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U.S. Soccer Referee Structure Puts NWSL Below MLS

NWSL referees are a tier below Major League Soccer.

Adrian Hernandez, Orlando Soccer Journal

The Orlando Pride lost 1-0 last weekend to the Houston Dash. In that match, referee Reyna Fonseca gave two Orlando Pride players red cards. While the red cards were justified, Fonseca awarded a penalty kick in the 85th minute. Sofia Huerta scored the spot kick, and the Dash won by a goal. However, Fonseca wrongly called a penalty, as the NWSL later admitted, and there should never have been a foul. Had there been no penalty, it’s unlikely Marta would have shown the frustration she did in picking up the team’s second red card.

This weekend, the Pride were again involved in a match where the referee’s decision impacted the result. Claire Emslie and Utah Royals goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart went for a 50/50 ball. It looked like Emslie got to the ball first. Then, after she was beaten, Barnhart stuck out her leg and took down the winger. Referee Malik Badawi called a foul on Emslie.

“I think they have to be better, all four of them,” Ali Krieger said after the Houston game. “I don’t want to place blame on that, and that’s why we lost because we control ourselves, but obviously they can get better control. We’re putting a good product out on the field, and every year we’re getting better, and the referees seem like they’re not.

“So, I beg the NWSL to just get…just the standard needs to be higher. It’s just unfortunate that you feel like the referees ruin the game. They’re taking the fun out of the game because they’re not good enough. I don’t mean to place blame, but I’m so tired of coming out every Saturday or Sunday, and the standard is so low when we are trying to pick the standard up so high. The referees are just not good enough. Male, female, it doesn’t matter. We need good referees.”

While there are constantly referee errors, perhaps the issue does not lie with the officials themselves. Perhaps, the bigger issue is in the referee structure within the United States.

There are five tiers in the U.S. Soccer refereeing program. The top-level, called “FIFA,” is the highest tier. These referees can officiate in FIFA-sanctioned matches. U.S. Soccer states that “this elite group of referees and assistant referees is recommended by the National Referee Committee, nominated by U.S. Soccer’s Board of Directors, and approved by FIFA.”

The second tier is “P.R.O.” These referees can officiate MLS matches and are selected by the Professional Referee Organization.

The next tier down is called “National,” and these officials are certified by U.S. Soccer. These referees can officiate USL Championship and NWSL matches. And therein lies the problem.

The National Women’s Soccer League is a tier under MLS, and so the officials in the women’s game will never be up to the standards that Krieger was talking about. Krieger said that if the league is going to grow, then the officials need to also. Under the current structure, the referees that are in the women’s league are not as qualified as those in the men’s league. If the NWSL has third-tier officials in the U.S., then the league will never have the best officials in the world — especially when there are issues almost every week in MLS.

Also, U.S. Soccer launched this structure just last month. On July 1, the USSF came out with its new pathway and said:

“The change comes after an extensive multi-year review of the current referee landscape by U.S. Soccer and its Members. In the course of the review, it became clear that a more streamlined pathway was necessary to provide clarity and provide more opportunities for referee participation and self-improvement.”

Pride Head Coach Marc Skinner also questioned the officiating, and had every right to ask why decisions were made.

“In England, we had referees that were learning — and learning quickly and effectively — and sometimes we would question the standard of the refereeing,” he said. “But I’ve never questioned it as much as I have over here.”

This problem is much bigger than officials getting calls wrong. The issue is that a top flight soccer league — which the NWSL is on the women’s side — has minor-league level officiating. This affects the on-field product and, in turn, the league’s growth.