Admission of the problem is the first step to a cure. In the glass half full world of Major League Soccer, there are never really problems - only initiatives.
MLS, however, has a problem which needs fixing. Like anything worthwhile, it cannot be done overnight but the League wants it known a serious initiative is being launched to tackle the situation.
At the dawn of a brand new season, there's a new franchise in Montreal, a new stadium in Houston and a new broadcast partner across the United States. MLS continues to toot its horn on a range of issues from improved standard of play to the growing visibility of the sport in North America.
There is always a certain amount of window dressing involved but overall there's a relatively healthy glow about this teenage League now entering its 17th year. Expansion continues apace and box office business in recent years has been spectacular, particularly in Canada and the Pacific Northwest.
But as MLS kicks off 2012, one thing will not have changed. More teams means more games. More games, of course, need more referees. Match officials of the required standard are not in abundant supply and the league knows it. So it is taking immediate action to alleviate the shortage.
The Professional Referees Organization, or PRO for short, is the combined brainchild of U.S. Soccer and MLS. Its mission is to improve the overall standard or refereeing across North America, develop a larger pool of referees at a younger age, and prepare more of them to represent the U.S. and Canada at FIFA competitions.
Noble goals, but where to start? Few MLS referees enjoy any respect from fans and not much more from the players they try to control. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard supporters moaning more about the performance of the referee than their own team. Players and coaches rarely do so 'on the record' knowing a league fine is almost certain to follow any public criticism.
Peter Walton is the new sheriff in town. The vastly experienced English Premier League referee has been appointed PRO's General Manager and will take up his position at the beginning of next month. After nine seasons in England's top flight, and with around 200 EPL games under his belt, Walton is eager to pass on his knowledge to the next generation.
There should be no lack of willing recruits. It is estimated more than 40,000 whistle blowers enter the refereeing ranks every year. MLS expects the PRO to identify and fast-track the most promising officials which, it's hoped, will result in a significant increase in the number of full time referees.
The theory is all good but will it work in practice? If there are so many raw recruits from which to choose why are so few deemed good enough to referee in Major League Soccer? How long will it take for this brave new Walton's world to make a tangible difference to refereeing standards in North America?
Players and fans alike should be able to take fairness and consistency for granted. I am prepared to believe the vast majority of MLS referees do their level best to give both teams the same length of rope. Mistakes happen of course - that's what occurs when you put a human being not a robot in charge and most of us accept it as such.
Consistency seems to be the larger issue. Some referees take a disciplinarian approach and cautionary cards are never far behind. At the opposite end of the scale, other officials seem hell bent on letting the game "flow" which, on occasion, results in serious foul play going virtually unpunished. Players must know they will be protected while the culprits must be deterred before the red mist descends.
The "Laws of the Game" are universal. All aspiring referees study the same rules before they ever step over the white line, but interpretation and implementation varies widely. One of Walton's first priorities must be to get all MLS officials on the same page and operating under similar guidelines.
I applaud MLS for its latest "initiative." It demonstrates the league is listening to its performers and its patrons. Neither players nor fans are prepared to put up with sub-standard refereeing and the league's reputation, at home and abroad, is not helped by the constant carping.
Peter Walton has a big job on his hands. He will undoubtedly take time to come to terms with the soccer culture on this side of the Atlantic. It is the same game but the general level of skill and decision making is very different from that to which he is accustomed. He will have to be cognisant of that and perhaps make allowances for it if he is to make a success of his new role.
Finally - before we all starting booing the referee again in 2012, let's remember he doesn't make the rules - he simply applies them. Doing so with a little bit of common sense usually helps.
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