The Two-Ref System: Its Flaws and How to Cope

By Randy Vogt

With many of the thousands of high school games to be played this fall, and with the high school leagues being played in the winter and spring, the two-referee system (just two refs and no assistant refs) is an unfortunate fact of life. It is also known as the dual system and two-man system but I do not like the latter as it’s an exclusive term.

Perhaps the two-referee system is uniquely American as I have never seen it used outside the United States. Yet because of its inherent limitations, I’m not sure that we want to claim ownership.

The iconic Harry Rodgers introduced the two-ref system to college games in 1941. With far fewer college games and an inferior level of play in the middle of the 20th century compared to today, perhaps the two-ref system for NCAA games was OK back then. When I became a college and junior college official in 1986, this system was used in most games even then. It eventually became less prevalent. Where I live in the New York City area, only a handful of junior college games still use the two-ref system.

I have seen the same movement, albeit slower, away from the two-ref system in high school soccer. Yet I believe that the majority of high school games today, especially when you bring JV matches into the equation, still use two referees. Perhaps Soccer Americans can chime in below with comments whether or not their area still uses two refs for high school soccer and if they find this system adequate.

Basically, the two refs move in somewhat similar positions to where the AR would be in a game officiated in the diagonal system of control. This is an oversimplification, though, as the ref need not be exactly on the touchline in most situations (like the AR is positioned by the touchline throughout the game) and is not always in line with the second-to-last defender. As one example, during the taking of corner kicks, the lead referee is positioned on the goal line with the trail referee on the 18-yard line. The challenge in this scenario is that a quick counterattack would leave no referee in position while, in the diagonal system of control (one ref and two ARs), at least the AR would be waiting for play to move upfield.

Practical positioning in the two-ref system has the ball between the two refs, just as it’s best when the ball is between the ref and AR in the diagonal system.

I refereed a high school league this summer and did well using the two-referee system. But my job was made much easier by my excellent partner who also had professional game experience. A big challenge with the two-ref system is what happens if the two refs have very different abilities or philosophies on how to call the game. Discussing this issue before the game might help matters but the differences can be noticed quite quickly by the players and coaches. It’s bad enough if a ref and AR are not on the same page in the diagonal system of control; it can ruin the match if the refs in the two-ref system are not on the same page as the game is then called very differently in different areas of the field. With my partner this summer, I adjusted my refereeing to mimic his by allowing a bit more contact than I would normally do.

Interestingly, with the semifinals and finals being played in the next week, the league has approved the diagonal system of control for those games instead of the two-ref system, apparently aware that the diagonal system is far superior.

Other challenges with the two-referee system are fouls in the middle of the field are sometimes not whistled since generally the refs are 25 or more yards away. And fouls that are called, especially at midfield, sometimes have one ref pointing in one direction and the other in the opposite direction. A way around this is if both whistles are blown at the same time, the ref closest to the play signals and the other one signals in the same direction (even if that ref disagrees). Plus the advantage clause is not played as often in two-ref games as both refs would have to recognize an advantage developing or one ref would be so far from the play that the ref would not be likely to blow the whistle anyway.

It’s important for the trail referee to move upfield often and not necessarily be in line with the second-to-last defender when the ball is in or near the opposing penalty area. I was the trail referee in a high school championship game when a forward was tripped in the penalty area. I was 25 yards behind the play and I whistled the foul. The lead referee, standing 30 yards to the side of the foul, told me after the game that something did not look right but he did not blow his whistle as he was not certain a foul had occurred. I was confident the right call was made and the replay (the game was being taped for TV) proved that I was correct. A call that would have been much easier to make in the diagonal system of control as the ref would have been right there.

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to six-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In Preventive Officiating, he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at

Do high schools in your area still use the two-ref system? If so, do you find this system adequate? Use the link below to deliver your feedback.

19 comments about "The Two-Ref System: Its Flaws and How to Cope".
  1. Soccer Coach, August 24, 2012 at 11:55 a.m.

    yes in Berks county just outiside Philadelphia use use 2 man system, it does not work for all the reasons you mentioned and also because the conditioning of the officials is sb par, many stopped doing youth games with diagonal system and only do HS games. One way to mitigate the DA vs HS argument is to bring the rules into alignment this is a major culprit for the difference in the quality of play in my opinion

  2. James Zerkle, August 24, 2012 at 12:56 p.m.

    The dual system is the "standard" in southern California high school. In San Diego county, schools that are able and willing to pay the additional cost typically opt for the diagonal system (referee plus two AR's). My impression is that the players and especially the coaches prefer the diagonal system. I'm sure the referees prefer it as well.
    The problems with the dual system can be mostly overcome if the two officials can "get on the same page" and if they are capable of putting out the extra physical effort to follow play into the other official's half as the trail referee, then sprint and recover quickly on the counterattack. Unfortunately, the majority of high school officials I have observed don't do that for one reason or another. As trail official, they are reluctant to move across the half-way line, so no one is close enough to play to render a good decision.

