Replacement Referee -- not quite what Alan Kelly bargained on

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.
14 comments about "Replacement Referee -- not quite what Alan Kelly bargained on".
  1. James Madison, March 13, 2014 at 11:24 p.m.

    SCAB is indeed the proper word, and all 23 of the RRs should be ashamed of letting their ambition prompt them to scab and also fearful that their scabbing will deprive them of any opportunity they might otherwise have had to in due course become qualified to join the PSRA.

  2. R2 Dad, March 14, 2014 at 12:48 a.m.

    In lieu of objective metrics for measuring the performance of referees, we're stuck with a union and all that baggage. Since this is a single entity league, maybe MLS should have embraced this approach:
    ....where referees are rated and their strengths and weaknesses quantified. US Soccer isn't doing it,but maybe it's time for a labor arrangement that avoids all this 1930's ranting. Just because you joined a union doesn't make you the best referee, and the union structure will enable crappy referees to stick around too long. Why is this good, comrades?

  3. Amos Annan, March 14, 2014 at 8:37 a.m.

    not a fan of any SCAB, but the article puts words in the guys mouth and decides what he is thinking. The author of this article is STUPID.

  4. Kent James, March 14, 2014 at 9:59 a.m.

    For the referees to have bargaining power to match the MLS (which speaks with one voice, since the teams do not operate individually in this matter), they need to speak with one voice as well, so the refs need to support the PSRA. If they think the PSRA is not doing the right thing, they need to work within the PSRA to change its tactics, not go outside the PSRA to work games, which undermines the position of the PSRA. There are always reasons strike breakers won't honor a strike, but if they care about the long term prospects of their fellow referees, they should not be working these games.

  5. Scot Sutherland, March 14, 2014 at 10:18 a.m.

    I find this comment to be quite interesting and important:

    "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."

    If RR's can perform in such a way that the average visitor cannot tell the difference, what is the point of the PSRA?

    The games were called a bit tighter and I found them to be more enjoyable to watch overall, more creative players involved and more emphasis on defensively reading the game rather than physicality.

    There were only a few cases in which the outcome of the game was influenced by the official. I hope the union and the league can reach an agreement, but I also think the PSRA could take some cues from their replacements and honestly evaluate what they see on the field with an eye to improve themselves and the league. One of the benefits of unionization at its best is the improvement in quality of the service it offers.

    Perhaps the PSRA can take this opportunity to renew its commitment to improvement, so next time the replacement referees will be clearly a few steps below the regular officials, which was clearly not the case last weekend.

  6. R G, March 14, 2014 at 11:43 a.m.

    I watched the game between Seattle and KC, and quite frankly, that's one of the best refereeing I've seen in MLS so far (I only moved to the US from Europe a couple years ago).

    I have to disagree with this "specificity" of MLS with regard to refereeing. I am sorry to say that the rules of football are the same all around the globe, and they are decided by the Board. That's it. Each referee will then have a different personality: some tolerate more physical play, some don't. But I don't see any disregard in Kelly saying he can quickly adjust to MLS. He has refereed Champion's League games for the past 10 years, which means he had to adjust to different to different ways of playing at every single game he refereed in this competition. How different can it be in MLS? Not much.

    There is another point that I find absolutely disgusting in this "article": the assertion that Kelly would be " taking a coveted FIFA slot that would otherwise go to an American". This sentence smells too much like the rampant xenophobia foreigners are often experiencing here. (And the same goes for remarks regarding his visa status - obviously, the ones who said that did not try going through TSA with a proper work visa, which has to be done before moving to the US, in your home country.)
    But in the case of Kelly, if he achieves his objective of getting his FIFA badge in the US by being better than the others (and I believe he can), he will not only serve the MLS by setting a higher standard for refereeing and helping the US look good in the CONCACAF by doing a good work in north american international games.

  7. R2 Dad, March 14, 2014 at 11:58 a.m.

    Ric, I only mentioned the 30's because it was quite cut-and-dry that employees needed representation and unions were a good thing. I've been both management and labor, and have seen the excesses of both. There is a good reason that labor unions have a very bad reputation in the USA and it would be beneficial to everyone if Americans could support a more functional and cooperative arrangement like they have in Germany. The downside to unionizing referees is the GD work rules (as you well know), NOT THE WAGES, but unions will inevitably roll out some old geezer to officiate a match (he just needs to work one more match this season to max his retirement payout!) because in a few years they will manipulate the terms to their benefit. The MLS represents management/owners. PSRA represents referees---who represents the interests of the fans? No one. This is just like the teachers union: The school district represents management, the teachers union represents the teachers, with no one left to represent parents and taxpayers. I like our referees and teachers, but their unions will eventually ruin everything. Just sayin'.

  8. Kelly Ross, March 14, 2014 at 1:52 p.m.

    Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, I've come to the US, to MLS, in search of a US - FIFA badge for me.

  9. Kent James, March 14, 2014 at 2:03 p.m.

    R G: I take the opposite view of the idea that Kelly is coming to the US primarily to get a US FIFA referee spot. It's not xenophobic to think that's wrong; for Kelly to do that essentially defeats the purpose of having FIFA referees from different countries (one could certainly argue that FIFA should just take the top referees, regardless of the country they're from, but that's a different topic). If Kelly is a FIFA level referee, why doesn't he earn his slot in Ireland? If he were an immigrant, who learned to ref in a US soccer environment, then I'd have no trouble with him earning a FIFA badge in the US. But for him to come to the US to earn a badge because he can't earn one in Ireland strikes me as a tad opportunistic.

