It’s nearly time. Players have undergone preseason conditioning, acquainting themselves with their teammates, working their way up to match fitness ready for kickoff.
Fans are buying their tickets for the first few games and purchasing their jerseys ready to show their colors when that kickoff comes around.
And PRO’s officials have been busy preparing, too, both physically and mentally, ready for the next 10 months of soccer.
But one man will be watching on from the stadium seats in 2017, offering his guidance to those running the line flag in hand. James Conlee took the decision to retire at the end of last season but was given the opportunity to remain with PRO as part of Greg Barkey’s team of assistant referee coaches.
Firstly, what was the reason behind your retirement and how pleased are you to be staying involved with PRO?
For the last year I’ve been having some pain in my hip. I was still performing relatively well in the games, but not as great as I had previously. That had started weighing on me and it planted the seed that my body was perhaps telling me it was time to hang up my boots.
I spoke to Greg Barkey [PRO’s Manager of Assistant Referees] during last year and said that I thought it could be my last season. We started a conversation about me shifting over to the AR coaches and I’m thrilled to have been invited into the team. There’s a lot of experience, some great guys, and they’ve slotted me into the mix straight away.
The Organization is a fraternity, like a family, so I’m definitely pleased to still be involved. I hope that I can be a positive contributor to the program and in the development of the assistant referees. It’s a change but I have no regrets, I’m happy with the way I decided to go down this path.
One of your first acts as an assistant referee coach was helping to oversee the fitness tests in January, how was that?
It felt very different. I’m used to attending January’s camp and being nervous about doing the physical test. I didn’t have those nerves, but a different kind of nerves.
I was excited, but definitely had mixed emotions. Watching the guys out there doing the tests, I can remember having that elated feeling when I passed – it’s a great feeling – and that was when I felt it a little bit. But I’m looking forward to this season and progressing in my role, identifying and developing the next level of assistant referees, in addition to coaching the current ARs.
Speaking of the current crop of assistant referees, what do you make of them?
Reflecting back to the fitness tests, the guys looked great out on the track. The dedication and commitment from them was there for all to see and I predict a great year for them.
Having worked with most of the roster of ARs very recently, the rapport and the trust factor is still there. I haven’t worked with them all, though, so I’m looking forward to getting to know those guys too. I see myself as a brother to them, and I want to help them as much as possible. I don’t see it as moving to the other side, I see it as one collective all working in collaboration.
You obviously have a considerable amount of experience to pass onto the guys, can you pick out some stand-out moments of your career?
My first professional game was in Columbus. Terry Vaughn was the referee. We were using the beeper flags. Early in the game there was a pass back to the goalkeeper. I didn’t put my flag up but I hit the button and that was that, my first call in MLS was a pass back. I had an immediate rush.
Terry said to me at half-time that if I hadn’t have beeped him, he wouldn’t have called it. The defender blatantly kicked it back to the goalkeeper, and he just picked it up. I sort of questioned in my head quickly, “has he just passed that back?!”. But I went with my instinct, beeped the flag, Terry called it, everyone accepted it, and I was away!
2015 was probably the highlight for me – the summer of my career. I worked the U.S. Open Cup Final – that was big – got my first MLS Playoffs game in Montreal, and was also selected as fifth official for the MLS Cup, which was fantastic.
I’ve had so many games, traveling to so many stadiums. I was in Seattle for Kasey Keller’s final game, for instance, in front of 60,000 people – that was incredible.
Did those achievements help when it came to retiring?
That’s a great question. I don’t feel like I’ve got anything left to prove. I came so close to a Playoff game before 2015 but never got one, then I received a call-up that year. I put on a good performance when I was called upon and that allowed me to feel at peace with what I’d accomplished on the field.
How did PRO help you in your career, and achieving your goals?
PRO has been tremendous. I’ve seen such a shift in how the referee program has evolved since PRO’s inception. It’s such a professional organization. Referees are given all the equipment they need, and the training at camps – it’s been awesome, it really has.
The staff that we have in place – Peter [Walton, General Manager], Paul [Rejer, Training & Development Manager] and Michael [Kennedy, Referee Manager] and the rest – are priceless. We needed someone like Peter to come in and really take our program in a direction that North America hadn’t seen before.
Even down to how the assignments are delivered to officials now – they know where they stand. Back when I first started, you didn’t know from one week to the next whether you were going to get another game. The mechanisms we have in place now are really strong, and I know it’ll keep on improving.
I’ll always be proud to wear the badge, previously as an active AR and now as part of the support staff.