American soccer vet Joe Machnik runs MLS's 'customer complaint department.'
IN 1949, WHEN JOE MACHNIK was 6 years old, fewer than 5 percent of U.S. households had a television set. His New York City home was one of them.
''My father was an avid sports fan of all kinds of sports,'' says Machnik. ''We watched as much as we could. I can't tell you the reason why, but I focused on referees a lot.''
On the 12-inch black-and-white screen, he observed basketball officials like Sid Borgia and Mendy Rudolph. He'd watch hockey and study zebra-shirted Bill Friday, Bill Chadwick and Frank Udvari.
A half a century later, Machnik still spends endless hours watching refs.
Now he gets paid for it, and the men he keeps a close eye on have names like Kevin Stott, Brian Hall and Abiodun Okulaja.
''I haven't been out on a Saturday night during the MLS season for 10 years,'' says the 63-year-old MLS assistant to the deputy commissioner, aka referee boss. ''I sit with two phones, three TVs going, and sometimes the laptop as well.
''I watch the games, record them, and re-watch them on Sunday.''
He sends several video clips via e-mail to the MLS disciplinary committee and joins its conference call on Mondays to evaluate referee performance and player behavior.
Machnik writes brief summaries for U.S. Soccer that it includes in its ref assessments. He also spends hours on the phone with MLS coaches.
''I represent the customer,'' he says. ''MLS is the customer of U.S. Soccer's referee services. I'm like the customer complaint department. Everyone calls me. Even players.''
Machnik's own playing career started at 14. Chatting in class with a Ukrainian boy about the Boston Bruins' ''Ukie line,'' the conversation switched to soccer. When Machnik said he'd never played, the classmate said, ''Good. You can be goalie.''
Machnik played high school ball, in ethnic leagues, and became an all-American keeper at Long Island University, where he also launched his coaching career.
His refereed New York City youth games, and then whistled at various levels in the Tri-State area, including high school games in Connecticut, where one boy whose play he monitored was Sunil Gulati.
Playing with the Newark Ukrainian Sitch, he befriended Walt Chyzowych, who got Machnik involved with soccer camps and the U.S. Soccer national team program, including as goalkeeper coach of the USA's 1990 World Cup team.
Machnik created the country's first national goalkeeper camps (No. 1 Camps). He refereed hundreds of college soccer games. He served as ref-in-chief and commissioner for the indoor MISL and AISA, respectively.
After MLS's inaugural season of 1996, when the league depended solely on U.S. Soccer to administrate its officials, the league hired Machnik.
''Joe has worked tirelessly over the past decade to professionalize and improve U.S. Soccer's officiating programs and to provide advice on all aspects of MLS competition,'' says MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. ''His level-headed approach and unique experience as a coach, referee and administrator have been a massive resource for MLS and for me personally.
''Like a good referee, he's never afraid to call it as he sees it and his inexhaustible love and enthusiasm for the game is an inspiration.''
In MLS's first season, as U.S. Soccer was working to upgrade its program to serve the new pro league, many officials worked MLS games. Now fewer than 30 referees work as independent contractors who otherwise work jobs such as school teacher, accountant and truck driver.
''We've taken the current program, in which it's almost like a hobby for the refs, as far as it can go,'' Machnik says. ''Refereeing an MLS game is a three-day commitment, and they just don't have the time to properly prepare mentally or physically because they have their other jobs.''
Professionalizing the staff and having fewer referees -- who will concentrate solely on MLS -- is the next necessary step, Machnik says.
He also advocates a program in which retired players are fast-tracked to refereeing. A program that will begin à
''As soon as a player raises his hand,'' Machnik says.
(This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)