  10. R G, March 14, 2014 at 3:27 p.m.

    @Kent James: the idea in itself is not xenophobic when you write it that way, which is somewhat different to what is written in the article.

    He did have a FIFA badge in Ireland though, and has been refereeing 2014 WC qualifier games. The only problem for him is that the FIFA or UEFA tend to have its own favorites, and you always end up with the same 4-8 referees on the top until one of them retires. It makes it really hard for referees to earn spots in WC.

    Should they move to other countries just to earn a badge there and increase their chance? No, certainly not. On the other hand, there are very few leagues where referees could move just for the sake of refereeing (and MLS is not really one of them). The way I see it, the main reason behind Kelly's move is getting a job with PRO. If that can help him fulfill his own refereeing ambitions while at the same time dragging the level of refereeing in MLS up, all the better. It's only for a few years anyway.

    In any case, it's nice to see a game where fouls are actually properly whistled (although arguably, not carded!).

  11. Kelly Ross, March 14, 2014 at 4:03 p.m.

    @Ric Fonseca. In this time and era, the Kibritjian analogy doesn't work. US Soccer officiating has progressed and developed to the point where US Soccer is able to identify qualified referees to recommend for the FIFA badge. I doubt Kibritjian immigrated to the US solely for the purpose of a job & a FIFA badge. FIFA doesn't permit one's FIFA badge to travel internationally with the person, once you leave your home country to live in another country.

    What is so appealing to US Soccer & MLS that UK referees are better qualified to help train & develop US referees for the US domestic league. Shouldn't the quality of officiating develop at the same rate/pace as the quality of the league and from within?

    As far as the importance of unions and public education Ric Fonseca, what say you on the situation in New York and Charter schools (although this is not the forum for that discussion)? Can parents not organize and represent themselves when the Board of Education has failed in its duty to the taxpayers?

  12. Kent James, March 15, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.

    As an historian, I understand the vital role unions have played in American history (with the 1930s era R2 citing being the key decade for unions, and the period of union decline after 1980 correlating with the growing economic divide in the US). One of the more profound comments I've heard about unions is that their role is to protect the weakest of their members (the best workers will be able to compete for themselves). So essentially, the best workers give up a little market value to benefit the weakest workers. Where this becomes a problem is when the weakest workers are not good enough, and who gets to decide that. If the unions protect people who are terrible workers, it makes the union look bad. But unions (as well as doctors, police, pretty much anyone) often have difficulty disciplining/firing their own, unless they're forced to do so. The crux of the matter for officials (in terms of working conditions/workplace control), is who determines who does which games. I think the integrity of the game requires that the officials union determines who does the games (so referees are not tempted to try to please certain coaches or team officials), with the important caveat that the MLS get to pick a small percentage (one or two refs?) each year that either are taken off the approved list, or given a reduced schedule (maybe one of each). On the other end, perhaps a vote (by team) could determine who does the MLS final and/or all-star game. So most of the control remains within the refereeing community, but the MLS has significant (though not micro-managing) input.

  13. Stephen Finn, March 15, 2014 at 9:14 p.m.

    As a fan of US soccer in general who happens to be Irish & based in Ireland, I find the tone of this article unnecessarily provocative. So the author Googled an article in the Evening Echo. He could just as easily have contacted any of his colleagues in the Irish media who would have explained that Kelly is the best referee this country has produced in decades. US soccer will gain from his knowledge & if US referees get the opportunity to learn from him they should take it. Ireland's top league does not have full-time professional referees so this opportunity to work full-time in the game was too good for Kelly to turn down. What is the difference between his move & that of a top class foreign player arriving into MLS? It all raises the standards. In refereeing terms it is often better to have a fresh face on the scene in a league as players, coaches & fans can get sick of the sight of the same officials every few weeks. Irish soccer's loss is the US's gain & that's how everybody in Irish soccer feels about Kelly's move.

  14. Peter Skouras, March 17, 2014 at 9:23 a.m.

    Professor Fonseca: You are spot on with the Union and the depths of history back to the 1930's. Let's get serious! The game in this country isn't even close to Collective Bargaining with its Referees. They are "terrible!" Not qualified and they want more money? Its players association? Questionable. Hurt the NASL. One the NASLAPA did for me as a young player in the 1980's was get me a raise...but that's about it! It's starts with the "Level" the "Domestic" structure all the way down. We are "glorified" amateurs "trying" to replicate foreign leagues which not to be a pessimist will never happen. The "College" game is in the way...which is a "great thing" for the security of our young players if they take advantage of the "Education" aspect. Back to this weekends referees: FANTASTIC or just as good as the "regular refs!" I would like to see these "scab" referees vs the "regular" referees in a "Relegation" decision in the 92nf where Montreal v Chivas were playing for demotion. What call would the "Scab" vs the "Regular" give if a Montreal player "would go down" in the box and visa-versa for Chivas? Will never happen because we don't have "Promotion-Relegation!' Now to more serious things...Americas Team...Olympiakos v Man United on Wednesday! Come on the Greeks and long live Toros! Great Referee. Great job "Scabs!"

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