When Nima Saghafi made his MLS center referee debut in Week 3 of the 2016 MLS season he was expectantly elated, but not satisfied.
The American’s PRO journey began as an AR three years ago, and he has quickly worked his way up through the ranks to become one of the regulars in the MLS center. Assigned to four games in 2016, that figure has trebled with the end of the 2017 season in sight.
Over these last few years, he’s been setting goals and delivering on his own lofty expectations, but the journey doesn’t stop here. Saghafi’s lining up his next targets and, judging by his speedy rise up the ladder, it may not be long until he hits them.
“It’s crazy!” he exclaimed. “My first season, I did fourth officials. Last year was my first middle, and the progression in three years to now refereeing consistently in the league is remarkable.
“Did I see myself here? Yes, because I always set certain standards and goals for myself, to always meet and surpass my own expectations. I see myself at the level of FIFA at full-time within the next two years. That’s ultimately the goal. To continue to learn, continue to grow, continue to get better.
“The games keep coming and I’m very blessed to be in the position that I’m in. This is where you learn from your mistakes. I won’t let those mistakes happen again, or if they do, I’ll react a different way to them. Going into this second season of being a referee in this league, I’ve learnt that ultimately the big decisions are what we strive for.”
PRO hold regular training camps for their officials, bringing referees together to look back at the games and the decisions that were made. What could they have done differently, what did they do right, what did they do wrong?
It’s not all one way, either. All those in attendance will have a say and, of course, there are varied opinions, differing viewpoints. With so many experts together in one place, there is a fountain of knowledge and wisdom to be shared.
For Saghafi, still relatively new to the roster compared to some of the vastly experienced campaigners, a few of whom have been enjoying the MLS ride since Day One, that input is vital. He is the first to critique his own performance, but praised the camps for helping all of PRO’s referees get the very best out of one another.
“PRO’s training camps are just incredible because you see something and you’re like ‘oh okay, that was right’, but there are different views on it. Good games you pat yourself on the back and you learn a few things, but the hardest games are the ones you learn from the most. You don’t just get over it, you need a few days, sometimes even a week, to go back and re-evaluate.
“The best feeling is when everybody gets their sending off decisions correct, their penalty decisions correct, and then we come in to camp and continue to learn, continue to get better. But I think that’s part of the growth, that’s what makes you a professional — when you can stand up and own up to your mistakes.
“It’s rough when we don’t get a decision right — we take it out harder on ourselves than anybody. The highs are awesome but the lows are there, but that’s what we signed up for! This is the highest level of soccer in North America. We’re supposed to be excellent; that’s what’s required on a weekly basis from us.
“You are going to have ups and downs. You might have four or five games where you are spotless, every decision is on point, but you’ll have two games in a row where it’s not, and that’s what makes you stronger ultimately.”
Saghafi has a determination to his career that serves as an inspiration to anyone, anywhere, in all walks of life. In fact, determination is one of 4 ‘D’s he lists in order to achieve your goals, like he has on his way to the top of North American soccer.
The other three: dedication, desire and devotion. Saghafi has those attributes in abundance, and he believes that’s what has got him to this point, officiating in front of thousands of fans every week, and millions more watching at home.
“Keep working,” insists Saghafi. “I say that because I notice the difference. If you make a mistake, why did you make that mistake? I watch games, self-evaluate my work, and I come out stronger the following week.
“If you had told me at the age of 23 that I would have made it into the league, refereeing top soccer in the world, I would have said, ‘I think so’, because I kept working. If you have determination, dedication, desire and devotion, and you believe in yourself, you’ll get to where you want to be.
“With that, a bit of luck along the way, and with belief in the man upstairs, I’m here, and it’s awesome!”