The Two-Ref System Revisited

By Randy Vogt

Two years ago, I wrote about The Two-Ref System: Its Flaws and How to Cope. The two-ref system is still only used widely in American high school soccer and I will be very happy when the two refs finally become one ref and two ARs in all outdoor soccer games. With much of the United States playing high school soccer during the fall, now’s a good time to revisit this antiquated system.

In the original article, I stated that my work in a summer league for high school teams was pretty good, partly because of my excellent partner who also had professional game experience. We had officiated a good deal together up to that point in the diagonal system as he had been my assistant referee and I had been his AR. But we never refereed together in the two-ref system before that. Yet I knew his philosophy of refereeing which is similar to mine. We enjoyed ourselves a great deal even given the limitations of this system. We certainly did not have any issues with the teams. Based on the referee shirt color that he likes to wear on the field and my favorite movie, we called ourselves Black to the Future.

This summer league is played on weekday nights when there are few games so the referee assignor has the choice who he is going to use. And he only uses refs on a weekly basis who are in the top 25 percent in his view of the refs on Long Island. A lesson to be learned here for organizations that keep growing and growing is that the growth might come at the expense of quality officiating in many games as the assignor has little choice but to use all certified officials who are available.

My four partners during the past two summers in this league have been pretty good too but we generally did not have the level of teamwork and very similar philosophy as my original partner. So no names for my new tag-team partners. No matter which referee system is being used, it’s important that the officials communicate at halftime what they see on the field. In one girls high school game, my partner said No. 30 white, a forward, kept on complaining that she was “being held” by a defender.

When she was on my end the next half, she was quiet until midway through the half when she complained about being “hacked.” A few minutes later, the ball went to her by the touchline so she was right in front of me. Her cross was deliberately handled by a defender outside the penalty area but rebounded to her teammate who was now dribbling on goal. I yelled “Play on!” and she then complained, after I played the advantage, that I somehow should have stopped play instead. The shot was saved and went to No. 30 inside the penalty area, who had the ball cleanly tackled away. She yelled that she was fouled as the ball went over the touchline, so I cautioned her for dissent.

As per high school rules, she needed to be substituted and the team, leading 2-0, left her on the bench for the rest of the game. The defender marking her thanked my partner and I after the game for controlling her. But if my partner did not tell me that she was a problem when we spoke at halftime, I would not taken action as quickly.

One referee I worked with had a good deal of experience in this summer league and controlled the game rather well. But I noticed that what she whistled as a foul in the middle of the field, she often would not whistle as a foul if it was near the goal, no matter which team was committing the foul. For me, a foul is a foul is a foul and if it means I call a foul near the goal that influences the outcome of the game, so be it. What to do?

I cheated as play moved upfield so if the ball was in the penalty area, I would not be too far away to whistle a foul if warranted. One problem being, and this is a limitation of the two-ref system, if I whistled a foul right in front of her, the reaction would be how I could call something from 35 yards away when she was much closer. The other problem being, I needed to really hustle to be able to call offside if play moved in the other direction.

It’s a problem when the ref and assistant referee have two different philosophies in the diagonal system of control but the ref could always overrule the AR. It can be a disaster when the two referees in the two-ref system have different philosophies as the game will be officiated differently in different parts of the field. So it’s not a surprise that when this high school summer league gets to the playoffs, the diagonal system is used instead.

It’s interesting that I have also used the two-ref system with better success with indoor soccer, whether it was in indoor tournaments during the 1980s and 1990s or in futsal since the turn of the millennium. With fewer players to watch and control plus a smaller field, the two-ref system works fine in those venues.

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.

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 9,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to 6-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

24 comments about "The Two-Ref System Revisited".
  1. Michael Anderer, September 29, 2014 at 2:02 p.m.

    I think as you have explained, it's the quality of the ref that has the most impact. I am seeing more and more upper division youth games with inadequate AR's.

    I also wonder if you could comment on the timing of high school and college games. Why is that rule different? Why not allow stoppage time?