  3. Mark N, August 24, 2012 at 1:03 p.m.

    Have watched and played many HS games in So Cal. I agree with your assessment that the 2-ref system is second-best. But if I had to choose only one HS ref issue to tackle, it would have to be the QUALITY of the officials, not the QUANTITY. If cost is the barrier, I'd much rather spend the equivalent of the cost of the 3rd ref on improving training, evaluation, and paying refs better. As you said about your 2-ref experience, Randy, "my job was made much easier by my excellent partner". No doubt everyone else involved appreciated your partner too. Replace him/her with 2 average refs? No way.

  4. Richard Weishaupt, August 24, 2012 at 1:18 p.m.

    I live in Philadelphia and the public schools use the 2 person system. Not sure what private and parochial schools do. As a current ref, former coach (club) and spectator (both kids played for their High schools) I can say I really dislike the 2 person system. As a coach I can say that I would actually prefer the one person and two parent system to the two person system. For all the reasons you cite the 2 person system is bad and leaves refs out of position -- I've never seen a 2 person ref more than a few feet off the touchline. While I'm sure some of these refs are very good, even the best ref is challenged by this system. Adding to the problem however is that the system attracts at least some less fit referees. By the time kids get to high school the game is simply too fast for this system, especially if the refs are less than fit.

    I suspect part of the motivation is to save money, but I really am opposed to the system. As a ref, I avoid it and have never done a game under the system, even when asked.

  5. Daniel Johnston, August 24, 2012 at 1:25 p.m.

    West TN is fairly young in the soccer world. I wish I could say I had two refs at each game. Over the last four years the number of games that we have had one official is dropping but still they happen. Not sure we would know how to act with three.

  6. Mark N, August 24, 2012 at 1:30 p.m.

    Interesting comment, Richard, about the system attracting less fit refs. Hadn't made that connection before. Do you really think it is the 2-ref system itself that attracts those refs, as opposed to the many other differences between club and scholastic competition (level of play/coaching, game days/times, stability of work, etc etc etc)?

  7. Pete Pidgeon, August 24, 2012 at 2:16 p.m.

    Randy your article is pretty much dead-on. I've worked the dual system as a HS ref for 14 years. As a USSF ref, I much prefer to operate in my comfort mode in the diagonal system. But 2 man can work if, as you stated, you have a competent partner and you communicate effectively before and during the game. I believe the two man system will remain rooted in the HS arena until two things happen. First, non- USSF officials will have to come to accept the fact that there is different pay for the middle and AR positions and two the schools themselves, or their appropriate athletic governing bodies recognize the need and distinct advantages and work with the units to bring the three man system into use throughout their seasons as they do for sectionals and beyond.

  8. Jim Welnetz, August 24, 2012 at 3:17 p.m.

    State HS Ass'n mandates 3 ref system for all varsity matches (but "tournaments" may use 2). Jv and frosh use 2. One problem I see is that if you do another sport, it only costs another $10 to add soccer -- so we get some guys that don't know anything about the game (everyone takes an openbook test) that are registered as soccer refs and get games. But yes, 3 man is much better than 2.

  9. Brent Crossland, August 24, 2012 at 4:02 p.m.

    I agree with everything that you said, Randy, but I would be more emphatic. Even good referees using a two-man system are going to be caught seriously out of position many times during any kind of competitive match. It is simply not possible to push far enough up field to get close to aggressive play in your partner's end of the field AND be in any kind of position to recognize offside on your own end. You have to compromise -- which leads to missed calls.

  10. James Madison, August 24, 2012 at 7:34 p.m.

    The limitations of the dual system are most pronounced if the officials are not fit in that, to be even reasonably effective, the system creates the potential for more sprinting and quicker recovery than in the diagonal system. My understanding is that it originated because of a shortage of trained officials. Then it became a matter of cost. The diagonal system has made its way into high school varsity matches in the SF Bay Area, but the dual system lingers in JV and frosh-soph matches

  11. John Burke, August 24, 2012 at 11:01 p.m.

    I work high school games on both sides of the state line in the Kansas City area. In Kansas, only "C" games are done with a 2-man system; only in extreme circumstances will J.V. and varsity matches not have 3. In Missouri, some smaller private schools use 2 as well as "C" games and some J.V., but all varsity games use 3. I dislike the dual system for all of the reasons you mentioned, but also because neither referee has a good look at play in the far corner. When the ball is in that area (as well as in the middle of the field between the two refs), it seems that there are always multiple players between you and the ball, making it very difficult to get the calls right. I much prefer the diagonal system.

