When PRO referee Fotis Bazakos was busy preparing for his seventh season in MLS, a new club were getting ready for their first.
Minnesota United are one of two new teams to enter the league this season, and Bazakos – a native of the state – believes the area is sure to reap the benefits of the Loons’ expansion from the NASL. And that includes the state’s up-and-coming referees.
The club’s season didn’t start off on the sweetest note, falling to a 5-1 loss at Portland Timbers, but Bazakos has already noticed a positive impact; in fact almost immediately after returning home from his season-opening assignment in Columbus.
“Minnesota has a rich and lengthy history with soccer,” Bazakos told proreferees.com. “In my lifetime, I’ve had the pleasure of watching the sport grow up through several tiers of professional soccer – Kicks, Strikers, Thunder, Stars, and now Minnesota United.
“I’ve also seen it grow in the youth and amateur ranks as both a player and referee. With the move to MLS, it now makes business sense for the team to play in a modern, large, and geographically centralized location. This unifies the city around a sport that was challenged in the past due to location and public transportation.
“Specific to refereeing, it opens the door to high-level training opportunities for some of our current crop of developing referees. Coincidentally, upon my return from my match in Columbus at the weekend, I went to observe such an opportunity directly from the airport.
“Minnesota United were playing a closed door scrimmage where some of the younger referees we are mentoring and developing were officiating. We share current information from PRO training sessions, so our referees can immediately implement the ideas into their next match, and when they make it to the PRO ranks they will be ready to fit directly into the group.”
As for his own development, Bazakos says that the brief off-season almost felt like there wasn’t a break. After a short time recovering from a gruelling 2016 season, the official put the hours in to learn the new VAR system and worked on his strength and conditioning.
Good health and good performance go hand-in-hand, and Bazakos has kept his aims for the season simple – work to the best of his abilities in every match, and to help his PRO colleagues achieve the same. Week 1’s game between Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire was a fine start.
“I’ve noticed that teams try to be consistent year to year,” continued Bazakos, when asked about preparation for the opening weekend. “The parity in MLS is such that wholesale changes are not necessary for teams to move the needle on performance. They tend to identify one or two deficiencies and focus changes to improve those areas.
“Between preseason assignments, video analysis, and other research at PRO training camps with my colleagues, we were aware of what the changes were and how the teams might try and implement them.
“There were only two acts of misconduct in my opening match, one of which was related to PRO’s points of emphasis regarding delayed restarts. The game went well; the officials and teams benefited from a mutually respectful working relationship, and getting back on the field was something I enjoyed immensely.”