  2. Randy Vogt, September 29, 2014 at 9 p.m.

    Michael, these are great questions. I wish that I knew the answer as I much prefer having official time on the referee's watch. It's great to ref most games with official time being kept on my watch (with stoppage time possibly being added) and then challenging to have the official time in college and HS soccer on the scoreboard. One way it's challenging is I have to remember to stop the clock in giving a card or giving a PK in addition to those procedures. Another way it's challenging is did the ball cross the line before the scoreboard read 0:00? Already twice this fall, the buzzer sounded a second or two before the ball entered the goal so it was not a goal. If I had the official time on my wrist, I would have done the common sense thing and let the shot be completed before blowing my whistle. --Randy

  3. Joseph Pratt, September 30, 2014 at 11:19 a.m.

    High schools around Chicago use the two-ref system...when they can get two refs! As flawed a system as that may be, it's still miles better than having a lone center with no ARs. Calling offsides or a ball into touch is nearly impossible.

  4. Wesley Hunt, September 30, 2014 at 11:25 a.m.

    I am not sure why the school soccer in this area hangs on to the two ref system. I have heard that it is because of the lack of referees to do all the games however they might get more refs who do travel but refuse to do the two ref system. In addition new younger refs are more willing to start as ARs The weaknesses you pointed out especially when two refs are not calling the same way are almost always picked up by the especially obnoxious parents. I do use the two refs in our futsal league and it works fine there because of the small space. As for time keeping..... from a spectators and players perspective, it is very exciting to have everyone aware of the clock ticking down. Much of what a high schoolgame is about is the show of it all and nothing is more exciting than a team trying to score to win or equalize in the final couple of minutes.

  5. Coach Referee, September 30, 2014 at 11:32 a.m.

    The central valley area of California uses 2 ref system for V and 1 ref for JV. It's a money issue. The 2 ref system allows unfit, out of shape refs to stay on the field "reffing"; whereas, in a 3 ref system their inadequacies would be so evident that they'd probably be released from being on the field.

  6. Chris Obrien , September 30, 2014 at 11:34 a.m.

    As a coach I have another issue. A foul occurs inside the box. Since the referee calls the foul and instead of pointing to the spot he places the ball outside the area. He remarks to me that since the game is close he's not going to give a penalty in that situation. Thoughts?

  7. Coach Referee, September 30, 2014 at 11:38 a.m.

    File a formal complaint and demand the firing of this ref. Disgrace.

  8. Tim Gibson, September 30, 2014 at 11:47 a.m.

    I get it why High Schools & other programs can not go to 3 officials, it's an added expense - simply stated. But the 2 ref system CAN work if used correctly. 1st, both officials need to work out how to call the match consistently BEFORE it starts. This should include their philosophical differences. But if the trailing (behind the attack) official watches for penalties & the leading (attacking) official focuses on offsides, it can work.But they need to discuss this ahead of time so not to conflict with eachother.
    What I see when it's not working is that both officials try to act in unison & that is when you see the philosophical differences become more pronounced.

  9. Steve Naboicheck, September 30, 2014 at 2:07 p.m.

    Having coached at both the collegiate and now at the high school level I have experienced the 2 ref system in both instances. Believe it or not this was used for our college games so we could save money. It was a poor system since the speed of play and the physicality of the game made it very challenging for only 2 people. Our high school games also you the 2 ref system for the regular season. I believe the game is more affected by the quality of the referees than the system used. Unfortunately there is a large disparity among referees at the high school level. This results in inconsistency in games which challenges the players and the coaches. It seems that there is no real solution because it comes down to who can show up for a 3:30pm game.

  10. Gunther Charles, September 30, 2014 at 2:35 p.m.

    Leave it alone there is nothing wrong with the system because you have ego oriented referees who will make calls in your close proximity which is totally wrong. I know it happened to me, I was close to the 18 yard line (attacking team) that team wanted a penalty kick for nothing, the second Referee was at least 30 yards away and he made the call and I felt like you know what especially since the p-kick would have been wrong, but the attacking team complaint to the second or trail referee and that's when he made the call. I my books he was a complete jerk. Do we want to have the same as American football so all the guys get together and asking each other "what do you think we should do"?

