USA's top ref Mark Geiger on leading PRO, the abuse problem, and the increasing demand for experienced officials

New Jerseyan Mark Geiger, the USA’s most accomplished referee, is the new General Manager of PRO, which was launched a decade ago to manage refereeing for the pro levels in the USA and Canada and now serves MLS, NWSL, the USL and MLS Next.

Geiger, who refereed MLS games for 15 seasons (2004-2018) and set a new precedent for an American referee at international competitions, succeeds Englishman Howard Webb.

Webb, who served in the position since replacing Peter Walton in 2018, returned to his native England after the 2022 season. Walton had arrived from England to become PRO’s first general manager in 2013.

Upon retiring at age 44 after the 2018 season, Geiger became PRO Director of Senior Match Officials.

In 2013, Geiger left his job as a high school math teacher to join the first group of Americans to become full-time professional soccer officials under PRO. In 2014, he reffed three games at the World Cup in Brazil, where he became the first U.S. ref to whistle a knockout stage game and ref more than two men’s World Cup games. With his three games at 2018 World Cup, Geiger has a U.S. record six games in the middle.

He is one 26 referees to have worked the center in six or more games at men’s World Cup, which has had 22 editions since its 1930 launch.

Geiger also worked four FIFA Club World Cups, three Gold Cups, and at the U-20 World Cup, Olympics, Confederations Cup and Copa America.

We spoke with the 48-year-old about the challenges and expectations of his new role and officiating issues such as ref-mobbing and sideline abuse.

SOCCER AMERICA: How did you first get into soccer?

MARK GEIGER: Playing beehive soccer, where everyone just chases after the ball.

SA: Did your family have a soccer background.

MARK GEIGER: No. My mother was a phys ed teacher until she had me. No one was really involved in soccer specifically. My mother was obviously involved in sports, but in the early 1970s it was more about coaching volleyball and cheerleading in the high school where she was working.

SA: Were you a good player?

MARK GEIGER: I was a terrible player. That's why I became a referee.

SA: How long did you play?

MARK GEIGER: I played up into high school and I did some rec amateur stuff after that. But nothing formal.

SA: You're joking a bit about going into reffing because you were a terrible player. That doesn't always breed refs. What got you involved?

MARK GEIGER: Through high school, it was a job. And I really enjoyed soccer even though I was not the best player. So refereeing was a way to stay involved. It was something that I was fairly good at, and it provided some opportunities.

I would go to the regional tournaments. I got invited to youth nationals and moved up the ranks the same way that a player would.

SA: Reffing’s not easy and sideline abuse can especially tough on teenagers. Lots quit. How did you cope?

MARK GEIGER: For me personally, it was just something that would just roll off my back. I wouldn't concern myself too much with what coaches at that level or parents at that level were saying. It was just a self-confidence in the decisions that I was making.

Now it has become even more an issue in the youth sports landscape that we're currently in.

SA: I’m going to return to that topic, but first about your new position, as PRO general manager.

I remember, in early years of MLS, Joe Machnik, whose vice president, game operations position put him in charge of the league's refereeing, said his job included fielding complaints from coaches or general managers on Mondays. That was when MLS had 10, 12 teams. Now it has 29. Is that also part of your job?

MARK GEIGER: That's a big part of the job, for sure. Fielding questions or concerns that the clubs — the owners, the general managers or the coaches — may have from either the previous weekend or if there's a more of a global issue or a global concern that they may have.

That's going to be one of the big challenges in this role. It's going to be communicating what PRO's direction is going to be while taking advice and feedback from the other stakeholders from within the league, designing a program and overseeing a program to help with the development and the training and the growth of the match officials throughout PRO. Not just MLS, but also in PRO2, which services the NWSL, the USL and and MLS Next.

On the importance of full-time officials

SA: This season marks the 10th anniversary of PRO. What do you recall about its formation, when it was launched in 2012 for the 2013 season? By then you had nine seasons of MLS officiating under your belt.

MARK GEIGER: When we were first told about PRO being formed in 2012 with funding and having the contracts in 2013, I was still a [high school] math teacher.

It was certainly a good time for me as I was preparing for the 2014 World Cup and hoping for that. To be able to stop teaching in February of 2013 and focus all of my energy on refereeing certainly made me and many of my other colleagues much better in our discipline.

SA: What are some of PRO’s key accomplishments during its first decade?

MARK GEIGER: It professionalized referee, enabling referees to make a living, No. 1. And No. 2, really hone their craft and become better officials.

When you look at pre-PRO, when you look at 2006, yes, Kevin Stott was at the World Cup with his trio, but he never got on the field.

