joke…I love it the way it is.
        I like how a referee can impact a match (+/-).
        If anything, refereeing needs to be improved…We need more Collina’s in the reffing world.

  3. I agree 100% and have advocated this for awhile. It astounds me that soccer has the same amount of refs as basketball. But in most of the euro games I’ve watched with end line refs, they are mostly useless often looking up at the ref for his desision when they were in a better position any ways. I think for this to work we need for refs to work together as crews like they do in other sports( MLS may do this I don’t know) so all field ref will be able to trust his side and end line refs, and the others feel confident in telling the main ref when they see something or disagree with him because they had a better angle.

  4. 5 incompetent refs is better then 3. More eyes doesn’t mean a better performance, but I agree it’s a start. I agree we need offside technology, and at least 1 more ref, preferably an additional on the field ref to emulate basketball and hockey, where besides an on-ball ref they have a leading and trailing ref. They would pick up so much more than 1 ref can, and still see everything that an endline ref would see. Assuming nothing will change, the least they can do is give the ARs as much power as the Ref so that when they make a decision which they are closer to and therefore more capable of making, it actually stands.

  5. I mean this in the most respectful way possible, but WTF at Cruz playing RB. That pretty much sounds like the Gaddis “Hey, he’s fast – he can play a FB position he’s not familiar with just fine!!!” attitude.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Well said sir. Danny Cruz is killing this team

    • The simplistic, gut-reaction, near-hysterical negativity of some Philadelphia fans never ceases to amaze me. Must we spell out everything in 8,000 words? I mean, did anyone really think I was suggesting that John Hackworth be the coach to convert Cruz to right back when Williams and Gaddis already play the position just fine? Really? Really? Come on.

      My one-liner above is simply the repetition of a point I made a few weeks ago, and it was this:

      “Danny Cruz has so many traits we prize in American athletes: Toughness, grit, hustle, speed, strength. But in soccer, we prefer those most in our defenders, and he lacks key traits prized in wingers, notably a good first touch. Has anyone ever noticed he might make a great right back?”

      Think of possibilities. Have a little imagination. Take some perspective. And — and this is not specifically for James, but really for so many others — stop hating on players so much. Cruz may not be playing great soccer, but does ANY MLS player who works as hard as he does really deserve to be abused online the way he is? It’s not like he’s some millionaire mailing it in every game. He is clearly a professional-level athlete who works hard and is probably out of place where he is on the field because his technique is often subpar for a winger. So if that’s his weakness, where could he play that would fit his strengths? How do you take a negative and find a positive out of it? And how do you treat someone with the decency that a human being deserves while simultaneously evaluating him in a fair and objective fashion? It’s not like these guys are making millions of dollars a year. [/rant]

      • Jim Presti says:

        +1. No player on the pitch is “killing” this team. Cruz, Daniel, Gaddis, and MacMath have especially taken a beating all year by PSP readers. These guys leave it on the field. It’s one thing comment debate and criticize, but lately some of these postings have been flat out attacks.
        To everyone out there: Read, debate, comment, spark a conversation. But before you make a seriously negative remark or generalization, remember that you don’t play at their level – and I’m 99.9% sure you never will. You aren’t putting hours on the pitch at practice. Spending time away from your family. On the road half the season. Or making bank month in and month out.
        Support the team, support the city. The whole team is filled with a great group of guys. Let’s tone it down.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Well said. I will do my best.

      • Thank you for this. I had begun to stop reading PSP not because of the writing but the attitude of its commenters. We all have a right to question using hindsight and debate fact, but the outright bashing is uncalled for. If we want to read that, head over to the comments..
        With regard to no. Of officials, 4 would be best, working the opposite diagonals. The 5th can continue to hang out between the tech boxes and take the abuse from managers, while keeping the headset walkie talkie on.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        I generally think PSP has terrific readers, and historically, I think the tenor and intellectual level of our readers’ conversation has far exceeded what is typical online. But yes, I obviously think some have gotten far too negative lately with the bashing of some players and Union officials. I hope the situation improves.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Also, that comment was not directed at any in particular.

  6. Are you really trying to suggest that New England are one of the leagues “Good teams”?

    I’d love to see the 5 referees being used, but in reality it’s pretty much a waste of time sticking them behind the goal. I’d love for them to have free reign of around the penalty box so they can get better views of anything that’s going on. That doesn’t necessarily mean the standard will be better – but on a lot of “breakaways” and in the box for corners – more can be kept an eye on.

    ps you were just joking about Cruz being an All Star right back right?

