Corey Rockwell: 300 MLS games and counting
In 2005, Major League Soccer was celebrating its 10th anniversary season, Dallas Burn had rebranded to FC Dallas, and the league expanded to 12 teams through the formation of Real Salt Lake and Club Deportivo Chivas USA.
In the years since the start of that campaign, there have been four FIFA World Cups, nine Concacaf Gold Cups and 11 different MLS Cup winners, while countless soccer clubs have sprouted up in cities all over North America as the game has grown by leaps and bounds.
But assistant referee Corey Rockwell has, as far as soccer goes, been counting the years by assignments – and he will remember his game with New York Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati in Week 17 of MLS 2021 for a long time.
It was his 300th assignment as an assistant referee in regular-season MLS and a milestone moment in a career that, like many in the 21st century, has evolved through an age where advancements in technology have accelerated at breakneck speed.
“My first year was such a stressful year because we didn’t know whether MLS was going to make it to year 11,” Rockwell recalled. “The league was not doing as well as it is now.
“Not every game was televised, not even every game had one camera at it, so maybe a missed call could go unnoticed. Or on the flip side, you could nail a game, but no one knew about it because there was no assessor or video cameras there.
“There wasn’t the data online to even look up names of the starting 11, so there wasn’t a website where I could write them down and say, ‘these were this team’s defensive tendencies, this team likes to counter-attack, you have to watch out for this and that’.
“An old VCR tape would sometimes be mailed out to an AR and it would be a 20-second clip of the AR putting the flag up on a good goal with a written note saying, ‘why did you do this?’ But it’s a very different time now.
“Now with every single game being televised, every call you make is going to be looked at – and praised when you get it right, which is why I really like how PRO do things. They recognize and reward the positives and that’s the biggest change when we look at now versus 2005.
“The kit bag used to be bigger then, too. We used to have to bring every color, every sleeve length, but now we know what color it’s going to be before the game, which has lightened the load a little bit.”
“It doesn’t matter what city it’s in, what the records are, all players want is three points and that’s why we have to go out there and give it our all.”
In hindsight, it was probably best that Rockwell’s first kit bags prepared him for all weathers. His MLS debut took place at a chilly Invesco Field at Mile High (now known as Empower Field) in Colorado on April 8, 2005, in the hours before an impending snowstorm.
“I don’t remember it being televised locally or there being pictures from the game. There were just over 9,000 people in a 76,000-seat stadium so it was perfect for game one.
“I went to the airport to get out that night and someone had just taken the last seat on the flight. So, I had to stay there until Monday evening because we were snowed in.
“My first game turned into quite a long trip, and I was rooming with Baldo [Toledo – referee for the Rapids vs FC Dallas game], so we hunkered down in the snowstorm in our hotel room.”
In the 16 years that have followed, Rockwell’s career has encompassed an MLS Cup and an All-Star game, a U.S. Open Cup Final, a Concacaf Champions League Final (second leg), a Concacaf Gold Cup, a Copa America, and the FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018.
All experiences that he places a high value on when it comes to fueling his hunger to remain at the top level domestically, but only when combined with his approach of never looking too far ahead.
“Every game is different, yet you have to treat it the same. It’s a much faster game when countries are playing each other; it’s a special atmosphere. But when you go to some of the amazing MLS stadiums, like Seattle, Portland, and many others that are packed, it is just as intense of an atmosphere in a much more compact space.
“If you can handle crowds in countries where they are heckling you, sometimes throwing stuff at you, you can prepare for the craziness of a crowd in whatever MLS city you may go to, so it really helps a lot.
“We treat MLS just as importantly as a World Cup game and put in the same energy and effort.
“It doesn’t matter what city it’s in, what the records are, all players want is three points and that’s why we have to go out there and give it our all.
“A piece of advice that is universal for referees and ARs is to treat the next game just as importantly as the last, and the players see that.
“That’s really gotten me here to number 300, and the last 100 games have been the most fun because the respect is there.”
The midweek clash between Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati on August 4 finished scoreless and was a relatively low-key affair for center referee Jon Freemon and his crew.
“I wanted us to go out there and be as invisible as possible, and that’s perfect for number 300,” Rockwell continued.
“I received some nice pregame emails from almost all the PRO management, including Howard [Webb – General Manager], Lisa [Stalans – Head of Sports Medicine], Joe [Fletcher – Manager of Senior Assistant Referees] and Mark [Geiger – Director of Senior Match Officials], and one of the things Mark said was to, ‘take a moment to enjoy it and look around.’
“Usually I don’t do that, but as we were walking to the center circle, I took Mark’s advice and it all sunk in.
“Before we break to check the nets, I shake the officials’ hands and say ‘hey, let’s do this,’ and I give them some last parting words. But as I soaked up the moment, I was emotional, and I didn’t say a word out of fear I was going to burst into tears. I just shook their hands and ran to the goal.
“We had two very new referees [Freemon and fourth official Alyssa Nichols], plus Jason White and myself on the game, and the crew was quite honored to be a part of this game which I didn’t expect – I thought it was a solo thing, but that’s what made it really cool.
“They didn’t know it was my 300th to begin with, but when word got out and I told Jon and Alyssa, their eyes widened and they had big smiles.
“I didn’t want to say I wanted the game at a specific location with a specific referee, I just wanted to let it happen organically. That’s what the beauty is – I can go from game to game just accordingly and have a great time with the crew that’s out there. With Jon and Alyssa being new referees to the league, I wanted to do my best to support them to be successful.”
After more than 27,000 minutes of regular-season soccer it is no surprise the man famed within PRO circles for his power squats has got a few stories to tell, with one reoccurring theme…
“I’ve been known to break a few corner flags, about six over the course of the 300 games; I almost added another in New York as I sprinted down to the goal line.
“In Colorado once, you could see me holding the corner flag up because I’d snapped it in half while Javier Morales was taking the corner kick. And right after that I’m on the comms saying ‘hey, we need a new corner flag down here!’”
But behind the scenes, the work Rockwell put in to become one of the country’s most established assistant referees is built on positive habits that take him right back to his roots.
“I’ve always kept my mentors, even from an early age; I have three mentors in Georgia that were with me when I was a teenager, when I was in my 20s, and I continue to rely on them today.
“From an AR standpoint, it helps so much that I continued to blow the whistle on college and amateur games during all those years, because as an AR, you still have to know what it is to receive good advice as a referee, to know what a foul is, and to know as a referee what you want from an AR. I know what I’d want as a referee, and I try to give that positive work as an AR.
“When I first started, the ARs were always part of the team, but they weren’t relied on to help make the team successful, and that emphasis has changed so much now.
“I get a kick out of the AR role in really helping the entire team to succeed. I believe we accomplished that goal, especially for Jon in the center, for my 300th game.”