Ring, ring; ring, ring…
It was June 27 and Matthew Nelson, a PRO assistant referee, had just got off a long conference call at work. He is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, and runs the line in Major League Soccer when gameday comes around.
His cell phone lit up, vibrated, and displayed that Greg Barkey, PRO’s Manager of Assistant Referees, was calling.
“It had been a long day at work, so I debated just calling him back later rather than picking up the phone,” Nelson, who made his professional debut in 2012, reflected.
“Needless to say, I’m glad I decided to answer the phone right then. That was a great piece of news to end the day!”
The news that Barkey delivered was that Nelson had been assigned to the MLS All-Star game, which will see the league’s elite go up against English Premier League club Arsenal on July 29.
The 29-year-old AR is one member of the five-man PRO officiating crew for the game, which he describes as the biggest of his career so far, and he will be at San Jose’s Avaya Stadium alongside referee Chris Penso, fellow assistant Frank Anderson, fourth official Juan Guzman and fifth official Chris Strickland.
“It’s an absolute honor and a surprise to receive the All-Star game assignment,” Nelson added.
“We are fortunate to have some of the best ARs in the world working in this league, each supportive of one another and yet challenge each other with every assignment to get better.
“Since doing my first MLS match, one of my goals was to be able to referee the All-Star game. It still hasn’t hit me that I will soon be taking the field with some of the best players from Major League Soccer and Arsenal.
“When I first took the field to referee my first ever game back in 2000, I never envisioned being in the pool of MLS referees let alone being selected to referee such a momentous game. I will be working this game in honor of my mentors, friends and family who have invested and believe so much in me.
“Sharing this experience and working alongside Chris, Frank, Juan and Chris could not make me happier. While the referees in MLS may at times get a lot of criticism by the public and media, I must tell you that they do a very good job.
“I have confidence taking the field with the crew that it will be another game where we all work together as a team to ensure the safety of the players, allow them to showcase their skills, and provide a memorable experience for the fans.”
Nelson, from Alexandria, Virginia, has made 14 MLS appearances in 2016, in what is his fifth year in the league, taking his total league tally to 62 since his opener between Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake.
But this is the first year that a focus has been on the training and development of assistant referees, and Nelson feels the impact Barkey has had in his managerial position, which he took up prior to the start of 2016, has been significant.
“Let me first respond by thanking PRO – investing in ARs by hiring an AR mentor/coach will only help to make us better. Having an AR specialist, someone who is not only focused on this skillset, but an individual who has walked a lot in our shoes, is tremendous.
“Greg Barkey not only bring hundreds of games’ worth of experience, and international experience, but he is probably one of the top ARs the league has ever had and he is sharing all of this with us.
“Working with Greg has been an absolute pleasure. Since assuming his role this year, he has preached the importance of communication and reinforced mechanics. He brings insight to the game that only an AR can bring; essentially he talks our language.
Image: Matthew Nelson (far left) alongside PRO colleagues Mark Kadlecik, Jaime Herrera and Jeff Muschik.
“We are not only reviewing decisions that could have been managed better, but we are also reviewing what we are doing correct on a weekly basis. Greg has a team of mentors that focus strictly on our performance, challenging us in every way and making us self-analyze our games.
“Greg and the assistant referee coaches are in the stadium analyzing AR performances and helping us learn how to improve our craft. When the resources are provided and greater attention is paid to any group of professionals, this will translate to greater focus on the part of this group. So I believe the ARs will improve to an even higher standard as a result of the efforts of Greg, his team and the investment made by PRO.
“I hope to put all the teachings of Greg and the rest of the support staff into my performance at the All-Star game. It will be my biggest challenge to date and I hope I make all my peers proud.”