Unfortunately, in 2010, we didn't have any representation at the World Cup. So from an international standpoint, it's really when PRO came around where we were able to dedicate ourselves to the job, to soccer in general and refereeing, that we started making headways on the international scene.  

You look at the accomplishments of Ismail Elfath and the entire group of six that went to the World Cup in Qatar — the amount of accomplishments, the number of games, the number of assignments that they had was absolutely incredible. And I think that's down to the structure that we have at PRO and the opportunities that these officials now have to focus solely on referee.

SA: From what I saw around the world, it seemed MLS had the smoothest rollout of video review and the VAR ...

MARK GEIGER: I think it was a very successful rollout, and for many reasons. No. 1, the match officials went through about a year and a half of training before we actually went live with the VAR. I also thought MLS did an amazing job in the education not just of the teams and the players, but also of the general public in how the VAR was going to be implemented.

Where certain competitions may fail is in the amount of training that they do with their officials and the education of the public.

We're also fortunate in the U.S. that video review is so common place. If you look at the [English] Premier League, it's not common in the sports that they have there and part of their culture. So I can understand why the general public would've pushed back on a lot of things there. Here, because it is so common in other sports, it was very easy for the general public to accept having video review.

SA: Speaking of other American sports, I think soccer can learn things from them.

For example, in American sports when a referee or umpire makes a decision they communicate what it is so the players, coaches and the public know what the call is. In soccer, that's not really the case. There very few instances when the soccer rulebook requires the official to signal what the call is. Shouldn’t 80,000 people in the stadium and those watching on TV know what the call was? It could even prevent some of the dissent.

MARK GEIGER: That's a good point. And I think that's one of the biggest hurdles that we have to tackle — the transparency and the communication with the people in the stadium.

At least at home watching on TV, they have the commentators who are able to at least describe what's going on in the situation. But there's a lot less transparency with the people in the stadium.

Some of the things that we've done in this past year — we have, a system where there are going to be messages now on the big stadium board to let them know when things are being checked or when things are being reviewed, and what they're being reviewed for. We're making headway in that space.

There’s certainly other things that we can take a look at in the future to make it even more transparent. But that's one of the biggest challenges that currently remains.

SA: You mentioned TV commentators. Maybe they’re getting a little better, but I still frequently hear commentators misinterpret the rules. Is that something that concerns PRO?

MARK GEIGER: Yes, and we have introduced having broadcaster calls every two weeks or every month where we go over situations and we can describe to them if there's been an error on the play by the referees or if we're supporting the decision by the referee. We can explain to them why and educate them a little bit more on the "Laws of the Game" and the application of those laws.

I know that in the past, Howard [Webb] has also had some direct communication with some of the commentators in games. So if we hear them say something or not understand what the situation was or the decision, we've been able to send a text or something to some of the commentators to let them know what was actually happening.

But many times they're watching the games from a monitor as well, just like the people at home, and it's easy to misinterpret what happened because maybe something was off screen or the right replay isn't available for them.

SA: Sometimes they'll comment on the foul — for example, “He went down too easy” or “doesn’t look like a foul to me” — before the replay. Then after the replay shows a clear foul in slow motion, they’ll come up with some B.S. reasoning to rationalize their initial opinion.

MARK GEIGER: … Maybe some of the commentators are there to stir the pot …

SA: I still think TV commentators should be required to read the rulebook and be tested on it. … What about the players. Are MLS players required to pass a test on the rules?

MARK GEIGER: No, not to play in MLS. No. I know there are some coaches and some clubs that will do little educational sessions with the players. We do team meetings in the preseason, so we will meet with the MLS competition department and meet with each club, and we go over some of the law changes that they're going to see in that upcoming season, or if there are any points of emphasis.

But I think it would be beneficial for players to take some courses in the referee space, just like referees should be taking courses in the coaching space.

SA: Seems it would be simple to have players take an entry-level referee test online where if you get the wrong answer, you learn the right answers as you go through the test.

MARK GEIGER: I think that would be beneficial. I certainly do. And referees need to know team tactics as well.

On the scourge of ref-mobbing

SA: This is probably going to lead us to IFAB, but it's inexplicable and embarrassing to the sport that soccer tolerates ref-mobbing. And I have a list going back more than decade of the unfulfilled promises of a crackdown.

For example, before the 2015 season, then PRO general manager Peter Walton said “that players who adopt an aggressive pose towards match officials and are clearly dissenting, either verbally or physically, should be dealt with by the letter of the law.”

The second “cautionable” offense in the rulebook has long been "dissent by word or action." It may be the least enforced rule in the rulebook. Why are referees still mobbed and we rarely see yellow cards?

MARK GEIGER: It’s a global issue. There are a bunch of leagues that I've been involved in or in FIFA competitions where they talk about this situation.

