As MLS teams return to the field for preseason, referees are going through their own preparations ahead of the 2015 season. Beyond the required fitness tests, these referees are engaging in discussions that will help make MLS a well-officiated and safe league.
MLS officials have already participated in referee camp, which is where they enhance their understanding of the rules by participating in classroom sessions. Referee camp isn’t as publicized as the ones being held by MLS teams, but it’s just as important to the growth of the league.
"It’s a lot of classroom sessions, lots of watching videos," assistant referee Corey Rockwell explained. "We had a few guest speakers from England come over this year, Keith Hackett being one of them, to speak to us. But mostly it’s about points of emphasis and it’s watching videos to kind of set the tone for the year."
Each year the Professional Referee Organization, or PRO, establishes points of emphasis for the upcoming season. Last year the organization, which manages referees and assistant referees in professional leagues in the United States and Canada, was looking to eliminate time wasting. This year PRO is focusing on dissent and persistent infringement.
In regards to dissent, PRO is hoping to reduce verbal and nonverbal displays of disrespect, including the touching of referees and banging of sideboards. The initiative should create a cleaner MLS.
Referees will also be more in tune with persistent infringement by doling out cards to those who commit multiple fouls. The hope is that this focus will protect skillful players and diminish the number of overall injuries.
A new interpretation of the offside rule is also on tap for 2015.
"The main verbiage they have told us about is ‘impacting the ability’," Rockwell enlightened. "So, previously, last year, a player could be in an offside position but unless he physically touched the ball or he was physically screening the goalkeeper, we were told to keep our flag down and really give the benefit of the doubt to the attacker.
"This year’s a little different. They’re saying that if an offside player impacts the ability of a goalkeeper or a defender to make a fair play on the ball then he should be considered offside."
Under the rule’s new interpretation, some goals from 2014 would have been called back. Rockwell used Harry Shipp’s goal from week 10 as an example. The play includes a long-range shot that Mike Magee runs towards but doesn’t touch. Although assistant referee Brian Poeschel puts his flag up to indicate offside, he’s waved off by center referee Kevin Stott because Magee isn’t directly challenging goalkeeper Luis Robles. Calling it a goal was correct in 2014, but it wouldn’t be in 2015.
Although it won’t go into effect in 2015, PRO is also looking at a way to improve the league’s concussion protocol. According to Rockwell, PRO will use preseason to trial a new concussion rule, which will grant 12-minute relief for those who are experiencing concussion-like symptoms.
Under the proposed rule, a temporary substitute would be permitted in order to allow a player to be assessed by team doctors. The injured player would have up to 12 minutes to return to the field. If he is deemed fit to play, the player substituted into the game would return to the bench without the team being penalized for using a substitute.
"I think they want to get some hard data to see how it works in this preseason given that there are so many preseason games going on and the games 'mean nothing' as far as standings," Rockwell said. "So, why not try a rule like this that encourages player safety?"
While MLS referees are exploring multiple avenues as a way to improve, Simon Borg’s Instant Replay isn't one of them.
"I like it," Rockwell confessed. "It’s always entertaining for me. I’m not saying I agree with him 100% of the time, but it fosters good discussion. For me, I just hope I don’t make his week in review. I don’t care if it’s good or bad, I don’t want to see myself or hear my name on his video week-after-week."
For more insight into life as a MLS referee follow Corey Rockwell (@CoreyRock) on Twitter.