To ignore the rise of Major League Soccer in America would be a big mistake.
Whilst both are past their prime, the arrivals of David Beckham and Thierry Henry have added to the global appeal of a game once ridiculed in the country.
Beckham’s move made headlines across the world, with the most marketable player in ‘soccer’ moving to Hollywood to join the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. Henry followed in 2010, whilst Irish international Robbie Keane joined the Galaxy in 2011.
The growth of the game in the US doesn’t solely fall on the shoulders of foreign players, but it has undoubtedly helped in growing the game to its current status as the 12th most attended premier division in the world.
However, US soccer has encountered a common problem – the man in the middle.
Whilst it’s often a source of complaint in English, European and international football, the reality is that we are blessed with some of the best officials in the business.
Howard Webb is a prime example, officiating Champions League and World Cup finals whilst often being derided for his performances in the British press.
In America, they do not have luxuries like Webb. As the game continues to improve and interest grows, they need officials to make gradual steps forward too. It’s an area of concern to both the general audience and the clubs involved.
“MLS referees — already prone to making more mistakes than should be tolerated in a professional league — often appear to have no clue about how to manage players during a match,” wrote the LA Times back in June.
Portland Timbers coach John Spencer waded into the debate last season, adding: "You can't keep brushing this . . . under the carpet . . . and hoping it's going to go away."
A high-profile Thierry Henry red card helped further amplify the issue in the states, and NY Red Bulls general manager Erik Soler broke down the situation ten months ago.
"We have carefully reviewed the film of our match against Portland last night and I can safely say that the level of refereeing was absolutely below the standards of what is required for a MLS match and completely unacceptable,” he noted.
"We are aware that U.S. Soccer and MLS are working hard to improve the officiating in this country and we support those efforts wholeheartedly. However, if we want to continue [improving] the level of play, we cannot let these types of refereeing performances occur."
Whatever your thoughts on American sports, you can’t argue with the fact that they are pro-active in responding to problem issues. And, in soccer, they’ve looked to address the issue immediately.
To do so, the MLS immediately set their sights on the English Premier League. A decision was taken to set up the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), and an Englishman headhunted to help improve the standards of officiating.
That man in Peter Walton, who had almost a decade of experience at the top level before taking charge of his last match in England – Everton’s 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion on March, 31st.
"I'm looking forward to the next stage of my career as the general manager of the PRO. The formation of the PRO by US Soccer and MLS provides a great opportunity to increase the development of referees and improve the overall quality of refereeing in the US professional leagues,” Walton told the official Premier League website.
"It's a worthy challenge and I’m excited to get started. We've had an excellent education at PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited) in terms of training, sports science and working with the players and manager to improve the standard of officiating in the Premier League.
“I'm looking to develop close links with the PRO and PGMOL to help further improve officiating on both sides of the Atlantic."
It’s that final comment from Walton that might be of concern to the Premier League, with American riches potentially on offer to lure top referees from the UK across the Atlantic.
With ‘substantial resources’ at the disposal of the Northamptonshire-born official, it’s not out of the question for invitations to go across to some of our top referees for a chance to both officiate in the US and also teach youngsters who would consider taking up the role.
The Daily Mirror went as far as to speculate that these ‘attractive financial packages’ could offer a top-flight referee the chance to better their current £75,000 salary.
If players are cashing-in on opportunities in the USA, then why wouldn’t the officials?
The top brass at the Premier League are hardly quaking in their boots at the current time, you'd imagine, but it only takes one high-profile figure to make the switch.
And, if Walton works his magic, the flock might just follow.
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