By Paul Gardner
We now know the identities of the replacement referees PRO used to officiate this past weekend’s opening MLS games. If there was any doubt about that, PSRA -- the referees union (recognized by the National Labor Relations Board as such) -- published a list of them on its website. Complete with photographs and short bios. The information was headed “MLS Scab Referee Details.”
I’m not sure that using that word “scab” will help resolve the dispute between PRO and PSRA. But I don’t think there can be any doubt that the RRs are clearly scabs. I shall not use the term -- for the moment I’ll stick with the apparently, but deceptively, neutral title that PRO uses: Replacement Referees, the RRs.
I’ll admit to surprise that PRO was able to find so large a group -- the PSRA website lists 23 -- of referees willing to play the RR role. So be it. As to their performance in the games, it was neither particularly good, nor noticeably bad. Of course there were errors (aren’t their always -- everywhere, at every level?), but nothing disastrous. I think your average visitor from Mars might not have been aware that RRs were running the show.
Of all the names on the RR list, there is one that is of unique interest. That of Alan Kelly. Unique, because Kelly is an employee of PRO -- its Assistant Training Manager. But not at all unique in that he comes from across the pond -- Kelly is Irish; at PRO he joins general manager Peter Walton and training and development manager Paul Rejer -- both of whom are English.
Kelly is an experienced referee. As such, he was the obvious candidate among the RRs to referee the MLS opening game between Seattle and Kansas City. Certainly not an easy assignment. One team, Kansas City, known for its physical style, another, Seattle, with an evident intention to adopt a more physical style than it has so far shown. Kelly coped well enough -- he whistled for 40 fouls -- which is a lot.
But it was hardly a surprise that he behaved just like an EPL referee in failing to hand out second yellow cards. He could have given a second caution to KC defender Aurelien Collin (who committed three more physical fouls after getting a first-half yellow), and he probably should have given Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso a second yellow for flagrant encroachment on the hour mark.
I have some sympathy for Kelly here - for this was a showcase game - not a final, but an inaugural. A game that no referee would want to be accused of ruining by sending off players. And it certainly was not Kelly’s fault that the game was a stinker anyway.
Most of Kelly’s experience has been in the Irish league, though he has officiated in UEFA games. Kelly, unlike Walton, did not referee in the English Premier League. At age 38, Kelly still has seven years to go before the retirement age of 45. The oddity here is that Kelly, in coming to the USA, is forfeiting the badge that he holds as one of Ireland’s FIFA referees. That’s quite an honor to be ditching.
Nevertheless, that seems to be what is implied in Kelly’s acceptance of the PRO job as a training manager. Or is it? This is what Kelly had to say about his new job during an interview with Noel Spillane of the Cork “Evening Echo” of Dec., 20, 2013: “Basically it’s a two-fold role -- one is the actual refereeing in the MLS and the other is a coaching/training and development role for younger referees. The refereeing side of it is the main part and the coaching is a bit of a side issue ...”
A misunderstanding, possibly. But there can be no misunderstanding about some other comments that Kelly makes in this same interview. Comments that reveal that the Irish Kelly has a typically English view of American soccer as something not to be taken too seriously.
Kelly says he hopes that, by coming to the USA he will be able to regain his FIFA status, by becoming one of the USA’s FIFA referees. “There are eight FIFA ranked officials in the USA,” he says, which tells us that he’s been doing his homework. He wants to be considered for an assignment to the 2018 World Cup in Russia (the article was, in fact headlined “Kelly Aiming for World Cup Spot”). Kelly sees success in the USA as a way of accomplishing that: “I think if I can establish myself in America, I will have a better opportunity of getting to Russia in 2018 than I probably would have here at home with UEFA ...”
Possibly. By taking a coveted FIFA slot that would otherwise go to an American. That same unacceptable disregard for American soccer is evident in Kelly’s assertion that he can quickly learn all there is to know about MLS -- “I will be refereeing in the MLS virtually straight away with preseason games and then I will have a few MLS reserve division games and get involved as the fourth official just to get familiar with the league, the players and the culture ...”
That is not the way things have worked out -- maybe PRO never intended them to be that way, and Kelly simply didn’t understand what was expected of him in what, according to the “Evening Echo,” Kelly described as “a job offer he just couldn’t refuse”.
What would seem to be a monumental misunderstanding has been rendered irrelevant anyway, for Kelly has indeed made his debut as a referee in this country, but under highly controversial circumstances. In its listing of the RRs, the PSRA website said that “Kelly’s United States work visa status is unknown at this time, nor is it clear if he is a registered referee with U.S. Soccer. Kelly attended the PRO MLS Referee preseason camp in February in management capacity. However, he did not complete the fitness test, which PRO requires all referees to pass before assigning matches to them.”
To say that Kelly was placed in a tricky situation is putting it mildly. By choosing loyalty to PRO, his new employer, he finds himself labeled, accurately I think, a scab by the PSRA. That doesn’t sound like anything designed to bolster his PRO role as a guiding influence for future American referees.