Several factors affecting soccer referee shortage

West Ranch players look on as soccer official Robert Hector calls for the ball to be thrown in from the sidelines. Dan Watson/The Signal

There’s an issue that has been bubbling up for a few years in the world of Santa Clarita Valley soccer that finally hit a breaking point this year, and it has nothing to do with the schools, players or coaches.

It’s the lack of available soccer referees.

This issue has lead to scheduling conflicts because not enough officials are available for certain days or time slots. Sometimes schools are forced to play with a two-person crew instead of the preferred and typical three-person crew.

It’s not just an SCV problem, but a nationwide issue.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, an average of only two out of 10 referees return for their third season of officiating.

There are a number of different factors that have led to the dwindling referee pool.

Robert Hector has been a soccer referee for 27 years. He started officiating nearly three decades ago after he got into an altercation with a referee at his son’s soccer match.

“I was one of those parents on the touchline that was always giving the referee a hard time,” Hector said. “I got told that if I wanted to watch my kid play anymore, I’d have to go take the referees exam, come back and referee the game either before or the game after my son’s game, or don’t bother coming back.

“The referee administrator said, ‘You’re going to learn the laws of the game and you’re going to come back and be that guy out there and you’re going to have to deal with people like you.”

Hector did just that, and soon developed a passion for officiating.

The veteran referee understands that passion from parents, coaches and players can sometimes walk a fine line, even bordering abuse at times.

He even said that he once saw parents chasing after a referee, prompting police intervention.

“Sometimes our passion becomes abusive to others, and you learn that when you’re a referee you have to have a little thicker skin,” Hector said. “There are certain things you can expect. Passion from people about this sport and along with that we’re human and we don’t always make the best decisions. Sometimes we don’t say the right things, we’re speaking from our heart and not common sense.”

Not every official has thick skin like Hector.

The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and local referee associations do its best to pair younger officials with veteran crews.

The referee associations do that so younger officials can learn from more experienced officials and get feedback that can help them in the future.

But now, more so than ever, older referees are paired with up-and-comers to shield them from potential hostility coming from outside the pitch.

“We should be protecting that young referee from the outside things that can happen to make them want to quit,” Hector said. “We do lose a lot of referees from that verbal abuse. They just say it isn’t worth it. Some of the things that are said are pretty mean and they can take it to heart.

“For me, I’m 60-plus years old so I’ve heard everything and I don’t care. It’s okay, just leave my mother out of it.”

Another reason why there are less officials is because older officials like Hector are starting to retire. He said younger referees are starting to come in, but not at the pace of veteran officials retiring.

Also, the pay isn’t substantial enough to earn a decent living, so referees usually have a full-time job that prevents them from officiating weekday games or early morning and afternoon contests.

“A lot of times you’ll only see maybe a two-person crew. Maybe the school wanted a three-person and they were willing to pay for it, but there wasn’t enough of us available,” Hector said. “I’m retired so I can get here at 1 p.m. or 8 in the morning, but a lot of people have to work for a living. This Friday I have to be here at noon, but after that I have to get to Granada Hills for two games because they are short referees.”

The depletion of referees has certainly affected the local soccer teams.

West Ranch girls soccer head coach Jared White said his team had to play a preleague game earlier this season with a two-person crew, and would prefer to reschedule a game rather than play with an undermanned crew.

Also, accommodating the officiating crews with early games can affect the rhythm and pattern that players and coaches are used to. Not to mention the sidelines can be barren for the early games with not as many parents able to attend.

“This whole season has been kind of a big change for everybody with CIF moving the schedule up. It’s been a really weird year so to add this little wrinkle isn’t too terribly difficult especially in the overall sense of the year, but it’s different,” White said. “Kids and coaches, we like routines and structure. We like to practice at the same time and play the games at the same time so when you throw this little wrinkle in, you have to adjust.”

White has a unique perspective on the issue with his brother being a football referee, and he knows how difficult it is to officiate a match.

He understands that the game is quick. There is so much action within the course of a match and there are many rules that are open to interpretation.

But what irritates him the most is the lack of accountability.

“I think the thing that frustrates coaches the most is what training do referees have other than their initial licensing test? Are there reports being written? Do they review game film? Are they being held accountable and the answer is 100 percent no they are not,” White said. “You can’t talk to them and ask for an opinion on a call. They say, ‘not another word or I’m going to kick you out.”

White also said that there is an issue of local club coaches officiating high school games, and believes some of them don’t call the game fairly for one reason or another.

Perhaps one of their club players did not make the varsity team. Perhaps it’s a personal issue. Whatever the reason, it has led to a disconnect between coaches and officials.

If it is blatantly obvious that a referee isn’t calling the game fairly, a coach can request to not have that official work future games.

Lemuel Galvao, head coach of Highland High School’s boys soccer team, said the shortage has made it difficult to exclude certain officials.

“Sometimes you feel there is a particular referee for some reason, whenever they are at your games weird things happen,” Galvao said. “So you can as a coach, you can ask to ban a referee, but with the shortage you can’t ban anybody.”

While some referees may do it for the wrong reasons, like collecting a quick paycheck, there are still referees like Hector who are harder on themselves than any referee assessor would be.

“There’s no perfection behind it. I’m not a robot. I try to do the best I can for the kids and hopefully it’s a good match and the spectators enjoy it,” he said. “At the end of the day if that’s accomplished, I can go home and not beat myself up too bad.”

Hector doesn’t officiate for the $75 game check. He does it because he loves the game and wants to see student athletes succeed in the sport he loves.

Plus, he just enjoys doing it.

“It’s the best seat in the house. It’s a lot of fun,” Hector said with a smile. “Hopefully you’re helping some kids out to do something that is positive and constructive. If you can be a part of that to affect a positive change, it’s worth all the crap you get as a referee. You have to look at it that way.”

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