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“The atmosphere was great” – Howard Webb reflects on preseason

This year’s Major League Soccer season will commence 77 days after the MLS Cup, making this one of the shortest preseasons in the league’s history.

Despite the quick turnaround, PRO was able to run a successful virtual preseason camp, followed by a number of in-person referee camps. New staff have also been introduced to the organization’s support network.

The offseason in pre-pandemic times would have covered closer to 100 days, with the gap between 2020 and 2021 even longer due to the opening weekend of MLS being delayed until mid-April.

But while the shortened preseason has posed some logistical challenges, PRO General Manager Howard Webb feels that in some ways the window has played into their favor.

“The officials have had less time than normal to recover and decompress physically and mentally before they get back into it, but that doesn’t mean they’ve not had enough time.

“Last year, preseason was long so we had to be very careful we didn’t peak too soon in terms of the officials’ preparation.

“This year’s timeline was better than the longer one; MLS Cup was on December 11, but a lot of the group weren’t involved for that as some finished in the playoffs and others after the regular season, so it’s not been too problematic.”

With referees getting together throughout February, this preseason has seen the highest turnout for an in-person camp since March 2020.

But it’s not the first time that officials have managed to meet and train in the same environment in the past two years. The 2020 bubble tournaments created a unique opportunity for officials and optional camps were run towards the end of last season.

“We didn’t have any in-person camps after COVID-19 came in, but the groups of officials were together for the [MLS is Back and NWSL Challenge Cup] tournaments.

“Having them living and breathing the game together was beneficial for performances. But with everybody living across the country it’s hard to replicate that again, unlike a club based around one market and in daily contact.

“Last year, we started online and ran voluntary in-person camps at the back end of the season. We travel commercially all over the country, never having a home game, so we are always respectful to the amount of travel people do and gave them the option to meet online until everyone was confident to get together.

“Understandably, the leagues wanted to start later in 2021 and that saw a heavy cadence of games. At one stage of the season, we had 61 MLS games in a 16-day period, with several officials at each game who needed to travel, so we didn’t want to add to it by saying you must come to a camp.”

The officials have had less time than normal to recover and decompress physically and mentally before they get back into it, but that doesn’t mean they’ve not had enough time.

While fitness testing and medical screening require in-person presence, the annual preseason camp for PRO officials was hosted virtually for the second year in a row – and other adjustments had to be made to accommodate for the shortened preseason.

“Testing was done a little earlier this year, but the officials have to pass their tests before working preseason games, so some of the first MLS scrimmages were assigned to lower-level officials because they had already done their testing at the end of last season.

“Pretty much everybody has been exposed to the opportunity to referee a preseason game, which is always a good idea so they can get back into the rhythm before the season starts again, and I’m confident we will have them fully prepared.

“We had a good online preseason camp and productive in-person camps this month where the atmosphere was great. We’ve also had officials work internationally as well, so that’s got them hitting the ground running ahead of opening day on February 26.”

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