The United States men’s national team has never come close to winning a World Cup. The women were eliminated this year in the round of 16, their earliest exit ever.
But, says Nick Primavera, “Our referees are at the top of the world.”
As CEO of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) – the group that manages the officiating in professional soccer leagues in the USA and Canada – he may be biased.
Yet statistics back him up.
Six PRO officials worked men’s games in Qatar last fall. They comprised 4.7 percent of the total there, but got 10.5 percent of the assignments. At the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the nine PRO referees in Australia and New Zealand (8 percent overall) worked 14 percent of the matches.
Tori Penso was in the middle for the women’s final between Spain and England, the first American ever to officiate a senior World Cup final. On the men’s side, PRO ref Ismail Elfath was the fourth official for the men’s championship between Argentina and France. He was joined by Kathryn Nesbitt (reserve assistant referee), Kyle Atkins (offside VAR) and Corey Parker (standby assistant VAR).
Primavera oversees the business, administrative, operations and human resources side of PRO. Mark Geiger – the first American ever to referee a World Cup knockout game, in 2014 – is PRO's General Manager. Joe Fletcher, one of Geiger’s ARs at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, is PRO’s Chief Refereeing Officer.
The 33-person organization oversees approximately 100 MLS referees, assistant referees, VARs and AVARs, and 75 PRO2 officials, who work in the USL Championship, USL League One, NWSL and MLS Next Pro.
PRO has grown rapidly since U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer announced the organization's launch in 2012.
“I’m not a referee,” CEO Primavera admits. “I’ve never refereed a game in my life.” But he’s seen plenty of soccer. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up on Long Island. Italy’s win in the 1982 World Cup final – and the spontaneous neighborhood parade that followed – hooked him on the game.
Primavera played on Dieter Ficken’s Region I Olympic Development team, narrowly missing selection for the U.S. team that qualified for the 1987 U-16 World Cup. He followed Ficken, the Columbia University coach, to his Ivy League squad. After graduation, Primavera spent the next 23 years in banking and finance, the last 12 at Capital One.
From the August 7, 1986, issue of Soccer America: Nick Primavera was part of the USYSA Region I team that competed in Colorado Springs, where U-16 U.S. national team Coach Roy Rees and assistant Bobby Howe were amid the process of selecting players for Concacaf's 1987 U-16 World Cup qualifying tournament.
While continuing to play with the New York Athletic Club, and coaching at the youth level, he always dreamed of making a living in the game.
In 2016, he was approached about PRO’s CEO job. “It was tailor-made for my soccer and business background,” Primavera says. “This was the best move I ever made. I never feel like I’m going to work.”
As strong as PRO’s stable of officials are at the top, there is work to be done below. “There is a refereeing crisis at the lower levels,” Primavera says. “There just aren’t enough young ones. They get abused by crazy parents and players. Countless refs get discouraged, and quit.”
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Primavera thinks every club in the country should be required to sponsor a certain number of officials, based on the club’s size. That would add to the pool, and perhaps reduce abuse, as coaches and parents at each club learned to appreciate referees more.
He admits that before becoming CEO, despite his long playing and coaching career, he had not given much thought to referees. He now has “tremendous respect” for officials.
“Players can switch off – walk, look around, tie their shoes. Refs can’t switch off for one second. They can be 99.9 percent perfect, but that’s not good enough.”
Nick Primavera (far right) with the New York HOTA Bavarian SC 2007 team from June 2022.
Primavera coached his three sons. They’re now 22, 20 and 15 years old, and he’s still with the NY HOTA Bavarian Soccer Club. He worked for several years with Chris Armas, who was two years younger than Primavara when both grew up on Long Island.
Now that he works every day with professional refs, he says, he can no longer watch even youth games the same. He always keeps one eye on the official. When he spots a good one, he recommends the referee to PRO’s development group.
As good as U.S. referees are now, PRO works to expand both the pool, and the working conditions that keep them in the profession.
Primavera points to PRO's achievements such as implementing Video Review in MLS in late 2017 and in NWSL in 2023, establishing a new CBA with MLS officials in 2019, its ongoing promotion of female and minority officials — and he is proud that PRO developed a collective bargaining agreement with officials in the NWSL, USL and MLS Next Pro leagues.
“Keep an eye on those refs,” he promises. “In a few years, you’ll see them in MLS.” And, quite possibly, at several World Cup finals.