In a PRO first, a group of current and former FIFA and MLS officials took part in a live Q&A on YouTube in April, answering your questions about all things refereeing from the comfort of their own homes.
The panel included current FIFA referees Drew Fischer and Ted Unkel, FIFA assistant referees Katy Nesbitt and Corey Rockwell, as well as three-time MLS Referee of the Year Alan Kelly, and PRO Director of Senior Match Officials Mark Geiger.
In the first of two features, we’ve picked out their answers to a couple of questions, starting with…
At what point in your officiating career did you all decide you wanted to reach the top level?
Drew Fischer: That’s tough to answer, but everybody in our [development] group decided they’d like to reach that level fairly early in their careers; then it was just a matter of figuring out how to actually do it. My first referee courses were taught by some local FIFA officials who had made it to high levels, and they gave the impression that anybody in the room could make it, so there were lots of people who said they would like to try it. Lots of luck is also needed as well.
Ted Unkel: The start of my career was pretty casual because I wanted to stay local for a long time; it was a good hobby. Driving two hours away for 90 minutes of soccer just didn’t make sense, until it did! It’s the adrenaline of being part of the sport you love, knowing you can’t kick the ball around; an appetite that continues to grow. I came from a baseball-playing background, so soccer from the playing perspective was never on the top of my mind, but whenever we realize we want to be a part of something, we’re all just as competitive to reach the high levels.
Katy Nesbitt: I was a kid when I started refereeing, so it was a weekend job and more for fun. Then once I started leaving the state and doing tournaments, such as nationals, I started seeing higher level referees and what I could aspire to be. That’s when I started getting more motivated, and once I could see where I could go, I definitely wanted to try and get there too.
Alan Kelly: I had been refereeing for a couple of years by ’98, and in the Football Association of Ireland back home, somebody had the foresight to introduce a school of excellence for young referees as they felt that the national and international panels of officials were aging and they needed to recruit younger referees. Once I got into that program, I saw the potential: could I start refereeing in the League of Ireland quicker than what people have done before? So, at that point was when it started for me.
Corey Rockwell: This is my 31st year of refereeing, and for the first 14 years, I was doing second division centers. It wasn’t until 2004 when I thought: I could become an average referee, or I have some skills that could make me a top-level assistant referee. That’s when I decided to focus on the assistant referee track and just see how far I could go, and it’s worked out okay for me. I still do centers now, but my main focus is the flag; I don’t mind being the co-pilot to our boss in the center, whoever he or she might be.
Mark Geiger: I’m about 31 years into this as well, but when MLS began in ’96, that was the first time I set a goal for myself which was always in the back of my mind: to get the opportunity to do one game. That’s when I started pushing myself up the ladder, getting the state and national badges, going outside my comfort level to find those opportunities outside of New Jersey and get myself identified, focusing on the referee track as more than a weekend job. We’re all competitors; we all come from an athletic background so, just like players and coaches, we’re always striving for that next level.