Major League Soccer has announced plans to return to action in Orlando next month in a 26-team round-robin tournament that will kickstart the 2020 season. The event, similar to the format of the FIFA World Cup, is the culmination of months of detailed and evolving conversations since the initial suspension of play on March 12.
During that time, PRO GM Howard Webb has explained how the organization has adapted to lockdown protocols, and how preparations for a return to refereeing in such extraordinary circumstances have developed.
However, with what were once hopes of a soccer return now approaching reality, we take a closer look at what that will look like from the officials’ standpoint.
“I don’t think we are going to see any changes to the way the game is played; tackling is tackling, heading is heading, and officiating is officiating – that will need to take place in a normal way,” Webb said.
“The games are meaningful and there will be a lot of eyes on them when we go live on TV. We’ve seen how much attention has been paid to the Bundesliga, so the games will need to be officiated to a high level and that is what we expect from our group.
“We have been making sure our officials are as ready as possible to perform on the field, getting back to those full levels of fitness. Only PRO referees who regularly officiate in MLS are full-time and many of our other officials who serve as ARs and VARs are also employed in other professions. This may make it difficult for some of them to work in this tournament.
“The initial feedback we’ve had has been positive about numbers. We’ll try to create as many opportunities as possible for everybody who is available; they’re keen to get back on the field and get started again.
“We’ll keep working with the others who can’t be there, who have to stay in their home markets for whatever reason, family or work, making sure they stay fully in contact with us and continue to utilize training facilities to keep them as sharp as possible.”
The games are meaningful and there will be a lot of eyes on them when we go live on TV. We’ve seen how much attention has been paid to the Bundesliga, so the games will need to be officiated to a high level and that is what we expect from our group.
Video Review will be in operation when MLS returns but dialogue will continue as details are ironed out regarding other aspects of gameday to determine what short-term adjustments are required from a safety perspective.
“We value Video Review in our competition and we feel it plays an essential part; as such we are delighted it will be in use throughout the MLS is Back tournament.
“Of course, we are still dealing with COVID-19 and measures will be implemented to ensure that unnecessary risks aren’t taken, pregame handshakes, for example, probably won’t happen.
“We’re also seeing some other adjustments that will be introduced, such as the utilization of additional numbers of subs. These are sensible things to implement given the length of time players have been away from competitive soccer.
“With the games being played in Orlando and the heat at this time of year, we will also need to consider water breaks at appropriate times. We are not just talking about reacting to changes in protocol, but how we can be proactive in preventing problems.”
Although soccer will one day return to what we have been used to seeing prior to the pandemic, some behind-the-scenes operations may not; the lockdown forcing changes to how organizations work.
“Some of the things we’ve been trying out we would never have done without being forced to do so,” Webb added. “It is quite likely we will come out of this with some new practices that we’ve seen work well and will want to continue.
“We’ll reflect at the end of this and get opinions on it. We value face-to-face contact, but if we find another way of bringing people together without having to fly them to meetings, that reduces the downside of additional travel. We have to weigh it all up.
“We might also look back and see we made the best of it while we could, but actually, it was better the way we worked before.
“That might be an outcome, but there will definitely be a period of reflection, and there may be some changes coming out of it afterwards.”