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Alan Kelly: From Cork to Columbus – Four years in the center

When the assignment for Columbus Crew against New York City at the MAPFRE Stadium in Week 27 came through the significance of the game wasn’t immediately on the radar for Alan Kelly.

It was within a few days as he packed his bags to head to Ohio, though. He was going to the airport to catch a flight that would lead to him taking charge of his 100th MLS game as a center referee.

“I knew I was near [the 100 game mark] and it would be coming up soon but I didn’t know exactly when until Howard Webb [PRO GM] reached out to me a couple of days before,” Kelly told

“It’s a nice milestone, but when you look at some of the other guys like Kevin Stott, who is up at 300 plus – it’s inspiring to consider what they’ve achieved. Knowing the amount you have to go through and all the travel it involves just to reach 100, that is a crazy number.

“There was no big celebration with the crew or anything like that, I didn’t even tell them until we were in the locker room after. I’ve always approached my career with the view of not looking too far ahead. The more you do that, the more potential there is to trip up.”

Kelly mentions veteran Stott as an inspirational colleague, a man who had already been assigned to 244 MLS games by the time the Irishman joined him on the PRO roster in 2014.

But few have taken charge of more in the MLS than Kelly in the four years since, with 85 to his name before the 2018 season began.

“I’m always going to remember ones like the first playoff game, MLS Cup in 2016 and number 100 are all important for different reasons.

“That first playoff game in 2016 was especially big for me because being new to the MLS I wasn’t eligible for the first couple of years I was here.

“It stood out not just because it was the first playoff game, but my daughter had just been born. I jumped on a plane to go and do LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake 24 hours later, and there was nothing that was going to stop me from that game that year.

“MLS Cup was also a standout game – that will always be up there in terms of career achievements. Those two are the top two, but it’s all made better by different games along the way, working with different guys of different levels of experience. It all helps.”

Alan Kelly looks on as Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco dribbles the ball during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field.
Alan Kelly looks on as Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco dribbles with the ball during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field.

Hailing from a family of soccer referees, the 43-year-old was seemingly destined to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps: natural talent that helped him secure back-to-back MLS Referee of the Year awards in 2015 and 2016.

With the 100-mark being hit during season five for the man from Cork, Ireland, more milestones might well fall in the years to come.

Among them, potentially a 200th game between two teams that don’t yet exist in a stadium yet to be built as soccer in North America continues to grow towards the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

“Even in my relatively short time over here, the landscape of MLS has changed so much from what it was in 2014. There’s more expansion coming and the game is always growing.

“I keep saying that to some of the guys coming through. It’s a case of keeping your head down, work hard, get out on the pitch and take each game as it comes.

“Absolutely have short, medium and long-term goals in your career, but they have a massive opportunity in a professional environment that has only just scratched the surface in terms of its potential.

“The investment that PRO and US Soccer has made in refereeing has opened a huge pathway for younger referees to come through and have a career.

“It’s an exciting time for soccer. The World Cup is another eight years away from coming to the US. When you compare what soccer was last time the tournament was here in 1994, MLS didn’t even exist then, so it can only become bigger and better.”

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