One of the hardest things for a referee is they never want to become the talking point. They never want to become the story. And as often as we say that we will give them full support if they give a yellow card, even if it's a second yellow card for these types of situations, then they end up sending somebody off. The referees know in the end that if they do that, they run the risk of being that talking point.

So that's one of the reasons that they may shy away from it. We will be telling the referees this year that they are expected to take a very strong approach with mobbing and with visual dissent. Anything that's public, we expect them to issue yellow cards. And I know that we have the full support of the competition department and the league if we take this strong approach with the players, but it's a global problem right now. It's something that we certainly need to address in order to clean up the image.

SA: I believe rugby allows captains to consult referees if done civilly but has zero tolerance for the players approaching the official. Is that something soccer should consider?

MARK GEIGER: We need to find these types of solutions.

It's cultural as well. If you look at where our players are coming from and the countries that they're coming from, and the behavior of the players in those cultures — this is something that they may be bringing to MLS as well.

You look in other big leagues around the world, a lot of times the players have to adapt to the league that they're going to. I think what we need to do is be strong here and make sure we define what our culture is going to look like. And force the players who come to this league and come to this country, to adapt to what's expected here.

But it starts with the referees taking a strong approach to the mobbing and the dissent and the aggressive behavior.

SA: Soccer is unique to American sports, where when a season ends the league gets together, assesses problematic trends and makes changes to correct them. But in soccer a league can't do that and must rely on extremely slow-moving IFAB. Can PRO have an influence on IFAB?

MARK GEIGER: Well, IFAB controls the ‘Laws of the Game.’ I think the tools are there for the referees to take the proper action. In terms of discipline, in the end, the league always has the option or the ability to put rules of competition in place. To deal with from a fining standpoint or suspension standpoint in how they want to deal with players. But in terms of the “Laws of the Game” themselves, the tools are there for the referees. They just need to use those tools that are given to them.

[Editor's noteThe eight-vote IFAB is the four British associations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) with one vote each, and FIFA's remaining 207 national associations, with four votes.]

SA: The pro game in the United States is proliferating. Not just the expansion of MLS — with 29 teams for the 2023 season twice as big as 15 years ago — but there’s the USL, the NWSL and MLS Next Pro, which kicked off with 21 teams in 2022 and has 27 teams in 2023. Is there a sufficient referee pool to meet the demand?

MARK GEIGER: In the past five years that I've been involved with PRO, it has been difficult just for the simple fact that the league has been growing.

We have to keep adding in referees every year just to service the number of matches that keep adding into each match round.

There's a bit of a gap between our first and our second division in the U.S. and as MLS continues to grow and become a better league on the worldwide stage, we also need the second division to accelerate at that same level if we want to use that as a training ground for MLS. For now, the officials that we've had within MLS or coming into MLS have performed very well, given the amount of inexperience that they have, they've been able to referee the game at a sufficient level.

As the league continues to grow we’re going to have to keep finding these referees from that second division and train them very quickly and get them ready for the MLS matches.

Further reading: Mark Geiger's advice for ambitious young refs

* * * * * * * * * *

SA: The pipeline begins with U.S. Soccer. How do you feel about how the entry level for young referees is carried out? I do think there have been improvements in streamlining the certification process for newcomers to certify.

MARK GEIGER: If you look at our roster of our officials, most of us started in the youth game at a young age looking to make a few bucks on the weekend.

So if that's a healthy pool down there, then we'll continue to get quality referees at the top level as they move up that ladder.

Going back to the beginning question, when we talked about the attitude and behavior of parents. As the retention rate at that level goes down, that's going to ultimately diminish our pool at the top level as well. Because you're going to lose some people that maybe at 15, 16 years down the road could have become a top level referee.

SA: Did the U.S. Soccer Development Academy help a lot in moving referees toward the higher levels?

MARK GEIGER: Yes and no. The Development Academy provided a good number of games at a decent level for the referees to hone their skills. The flip side of it is, it was a very sterile environment, right? You didn't have difficult situations for the referees necessarily.

Whereas, you'll find your best referees come from areas that have ethnic soccer, at top level amateur games. That's really where you learn how to manage a game.

You may learn in Development Academy, what’s a foul, what's not a foul. But in terms of managing players, managing the game, and really navigating through difficult situations, you learn that in the [adult] amateur game. Right? And that's just something that's really required of a high-level referee. Not just foul, no foul, but it's really managing the game.

SA: What can PRO do to help ensure a pathway that leads enough referees to the top level?

MARK GEIGER: In the past two years, we've put together a talent ID program at PRO. We have a department that goes out to Generation adidas or the MLS Next matches or tournaments, and we can go to the U.S. Soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer and U.S. Adult Soccer, regional events — to try to find those individuals to bring into our PRO2. And eventually, hopefully they graduate up to MLS.

