This time last year, PRO officials were gearing up for another nine months of soccer in both domestic and international competitions.
But attention soon shifted from big games in front of large crowds celebrating the 25th anniversary season of MLS to officiating behind closed doors, and how everyone in the game could play their part to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Flexibility became a key requirement in tackling how dramatically things could change. Nothing new there in terms of the need for officials to adapt to the challenges in front of them but the scale was significantly different.
Consequently, the 2020 season saw a greater number of inexperienced officials being assigned to games – which PRO General Manager Howard Webb explained while reflecting on the year in a recent Q&A feature. In total, 14 PRO2 officials made their MLS debuts last season, building on the promising foundations set in previous years, and benefiting from the extensive training and coaching they receive as part of the PRO2 program.
“We talked at length about how 2019 saw many officials with low game counts start their MLS careers,” said Webb. “Some of those officials really came to the forefront in 2020, and we are now excited about being able to continue developing last year’s trialist officials in 2021.
“Hopefully, there will be a greater certainty around the season and more regularity on the schedule, without huge waves of games coming every three or four days which are difficult for the group in terms of travel, recovery, and performance reviews.
“The roster is more experienced now than it was in 2019, so I’m expecting to see even better numbers this year, but the gains are going to be marginal; we are not going to see big improvements year on year at this stage.
“It’s about continuously looking at where we made errors and the common trends around them, which we are doing to make sure we continue progressing in the right direction.”
With more than 200 match officials involved with the programs operated by PRO and PRO2, starting a new season with everyone on the same page requires the largest off-field event in the organization’s annual calendar: the preseason camp.
This year’s scheduled meeting will take place virtually.
“The preseason camp has grown in size and significance over the last few years. It is more than a glorified regular camp, rather an opportunity to get the company together to start the season – the official curtain-raiser.
“We present information regarding changes to the Laws of the Game and any adjustments to MLS points of emphasis, or changes in processes and procedures.
“We are working on preparations for the preseason camp at the moment, looking at how we can replicate as closely as possible what an in-person camp would deliver and trying to set it apart from a regular camp. But it’s not going to be the same.
“As well as making some accommodations around fitness testing, we have also reduced unnecessary travel and worked with the PSRA (the Match Officials’ union) to make adjustments to other issues within the Collective Bargaining Agreement that we can’t deliver in a global pandemic in 2021, but there has been good collaboration around all of that.”
We are feeling positive and upbeat, and the group is more determined than ever to continue building on what we are doing.
With compromise being inevitable in the coming weeks and months, PRO aims to balance its role in improving soccer refereeing while continuing to protect the health and safety of everyone in the game.
PRO plans to meet this objective in various ways, from a further assessment of a centralized Video Operations Room after testing plans were disrupted in 2020 through to finding more state-of-the-art ways for staff and officials to connect.
“So far, we have been using the Hawk-Eye facility in Atlanta and that is where some testing of a central hub for VAR work will probably continue in 2021.
“We are also looking at other technologies around additional cameras – other tools that will give the VARs the best chance to intervene correctly.
“Throughout 2020, we became accustomed to working with online facilities and we have seen good flexibility from the group, understanding that they have to adjust and make the best of what’s available.
“We are feeling positive and upbeat, and the group is more determined than ever to continue building on what we are doing.”