MLS is back … with replacement refs. But has anyone truly noticed the difference?

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Major League Soccer and the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) are heading into the third week of an impasse that has allowed the first and now second week of MLS action to be officiated by replacement referees.
Here’s the question, however … has anyone noticed?
Now, before the vitriol spills forward, let me start by acknowledging that being an official isn’t easy — but it has been made easier through VAR, which MLS has employed since last season. It still doesn’t stop the barrage of players screaming at a official while the infraction is being reviewed in a quiet room within MLS headquarters or elsewhere, but that’s a part of the job — and not even the real reason why the real MLS refs, the ones that stood in protest earlier this month are holding out.
From the jump, it’s been about three things: better wages, given very few MLS official even clear $50,000 a year, better benefits (which should be a given) but the biggest is a quality of life issue in that many officials spend a large portion of MLS’ marathon season living out of suitcases, hotels and non-chartered flights.
“It’s pretty grueling on the group,” said Chris Penso, a PRSA executive board member referee who explained the dynamic this week to an ABC affiliate in Dallas. “Especially those who have to work Monday through Friday and then still prepare for a game physically, mentally, and then hit the road go straight from work on a Friday afternoon to the airport for a game Saturday, fly home Sunday, maybe spend half a day with their family and then rinse and repeat on a week in, week out basis.”
Make no mistake, MLS needs to take a hard look at its schedule in general, the season which this year is slated to go from February to November offer teams very little time off much less officials, who are expected to begin their training and preparation for the upcoming season in early January.
The difference is, however, is that players, even rookies are making comparable if not more to what an official makes — without the need for a second job.
OK, so with that explainer out of the way, here’s the basis of my argument. The opening week of MLS seemingly went off without a hitch. There was very little lashback from teams, coaches or players about the quality of the officiating in any of the matches in MLS’ opening week. At least nothing that created major headlines. We know because we checked the publications within every MLS market, and … nothing.
Where was there vitriol? Allegedly from the referee union and Penso himself. It’s alleged that replacement referees were threatened by Penso and the PRSA with threats of making it hard to find future work, specifically in the college soccer ranks.
All as a result of being party to MLS’ hands not necessarily being tied to do something immediately to get its official officials refs back on the field.
The running joke has always been that MLS officiating has long been terrible. But now it looks like if there’s no one to notice the difference, is there really anything for the new refs to fall back on?
Stay tuned. This one isn’t over yet.

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