  11. Jeff Mccullough, September 30, 2014 at 9:29 p.m.

    I ref HS soccer in Ohio and it is a lot of 2 man---like someone said earlier--due to cost. But it is impossible to see everything and the game suffers. Every game there will be a call where a coach or fan had a better angle than me or my partner and we miss a call. It raises the level of tension during the game.

  12. Brian Something, September 30, 2014 at 11:29 p.m.

    As an HS coach, I find it inadequate. But given that our local HS referee organization has a regular shortage of refs as it is, I don't see it changing. 2-man is used in all regular season high school games and early postseason games. After the first few early round postseason games, we usually get a CR and two ARs. Our local USYS club league bans the two-man system.

  13. , October 1, 2014 at 9:25 a.m.

    The two referee system is a disaster and should be abolished. Randy has portrayed two major arguments against it. The judgement of a referee on the field will always be subjective. To have two subjective opinions on the field is a catastrophe in the works. Sure Randy may be more experienced than the referee he is partnering with, nonetheless, also his decision is a philosophical one (to use his term). To overrule an "equal" on the field is presumptuous, no matter how experienced the referee believes to be. All you have to do is watch professional games with the most experienced referees; they all make mistakes, they all have different philosophies.
    The second point is the offside rule. If we insist on using the two referee system, logical conclusion since per virtue of our self definition we have to be different than the rest of the world, we should do away with the offside rule in the two-referee system. I have yet to see a two-referee game where off-sides was even close to be called correctly. For the players it is extremely frustrating when practically every off-sides decision (or non-decision) is wrong. My suggestion, follow FIFA rules in all soccer games played on full-size fields.

  14. Nicholas Adams, October 1, 2014 at 11:23 a.m.

    I truly hate the two man system here in Mass, there are too many variables; who is the senior ref? The referees may have different experience levels, they are often of a very different age and subsequently, fitness and there is a huge lack of consistency in decisions which is the one thing I hear the most from fellow High School coaches. They are also told to follow or enforce ridiculous rules by the state school sports body which have nothing to do with FIFA rules. They also seem reluctant to call the big decisions, too many times I've been involved in High School games that have been decided by a referees poor decision rather than actual game play.
    I understand that there may be a shortage of experienced officials but the training has to be better if the overall standard of Refereeing in the US is to improve from grassroots to the professional ranks.

  15. R2 Dad, October 1, 2014 at 11:44 a.m.

    I don't like working a 2 man crew. I also find many who do are better solo refs and really wouldn't fit in a 3 man crew, anyway. The assignors have a limited pool of people to work with. Even where a 3 man crew is used, you don't see youth referees/ARs out there.

  16. Brian S, October 1, 2014 at 12:45 p.m.

    We use two man for all sub-varsity games in Colorado. For varsity games we use the "3 whistle" system. I think CO and FL are the only states that use the "3-whistle" system.

    I've been told we use 2 man for sub-varsity since, theoretically, the players and ball movement are slower so therefore the SRs should be able to move with play yet be able to be in position to call offside. In my experience the fouls that are missed are those in the center of the attacking third when the lead SR is watching for offside and the trail SR either doesn't see or doesn't call the foul. I don't care for the 2 man system but it is what it is.

  17. Brian S, October 1, 2014 at 12:49 p.m.

    ...and I meant to add that if the high schools would optimize their schedules - say have sub-varsity on M/W/F and varsity on Tue/Th/Sat then we could better utilize the referee pool and have 3 referees at more games. In CO 80% of the games (Varsity and Sub-varsity) are on Tu/Th so we simply don't have enough referees to cover all the games with 3 refs.

  18. Kent James, October 2, 2014 at 1:07 a.m.

    It is impossible to watch for offside at the same time you are watching for fouls. And since most of the action, and therefore most of the fouls, occurs in the center of the field, where each referee is a min of 30 yds away, referees in the 2 man system miss many fouls. But if you don't care about correct calls for offside or most fouls, then the two man system is fine...

  19. Tim Gibson, October 2, 2014 at 9:49 a.m.

    Kent! You nailed it & that is why in most cases it does not work. Unfortunately we are likely not going to be able to change it due to cost constraints in most programs as well as the lack of officials that continues to plague most organizations. So to help make it work, the 2-refs need to know when switch responsibilities during the play on the field from being a linesman(the lead official) back n forth to the trailing(Head official) & not try to focus on calling fouls & offsides simaltaneously. Yes, this is more difficult for more advanced programs like Varsity & club matches which should have 3 officials. But for JV, frosh & U6 - U13 programs that can't afford 3, it CAN work when Officials set up when to switch roles on the field. The simple rule is the center line. When play is on 1 side of the line, it's Official "A" time to be the 1 to watch for offsides. On the other side of mid-field, it's Official "B". My 2 cents thinx ALL High School programs should offer an ellective course in "Sports Officiating". This would give kids that were not lucky enough to be born with or exposed to the skills required to participate on the field with teams. These same kids could learn how to officiate & be involved in mentoring programs at the schools which could feed the local in-town officiating programs.

  20. Tom Maegerle, October 2, 2014 at 1:13 p.m.

    The 2 man system has many shortcomings, but it is ingrained in the HS game. That mentality of resistance is one of the reasons HS soccer is fading in importance. But some are worse than others. Here in PA the diagonal system of control is *BANNED*, instead replaced by the 3 whistle on the field system. Schools have the choice of bad (2 man) or a system that elevates the worst elements of the 2 man system and does nothing but introduce complexity (let's play musical refs as we rotate around the field at set intervals). So I guess be glad with what you have, because it could be worse!

  21. Kent James, October 3, 2014 at 10:46 a.m.

    Tom, I'm glad that you pointed out PA's pioneering efforts to use the "3 whistle" system (so Brian, CO & CA are not alone; I'm ashamed to say that I think we Pennsylvanians pioneered it, I think due to the large number of PA HS soccer refs who ref other sports during the winter and spring, and figured "hey, this is the way basketball works, so let's do the same for soccer"). Year round soccer officials generally hate it. The three whistle system does create a bit of a circus (with the officials rotating positions during play), but even with that, it's still better than the 2-man (because of the huge liabilities of the 2-man system I outlined above). As a coach, I'd rather have one good official in the middle (for fouls) with volunteers calling the ball in and out of play, and just not rely on offside calls in the defense. But of course, we should really have the standard three person crew with a diagonal system of control (and play fewer games to cover the costs).

  22. James Madison, October 3, 2014 at 6:52 p.m.

    As a matter of history, the two referee system was introduced as "stop gap" when there were not enough qualified officials to supply three per game. Unfortunately it morphed into a money saver. There is no question about it being less effective than the diagonal system. To come even close, officials must share philosophy and be able to cover more ground than if they were officiating in the diagonal system. For the so-called trail referee to be unwilling or unable to penetrate to the edge of the penalty area or even beyond the half-way line and then recover as lead when possession changes will set the stage for disaster.

  23. RJ Clark, October 12, 2014 at 12:56 p.m.

    This is a really serious problem in our area[ Albany, NY Metro area], and should be abandoned. I believe it really hurts the game and hurts young players.I played my first game in 1962, and watched a thousand games since then, as my children and now my grandsons play. Scholastic [2] ref fails for all/many of the above reasons, but foremost with [2] refs there are TOO many whistles, its as if they never saw a game before. Ticky tacky non-sense calls in midfiled then blown calls in the box which decide games. The beautiful game is ruined by [2] whistlers. Someone tell em no pay increase for more whistles. I was taught the ref's job is to protect the players, not determine the outcome. It's not the NBA. Finally where else in school sports do the 'rules of referee" in the school game vary from the Nationally sanctioned game and the like MS/HS soccer?

  24. James Buckner, October 12, 2014 at 1:07 p.m.

    Schools still use the "dual system". One thing I notice about the dual system is that referees spend a lot of time critiquing each other rather than observing play.

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