Since the conclusion of the 25th Major League Soccer season, everyone involved in the league has had time to reflect on an unparalleled 10 months.
Although the pandemic forced several adaptations to the way officials trained and traveled, 2020 saw strong on-field performances, as well as promising figures for Video Review.
In this Q&A, PRO General Manager Howard Webb reviews the 2020 campaign from the first whistle to the last.
Looking back to last Spring, what do you remember from that time of uncertainty and the postponement of professional sport?
We built up to the start of the season as normal – preparing officials physically and technically – to hit the ground running on that opening weekend, which we did. Then after the first two weeks, it was suddenly closed for three months.
Everyone had such unusual circumstances with the huge break in the middle of the season. The challenging part was not only its length, being slightly longer than a regular off-season, but how there were no games to keep people sharp. We completed remote physical training and online technical training, but they could never replicate being out there blowing a whistle or waving a flag.
How did PRO’s performance at MLS is Back in Orlando compare with a regular season?
Our KMI [Key Match Incident] stats for referees in Orlando were not only the highest we saw across 2020 but also when you compare them with 2019 and the year before. We were slightly slow at the start of the event, but as we got used to it, the benefits of the tournament format and being together in a bubble with more time together were really evident. Considering we were going in from a standing start in terms of match practice, we were delighted when we went down to Orlando and did so well.
After MLS is Back, the rest of the regular season took place in home markets. What kinds of logistical challenges did you overcome compared to being quarantined in Orlando?
We had people flying or driving to games who were getting tested [for COVID-19] either in the market or at home before travel, and also before the game. They were also testing repeatedly at home in-between games. We did not have the communal onsite testing that we had in Orlando, so it was more complicated, but we still did well.
Towards the end, I noticed some fatigue due to the amount of traveling – commercial flights, sometimes with connecting flights, and traveling earlier to get to games to accommodate testing. With people not being available due to the restrictions and personal circumstances, we relied on a smaller group of regular officials and some trialists, more than we normally would.
With that in mind, the organization then had to deliver in the MLS Playoffs. How do you reflect on the post-season?
As the Playoffs are single-game elimination matches, the pressure’s on; it’s the same every year. We always want to make sure that officiating is not the talking point, or a reason why a season’s work is undone, and we came through strong again with many excellent performances. The moment that stood out differently was the penalty shootout at the end of the Orlando City versus New York City game – that was dealt with incorrectly and was not a high point for us. It was a shame because the rest of the game had been officiated really well, but we’ll take the learning points away from that.
Everyone had such unusual circumstances with the huge break in the middle of the season. The challenging part was not only its length, being slightly longer than a regular off-season, but how there were no games to keep people sharp.
What were you able to evaluate from Video Review in 2020, after its third full season in MLS?
Video Review stats were better in terms of the amount of time it took to complete reviews, and the number of unnecessary reviews and missed reviews both came down, which indicates we are moving in the right direction. But you would expect us to get better each year – it is more difficult to make significant improvements on the field because you are dealing with officiating positions that have been around a long time, whereas video review is still relatively new. It’s about continuous learning. However, we are proud of how far we have come in a short time with our Video Review program.
Despite time away from their families and shorter recovery times after games, the officials were largely available when you needed them. It must have been pleasing for PRO to have that devotion from the group?
A normal match assignment in 2020 was often a four-day trip for the officials, so the commitment was excellent, as well as following protocol. Some people stayed down in the US from Canada for several weeks, while others kept away from home so they could be available without increasing risk to family members, and they were prepared to do that in high numbers.
As a company, only 0.4 percent of tests came back positive, and no games were canceled due to an official testing positive or not being available. We lost hardly any positions, albeit a little shuffling around for a couple of games, but it had minimal impact on officiating, and I am really proud of the group for that.