While Major League Soccer embarked on its first season in 1996, Irish soccer referee Pat Kelly blew his whistle for the final time in his career in the same year.
He was taking charge of the FAI Cup Final in Ireland between Shelbourne and St Patrick’s Athletic, with the latter looking to reclaim the trophy for the first time in 35 years.
Among the thousands in attendance was Pat’s son Alan – a young man who would eventually connect the Kellys with MLS by taking his whistle to the USA, refereeing more than 150 regular-season games and two MLS Cups in eight seasons.
Between his father’s retirement and moving to the States in 2014, Alan Kelly became a six-time Referee of the Year in Ireland and took charge of matches in prestigious European competitions such as the UEFA Champions League.
He and his wife were also starting a family of their own, so switching continents gave their children the opportunity to learn and grow in a new environment, and presented Kelly with a new professional challenge.
“I had to prove myself all over again, putting in the performances while adjusting to the league – new teams, new coaches, new fans, all of that,” said Kelly.
“There was a real hard work element to that side of it, but the grounding I had in Ireland instilled the need to work hard in your games and apply yourself properly, so I didn’t approach it any differently to what I had done back home.
“I had watched MLS for a number of years and had been to the US many times before, so I knew how much of a vast country it is, but in the beginning, I had underestimated the traveling. In Ireland, you would travel to the game and back on the same day.
“A European game required a day either side to travel and that would only be eight to 10 times a year, whereas every MLS game was like that and factoring in the time difference meant it took a while to adjust. I remember taking a red-eye flight from Portland to Boston and crashing out on the couch afterward; it took me three days to recover.
“In terms of everything else, it was a new environment so that still brought challenges, but all the things we worried about never really materialized; we settled into the neighborhood, we built a social network, our kids settled into the school system.
“I also integrated into the group of match officials – I didn’t know any of them before I moved over. I became a better referee having been part of this group, even those that aren’t officiating anymore, and learned things in a different way and saw what I needed to take forward with me.”
Now Kelly has a new task on his hands as PRO’s Manager of Senior Referees, which has resulted in his usual preseason plans switching from fitness testing to reviewing documents, policies, and procedures ahead of the new season.
“It still feels a little bit weird to refer to myself as the manager of the group. I worked with a company [away from refereeing] in Ireland where I was one of a group and then transitioned to management. It was a steep learning curve, so I can draw on that experience now.
“The role is all-encompassing – there’s an educational side which I’m really focused on, as well as assignments and being one to one with the match officials. There are lots of aspects that are behind the scenes in terms of readying the group of officials for the season ahead.
“You get to an age in your refereeing life when you think, is this the last year? I had been asking myself that question a little bit, so at the beginning of the 2021 season I said I would take it one game at a time, hoping for anything around 18 games, depending on performance.
“I had a discussion with Howard Webb [PRO General Manager] one day and he said there might be an opportunity in terms of the management team, but to still focus on my refereeing. Then the closer we got to the end of the season the more the discussions took place, and I had my mind made up.
“There’s an aspect of timing that comes into what we do. I could go for another season or two, but I feel this is the right time; I was enjoying my refereeing, my game count in MLS far exceeded what I had expected to achieve and my body felt good.
“I went out happy and on my own terms.”
You get to an age in your refereeing life when you think, is this the last year? I had been asking myself that question a little bit, so at the beginning of the 2021 season I said I would take it one game at a time.
Kelly returned from an injury-stricken 2020 to referee 25 regular-season matches in MLS last year, ending with New England Revolution’s clash against Inter Miami. Then his focus switched to the playoffs, which brought three further assignments including the Western Conference Final between Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake at Providence Park.
Knowing that this would be the last game of his career, Kelly called upon a lesson learned from his father’s farewell experience 25 years prior.
“We talk about it all the time in terms of how that affected him. I remember seeing him pregame being a little bit emotional about it and within the 90 minutes you could see that as well, so drawing on that, it was about me focusing on my game and the decisions.
“Nothing changed in terms of the approach; I hadn’t told my colleagues it was my last game and I’d been to Providence Park enough to know that it is a loud atmosphere.
“I looked at the stadium clock and it said 88:22, and I remember thinking that the second half just whizzed by. I blew time in a neutral area, and it was probably a longer blow of the whistle knowing that it was the last one.
“It wasn’t feasible to bring my family because it was on the other side of the country, but we FaceTimed before and after so it was as if they were there, and the on-field colleagues were great officials and great people which was important.
“The emotion came out once I got back into the locker room and it was nice to be able to share that experience with people that I have a huge amount of time and respect for.”
Once the season had finished, it wasn’t long before Kelly started the transition from official to manager, while also finding time to spend the holidays in Ireland with his family.
“Sitting around the table was three referees: me, my brother and my dad. But there wasn’t much referee talk at the Christmas dinner.
“When it came to me and the new role, it was very low key. My older brother referees in the League of Ireland and has decided to step away at the same time for his own reasons; it was a little strange for both of us to finish up at the same time so we did talk about that.
“My other brother is a coach, so we sometimes exchange words in relation to how he sees the game – it’s a meeting of the minds.
“I also have a 14-year-old daughter who refereed last year at U6 and U8 games, but it’s not something I am pushing at all, nor was it pushed on me. I loved to play and all my three kids play now.
“You try to be as positive an influence on your kids as possible, and I hope I can inspire them to be whatever they want to be and reach as high as they want to reach.”
The same goes for the officials he will be working with during this season and beyond.
With PRO referees continuing to be recognized on the international front, and expansion teams set to increase the number of games across the continent in the coming years, there are growing opportunities for a soccer official in North America.
“It’s a really good group with lots of different levels of experience through the league or internationally, as well as a great mix of up-and-coming officials – some who are in their first three or four years of MLS and some who are brand new.
“I am really excited about being able to work with them in my new role, being in a position where I can help and assist them to achieve the individual and collective goals they have.
“There’s such a movement towards the World Cup in the US, Mexico and Canada and once this year’s World Cup in Qatar has finished the focus will certainly ramp up on the next one, in a similar way that the World Cup in US ‘94 elevated soccer in this country to the point where MLS started in 1996 and has grown since.
“The focus on the league itself will be as big as ever and the officiating side will be under the spotlight even more, but we are in a very good place to meet those challenges.”