A season like no other
As the impact of COVID-19 sent shockwaves around the sporting world, PRO’s dedicated officials and staff adapted to the challenges of 2020 to support the continuation of soccer in the US and Canada.
One aspect that prevailed was the importance of communication, including regular contact between match official coaches and officials despite the imposed restrictions. More than 450 voluntary coaching interactions were recorded between coaches and officials who have been working in MLS for less than two years.
Despite the organization being accustomed to working online with officials residing across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic enforced this even further, with almost two-thirds of structured education sessions conducted virtually, rather than through in-person camps which are normally held every two weeks.
In doing this, PRO utilized platforms such as Coach Paint, Ring Central, and Virbela to recreate the same cohesiveness that is found at camps, while the Sports Science department regularly incorporated face-to-face video consultations to support officials during recovery days.
In Orlando, the amount of in-person education for MLS officials was seven times higher than it was during preseason, with the quarantined bubble at MLS is Back allowing for closer contact between officials and their coaches.
The tournament also provided an opportunity for PRO’s Sports Science team to spend more time with officials than would usually be the case during a normal regular season which, given that in-person contact is usually only available at camps, brought significant advantages.
The benefits also included regular practical training around positioning and teamwork, which proved especially important given the long absence of soccer during the first peak of COVID-19. The commitment shown from staff and officials at MLS is Back paid dividends, with excellent performances being produced at the tournament despite the long lay-off which preceded it, and Key Match Incident stats that were higher than we would normally expect to see during a normal regular season.
When the league returned to home markets, the resumption of training in isolation helped maintain fitness among officials, with referees running on average over 9.7km in every game despite the unavoidable fixture congestion in finishing the postseason before Christmas.
Aside from training, a successful COVID-19 testing routine was implemented by PRO’s medical staff and the Strategic Initiatives and Innovation team. In total, no officials assigned to NWSL tested positive for COVID-19, with just 0.2 percent in USL and 0.4 percent in MLS.
With over half of PRO’s COVID-19 test recipients being part-time officials who were potentially exposed to the virus in other places of work, the low figures are attributable to the measures that each official took to ensure they were able to help the continuation of professional soccer without risking the health and safety of others.
The pandemic had an impact on the availability of some senior officials, such as those in Canada due to border restrictions, prompting more inexperienced officials having to make the next step in their development. As a consequence of travel restrictions and PRO2 officials being handed assignments in MLS, a higher number of potential PRO2 prospects were exposed to evaluation through assignments in NWSL and USL than normal.
Last year also saw huge strides in the opportunities for female match officials, as 12 women worked 80 assignments in MLS games during 2020 (up from 31 in 2019); not to mention the historic achievements of Kathryn Nesbitt (2020 MLS Assistant Referee of the Year, and assistant referee for finals of both MLS is Back and MLS Cup) and Tori Penso (first female match official to be assigned as the center referee in an MLS regular-season match for over 20 years) that have provided inspiration for those looking to forge a career in the game.
Meanwhile, the development of PRO2 officials was enhanced through the NWSL Challenge Cup when the bubble format in Utah provided the same face-to-face benefits as MLS officials working in Orlando.
Transitioning to virtual platforms in 2020 even allowed some PRO2 officials to take part in MLS camps, which was a unique educational experience as they look to progress their careers.
With all this in mind, the work completed in 2020 bodes well for the future of soccer officiating in the professional leagues to which PRO assigns.