SA: How do we deal with abusive coaches and parents?

MARK GEIGER: We have to ignore it sometimes. And we hope that the leagues put together some program or have some initiative in order to help and assist with the type of behavior that we're seeing.

But with the coaches, IFAB has given us tools to deal with that. And just like with the MLS officials, having to deal with and using the tools in the MLS game, use the tools at your disposal to deal with the coaches that you have in the youth game as well.

[Editor’s note: In 2019, IFAB finally enabled referees to yellow- and red-card coaches.]

SA: Does PRO have rules or advice on the use of social media?

MARK GEIGER: Well, stay off it. [laughs]. That's advice. There are no rules.

Of course, you don't want them posting things that can compromise themselves. That’s the biggest point.

But the more they stay off social media, the better off they're going to be. Because if you're looking for affirmation about the job that you did, you're not going receive it on social media. There's only going be negative stuff about you.

SA: Referees posting on social media?

MARK GEIGER: It shouldn't be used to promote yourself. If you're looking for a way to promote the game, that's fine. But just be very careful and guarded about what gets put up on social.

PRO’s challenges and goals

SA: As you take this position, what challenges do you look forward to taking on?

MARK GEIGER: The challenges are — we still have an inexperienced crop of referees. We've had a huge amount of turnover in the past few years. The first few years are really about accelerating their experience level and their learning.

SA: After you’ve been in this position for a few years, how will you judge if you’ve been successful?

MARK GEIGER: When I look back in five years, I'm looking to the next World Cup [in 2026]. If we have instead of just one referee going to the World Cup, if we have two referees going to the next World Cup. Or we have three or four referees who are trying to get into the project, then we are more successful and healthier as an entire group.

And it's not just for those three or four, it's the whole group that will be stronger at that point. And international soccer is just one metric that we can use to say how successful the program is. Obviously, we want key match incident accuracy to go up.

From an on-field standpoint — that games are under control and that the quality of the officiating has improved over the next five years as it has the last five years, that's all important as well.

From an objective standpoint: How many officials we have on the international stage, doing top-level matches late in tournaments and competitions.

Michael Janosz/ISI Photos

5 comments about "USA's top ref Mark Geiger on leading PRO, the abuse problem, and the increasing demand for experienced officials".
  1. :: SilverRey ::, February 3, 2023 at 5:56 p.m.

    I would love to see soccer refs get the same respect that rugby refs get.

  2. R2 Dad, February 3, 2023 at 6:29 p.m.

    "SA: How do we deal with abusive coaches and parents?

    MARK GEIGER: We have to ignore it sometimes. And we hope that the leagues put together some program or have some initiative in order to help and assist with the type of behavior that we're seeing."
    And this is why nothing ever gets done--club and league management is staffed with coaches, who are tasked with punishing all their neighboring clubs? Never gonna happen.
    USSF: If you wanna get serious about coach abuse, show me the list of blackballed coaches who've been suspended for 12 months. I've watched coaches scream at 14 YO kids until they cry. These coaches have no shame and no boundaries. Don't wonder why you have no youth referees--the answer is right in front of you. You just need the huevos to punish the bad apples.
    This isn't difficult, BTW. The Development Academy may have been sterile because people are watching these coaches, but that is exactly what we need at the amateur level. Let the pro track players and coaches mix it up to "un-sterilize" things. 
    Great interview, BTW.

  3. Mike Lynch, February 4, 2023 at 10:21 p.m.

    Great article Mike. No refs, no games. Less abuse of refs, more refs, especially our young refs. Coaches need to play a greater role to recruit and retain the next generation of refs. 

  4. Judah Zeigler, February 28, 2023 at 9:56 p.m.

    Excellent interview. The time is long past for every national governing body - USYS, US Club - and local leagues to be required to take action regarding the attitude of coaches and players toward referees.

    I'm a coach and a referee, and while I definitely get frustrated with calls when I'm on the sideline, I do my best to control myself - because I know that I make at least one mistake in every game I officiate, and the same when I coach. It's called being human - and parents, coaches and players need to start recognizing that.

    Even though we can't legislate bad behavior, we have to remove the really bad apples from the pile - which means that the governing bodies need one centralized database of coaches who have been cautioned or dismissed, and sanctions taken against those coaches need to be both increased and carry the same weight across every organization. Only then will coaches start to think twice about their behavior.

  5. Victor Castillo, March 15, 2023 at 11:39 a.m.

    Laws 1 - 6 state what is needed for the game to be played.  Spectators and coaches are the first to go if they become problems.  My ref assignor gave me that that advice early on in my reffing career.  From then on it help me control my games and avoid/resolve problematic situations.

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