The 2024 season of Major League Soccer has begun with a lockout of referees.

Due to the failure of the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) and the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, MLS has used substitute referees in all of its games.

Just as the season was about to start, PRO locked out its referees and put together a group of officials to take their places. It forced referees into the lockout after they rejected a proposed new union contract agreement by a resounding 95.8% vote. Interestingly, 97.8% of the 260 union members cast ballots.

Three types of referees present this weekend

Now, The Athletic has learned that referees with different levels of expertise will be officiating Major League Soccer matches this coming weekend.

Some are making the jump from the most advanced levels of youth soccer, while others have played significant roles in matches in the second and third divisions of U.S. Soccer. There are a few assistant referees that have mostly officiated collegiate games.

The report suggests that they will reveal no officials’ names. Nonetheless, PRO are worried that substitute referees might face hostility. Their representatives confirmed that, according to company policy, match assignments will be communicated on weekends.

The United States Soccer Federation maintains its own certification standards at many levels. Licensing requirements enforce these standards for referees who officiate professional matches in the US.

Only 24 referees scheduled to work Saturday’s Major League Soccer games have the federation’s basic “referee” license. The other 19 have fulfilled the requirements for a regional license, the intermediate level of U.S. Soccer’s licensing system. Seventeen individuals have achieved the pinnacle of USSF qualification for referees: “national” status.

Anyone over the age of 13 who meets the qualification criteria may get a basic “referee” license. Training (either online or in-person) for a few hours and a background check (and older than 18) are the sole requirements.

Too much pressure?

Accordingly, the stakes and level of pressure on some of these officials have risen significantly. A couple of them have lately been engaged in college matches that drew a completely empty stadium. As the weekend progresses, they will be under close observation as they call games in front of sold-out stadiums.

Playing in the first game of the 2024 season, Inter Miami defeated Real Salt Lake 2-0. Luis Suarez made his debut while Lionel Messi returned for Inter.

In terms of the officials’ work, Wednesday’s match went off without a hitch. Over the weekend, PRO’s pool of substitutes will call the last 14 games of the week, providing a more comprehensive test.

There is a wide range of expertise among the center referees working the games this coming weekend. A large number of them have served as referees for the North American Soccer League, MLS Next Pro, USL Championship, USL League One, and the North American Soccer League (now inactive).

Still others have called matches in the US Open Cup, and a select few have even done it for Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League.

Photo credit: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire