I started reffing intramural games when I was 16 years old in 1978. My graduation from high school to college two years later correlated to my graduation from intramural to the travel team Long Island Junior Soccer League. At first, the increased speed of play in travel team soccer was challenging and it took me a season to adjust. It took me even longer to adjust to the challenges of adult soccer, especially since the players were older than me. And I was doing nearly all games by myself as the ref.
Refereeing was the old boy network at the time with little interest in advancing good, young refs so I was not formally assessed. But informally, I was being assessed by coaches, players and spectators every game. I heard criticism in some of my matches that I was calling the game too tight so I acted and learned to whistle less fouls while still maintaining game control.
Longtime ref administrator Jack McCabe, on the committee that brought the 1994 World Cup to the USA, heard good things about me so he came to watch me referee at a tournament. This was not a formal assessment and he gave me some pearls of wisdom at the conclusion of the game.
When it came time to re-certify that year, Jack said to me, “Randy, don’t you want to become a State Referee?”
I told Jack that I did but had no idea how to become one.
“Give me five more dollars,” Jack said, so I did. “Congratulations, you are now a State Referee.”
I was promoted from State Referee 2 to State Referee 1 a couple of years later when I noticed my new grade after receiving it in the mail. I remember being assessed but don’t recall requesting a promotion.
Today, besides passing the physical fitness and rules tests that refs for decades have needed to pass, refs must pass two field assessments before receiving the State badge. And pass two assessments every year to keep that badge. The standards are obviously higher for National and FIFA officials.
Approximately two decades ago, I noticed a real change in attitude of both U.S. Soccer and college soccer toward young refs, who are now spotted, scouted and assessed so they can advance up the ladder. Before they make it to MLS or the NWSL, they cut their teeth in the lower divisions of pro soccer and all divisions of adult soccer.
So I’ve seen young refs given the opportunity to sink or swim. Some swim and good for them. Yet some sink and they go down to doing youth games solely or quit altogether.
I officiated nearly 1,000 games before I ever did a pro game and a few thousand games before I officiated a national championship game –– both youth and adult –– during my long and winding referee career. And therefore had plenty of experience to draw on for those games.
With the level of maturity, or lack thereof, that I had as a very young adult, I could not have handled the pressure of officiating top games with thousands of people watching. So the fact that I did not advance quickly was truly a blessing in disguise.
The young refs today are advancing much more quickly and officiating top games sooner than I ever did. In many of these games today, whether pro level, adult or college, I see mistakes made by officials often due to a lack of experience. Maybe even it’s a lack of sleep the night before a big game. It’s often basic things such as allowing one player to foul too much without cautioning for persistent infringement, letting challenges become more robust without sanction or allowing a coach to give a commentary about the officiating throughout the match.
So my answer to the question in the headline is “Yes, many young refs are advancing before they are ready” and we need to slow down their advancement so the game slows down for them, for the good of everybody at the field.