  12. R2 Dad, August 24, 2012 at 11:02 p.m.

    I'll do it if the assignor needs coverage but when looking for matches I won't choose a 2 man crew over 3. Since most of those HS matches are during the week those refs seem to self-select (at least before 2008); you'd get more guys who were injured/disabled/out of the regular work force--maybe less so now with this economy.

  13. Kent James, August 25, 2012 at 2:23 p.m.

    In Western PA bigger HS games get 3, lesser games are often stuck with 2. The other issue is that many HS soccer refs ref other sports in winter and spring, and are generally more familiar with traditional HS sports than soccer, so many of these refs understand the rules but not the game. But that's a different issue. With regards to the dual v. 3-man, (aside from the different styles issue) there are two inherent limitations; most action is in the center of the field meaning both refs are 30 or more yards away from it (making fouls hard to see, in addition to not allowing presence to lead to conviction), and offside is literally impossible to call accurately. Since to accurately call offside, an official must be looking at the players who are potentially offside when the ball is kicked (listening for the kick), and in a 2 man system the referees must be watching the ball being played (since that is when most fouls occur), even the fittest referees cannot call offside properly. I would rather have 1 good ref in the center and club linesmen than the two man system (as a referee, player and coach).

  14. Brian Something, August 26, 2012 at 11:25 a.m.

    There is a referee shortage in our area, and many others no doubt. 3 is better than 2, no doubt, but 2 is still better than 1.

    Our regional club league says that games are not permitted to be officiated with the 2 man system. So if one of the three doesn't show up for some reason, there must be a CR with a real AR on one side and usually they put a parent on the other side. That means one side is going to get offside called and the other won't (since the CR won't let the parent call anything other than out of bounds).

    I'd say the 2-man system is more a reaction to lack of referees than anything else.

  15. Soccer Coach, August 28, 2012 at 8:48 a.m.

    In our area schools are allowed to opt for 3 man system for an additional home team expense which in this economy is not likely,in our district we are implementing a pat to play fee and cutting sports to balance the budget. That being said the three man scholastic system here requires the field to be split into thirds, each offical is assigned a portion and each has a whistle to makes calls, during the game they are required to rotate so that each works all 1/3s during the game. There is some improvment in offsdes calls but still no advantage play, in addition with the rotation of the officials there is no flow to the game, something disallowed in 1/3 of the game is allowed in another 1/3.

  16. Kent James, August 28, 2012 at 9:41 p.m.

    Soccer coach, you must also live in the great state of PA, where HS official administrators try to make the referees look as foolish as possible, by making them wear zebra stripes, giving them 3 whistles, and making the rotate every 26 minutes or so (making it a zoo), and that's when you're not stuck with 2 officials...I feel your pain.

  17. Derek Maple, August 30, 2012 at 12:14 p.m.

    Illinois high schools have it right, with the diagonal system in place for varsity matches and 1 ref for freshman. I don't know about JV, but I would assume they use 1 ref. I have never ref as 2 centers, nor do I plan on it after reading about the several hardships it creates. My local area is asking me to do this for certain levels. I'm afraid that I won't be able to convince the other ref to move to a diagonal system instead. I don't mind being AR and getting paid less, just don't put me in a 2-ref system! This ain't hockey!

  18. Tom Maegerle, August 31, 2012 at 6:41 p.m.

    Here in Pennsylvania the football mentality rules. If it's broke then it must need another whistle on the field. And just to fix those know it all soccer people, we're going to BAN the diagonal system of control. And make them wear stripes...

  19. Mark Konty, October 1, 2014 at 12:50 p.m.

    Indiana will use 2 or 3 depending on how many referees are available.

    Personally, I like the idea of two field referees, one running ahead of the play and one behind, and would like to see this system with two AR's (aka linesmen). I think Vogt's arguments against two field referees are fatuous. Other sports use multiple field officials to good effect (basketball and American football for example) and there is absolutely nothing wrong with officials conferring to discuss which call is correct--in fact I always appreciate a center ref who takes the time to confer with his AR's. Soccer could also designate one of the referees to be the "lead" referee so that any difference of opinion can be settled.

    The notion that two subjective opinions are somehow worse than one subjective opinion is absurd, especially when a single field referee is sprinting and 20-30 yards behind the play. Having one field referee ahead of the play and one behind the play gets the officials closer to the action and allows them to see more. Seems like a no-brainer.

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