    • No. They beat New England at home and lost to them on the road. I only felt like spending a few words on that line, so I didn’t delineate that specific distinction.

      And no. (Ok, deadpan exaggerating just a TAD bit with the all-star comment. 😉 ) I think he has the traits you want in a right back. I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago. He’s tough and fast, he plays hard, and he’s very physical. He lacks the technique to be a good winger, but he’s a very good athlete.

  7. Richie The Limey says:

    Danny Cruz at full back? Insanity. No positional sense + turnover waiting to happen = disaster so close to goal. And as for adding more referees… The officials on the goal line are often in a terrible position to see anything because they are obstructed by the posts, the goalie, and (usually) a crowded penalty area. A good referee works with his ARs to cover the field – one is trained in where to stand so that all three of you are covering the field. I was given this instruction by The FA at the national center of excellence wayyy back in the day, and at my local referee’s society we constantly studied video to perfect angles and the like. It takes experience and concentration but three officials is plenty. You see it in amateur leagues all the time where they have the two ref system – the refs are in opposition, often over-ruling each other or one ref who is 70 yards away makes a call that a ref 10 yards away does not make. It is horrible.

    • Three officials may be plenty for those people for whom soccer is their first and primary sport. But for everyone else, who has seen how team officiating works far better in other sports, three officials isn’t adequate. There is no way the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA or even the NHL would accept the level of poor officiating that soccer leagues and fans routinely accept. So it’s time to get outside the box and look at what others are doing right.

      • Dan, I agree with you about those of us that know the sport well accepting three officials and you can see my note below about the technical issues that I have with positioning the officials. One of the problems that I have seen is that people have a hard time with understanding the laws anyhow, and bad officiating makes it worse. As a coach, trying to teach kids the offside law and exceptions are difficult when the gametime officials are confused. It IS part of the game to get calls wrong, and at the youth level we expect it but at the professional level, you are holing for more accuracy and less of an unpredictability in outcome. That being said, even the timekeeping aspect of being within the referee’s control means that the officials play more of a role in soccer than in other sports.

  8. thisisphil says:

    good idea provided that the refs are competent. but it starts there!

  9. The problem is not the number of refs in the game, the problem is the quality of MLS referees. 5 bad referees are no better than 3 bad referees. As for other sports look at the nonsense in the other Football, referees huddling with each other stopping the game to look at instant replays every few minutes, that doesn’t suit the beautiful game. Maybe the league needs “designated referees” with experience to come in and teach the MLS referees because right now we certainly have some bad ones.

    • frankswild says:

      This seems like flawed reasoning to me. Its not like every sport that features more officials than soccer has a million game stoppages like american football. Those million stoppages are built into that game and there is no reason to think that if mls had 4 or 5 refs that would cause so much stop and start.

      I also think that 5 bad refs is better than 3. Part of what makes a ref bad is when they don’t see something or misinterpret something they saw. If there are a couple more sets of eyeballs it is reasonable to think that this would happen less often.

  10. I had the chance to watch a game from the handicapped area at PPL Park a couple of weeks back, and watched an excellent game by an AR directly across the field from us. He nailed several offside calls that were technically quite difficult, and called proper fouls for his position. This game was marred by an unbelievably poor game from the center, who thought that he needed to start dealing cards in the second half as if he was in a casino. The average of the two performances still left some holes in the coverage of the game, however. Fouls on our side of the field, which should have been called by the center ref had he properly run his left diagonal routes, would have been called. I don’t know that five officials would help unless they are on the sidelines, and have different positioning requirements. The AR should be on the last defender; a new sideline official wouldn’t necessarily help with offside if they are positioned opposite the current AR. If one calls it, and the other doesn’t we wind up with more controversy than offside already causes. If the new official is on the goal line, he also is out of position for much of the activity of the game. And anybody that has ever watched a PIAA high school game knows that the two field officials there have technical issues as well. Interesting idea, but I would need to see more detail.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Good points. I think what it requires is a group of good, experienced officials and soccer players who are capable of thinking outside the box. They need to sit down and draw something up. Look at how the NFL does things. Look at how that might apply. Look at what works in soccer officiating. Look at what doesn’t. Fill the gaps.

      Should it be the current setup with two officials just added on the end line? Or should it be the addition of not just them but also another two refs ON the field of play, between the lines? Not sure. There needs to be some creative and intellectual engagement that allows for the potential of a complete reimagining of how the game is officiated. I’m not saying it needs to go that far, but no ideas should be disqualified out of hand unless it seems very clear that they will not work.

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