NWSL Refereeing: Let's Talk About It
Author's Note: I am a U.S. Soccer certified referee for the youth levels but go through the same rule book training as any professional referee.
The referees in the NWSL have always caught a lot of heat in previous years but we are less than 3 weeks into the regular season, and it is up another octave. Between issues with player safety, inconsistency from one referee to the next, and lack of control of the game, fans everywhere have voiced their concerns. Especially after an extremely scary NWSL Challenge Cup final with player injuries and lack of game control from the center referee.
NWSL referees are trained and assigned by the Professional Referee Organization (PRO). PRO began with the MLS and U.S. Soccer Federation and has since expanded to establish referee assignments for the NWSL, MLS, USL, and some CONCACAF and FIFA games. PRO is divided into tiers. In this system, MLS referees come from the top tier of the organization whereas NWSL referees are assigned out of the next tier, known as PRO2. According to the PRO website, PRO2 is divided into four tiers itself A-D. The ‘D’ tier is the lowest tier and is described as the entry-level for prospects with the potential and/or hope to become professional referees. The ‘A’ tier is the tier described as referees identified as the best prospects for potential promotion into the MLS. These are the referees assigned to officiate both NWSL and USL games.
Steph Yang of the Athletic reported in September 2021, after speaking to a referee that “the current pay structure NWSL provides per game: $443 for a center referee, $284 for an assistant, and $158 for a fourth official.” Yang continues by stating that this is an improvement from the pay per game, back in 2015 which was approximately $364 per game for the center referee. The NWSL is not a full-year position and referees are not officiating four games a month normally, therefore they are not even making $2,000 a month. In a league that spans the whole of the continental United States, another issue is travel. Via Yang, transportation is covered by the NWSL but includes “cheap flights, budget hotels, and shorter stays.” Throughout the NWSL, there have been reports of issues with facilities at stadiums in that referees do not have a referee-specific area to change and prepare for games themself. All this together, including much more, proves that NWSL referees do not have it easy outside of the game and they don’t have it easy during games as well.
During the NWSL Challenge Cup final, we saw countless injuries, un-carded tackles, miscalls, and a very traumatic incident between Jordan Baggett and Debinha. The game officials included Katja Koroleva as the center, Kataryzna Wasiak and Ashlee Varnson as the assistants, and Adam Kilpatrick as the 4th official. Koroleva is a well-known referee in the NWSL and has officiated countless matches. She was also the 2020 Challenge Cup Final center. The first half went by with little to no issues. Entering the second half, the game level at 1, tempers and emotions were running high. In the 68’ minute, Washington Spirit defender Sam Staab made a tackle on North Carolina Courage forward Kerolin in the box and walked away un-carded. Understandable from the angle Koroleva had, it may have looked clean as Staab got the final touch on the ball. But from a different angle, you could clearly see that the tackle from Staab was extremely awful and Staab should have been issued a red card. Kerolin limped off the field in pain as the Courage set up for a corner kick. The only card handed out was to Merritt Mathias for dissent towards the official. The Courage immediately scored off the corner kick, which held as the game-winning goal. Less than ten minutes later, Spirit forward Ashley Hatch cleated Courage defender and captain Abby Erceg in the chest and again a Spirit player was left off from receiving a card.
Erceg took to Twitter, quote tweeting a video of the incident saying that Koroleva told her “I clearly saw the ball hit your ribs.” Between the missed call against Kerolin and this one against Erceg, fans were livid and explainable so. Koroleva had completely lost control of the game, was not issuing cards, and player safety and wellbeing were becoming the brunt of it. Hatch was fined for the tackle on Wednesday, May 11 for “unsportsmanlike conduct” according to the NWSL press release. It is clear in watching the tackle, that it is not intentional by Hatch, but rather a symptom of fatigue setting it while trying to go for a high ball. This fine invoked many feelings amongst fans but the census seemed to be that if Koroleva would have had her game under control, and issued a yellow card at the time of the incident, no fine would have needed to be issued. Issuing a fine after does not change that the foul happened and was not accounted for. So in the end, it comes back to a lack of game control. Both of these incidents were because of poor positioning and decision making which ultimately brings it all back to PRO and its lack of investment in NWSL refereeing.
And, it wasn’t just the final. In the semifinal between the OL Reign and Washington Spirit, there was a handball in the box in the dying seconds of the game by Anna Heilferty of the Spirit. This was left uncalled as the referee ended the game, seconds after it occurred. This took the game to penalty kicks instead of giving the Reign a chance to go ahead in the final seconds. Many fans have questioned why there is no Video Assistant Referee, known as VAR, in the NWSL.
This tweet from Jeff Kassouf of the Equalizer Soccer explains that he has indeed asked PRO about this investment and at the time, they were not ready for an investment that large. But in 2022, this needs to be something the league is looking into. VAR won’t fix it but it would be a good backup for situations that we have seen across the league where there was a clear foul/missed call but the referee is left to make a decision based on their positioning.
The inconsistency across the league is definitely something that angers a lot of fans, and players. In the Reign’s Week 2 regular-season game, Bethany Balcer thought she had made a goal-line save to keep opponent Racing Lousiville from scoring the equalizing goal. But the AR on the far side, he was behind her looking towards her back, called the ball to go over the line. Law 10 of the IFAB Laws of the Game states that “a goal is scored when the whole of the ball passes over the goal line…”
Bethany Balcer took to Twitter stating that the referee admitted he may have been wrong about the call for a goal, as because of where Balcer was in comparison to where the referee was, there was no way for him to be able to tell if the ball crossed over the line fully and completely. With Balcer sharing a piece of this conversation, it shows that the referees may be making decisions during every game that they are not fully confident in that can directly affect the outcome of the game. As it is normal to not be confident in every decision, decisions that affect the score should be the decisions a referee is the most confident in. Another example of inconsistency is what referees decide is impeding the goalkeeper during corner kicks. In the Cascadia Rivalry game on May 14, there was a foul called against the OL Reign for impeding Bella Bixby on a corner kick. Law 12 which focuses on Fouls and Misconduct says that “Impeding the progress of an opponent means moving into the opponent’s path to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction when the ball is not within playing distance of either player” is a considered to be a foul. This is why you see goalkeepers get given the advantage when attacking players are on top of them or bumping into them during corner kick situations. But this is not always the case.
During the group stage of the Challenge Cup, the Houston Dash and Racing Louisville were facing off on April 24, and rookie goalkeeper Jordyn Bloomer was making her debut for Racing. In the 34’, Houston won a corner kick and Maria Sanchez served the ball in. Bloomer was blocked by two Houston players, impeding her ability to go up and collect the incoming ball.
The goal stood but Bloomer showed visible anger at the lack of call as there was nothing she could do with two players on top of her. The goal should not have stood because the two Houston players impeded Bloomer from being able to do her job. Although both of these teams were out of contention to move on, it does not matter. Referees throughout the league need to be consistent on what is and is not going to be called. By being consistent, there will be less controversy in calls. There are so many other things and incidents, including the “penalty” called against Kansas City Current's Elizabeth Ball while playing Houston.
It’s not just players that are angry, it’s coaches too. Washington Spirit head coach, Kris Ward, had some choice words during his press conference after the Spirit’s 1-1 draw against the Portland Thorns. Within this game, there was a Spirit goal called back for offside on a corner kick. The Spirit players were already celebrating, believing they had scored when they recognized the flag was up. In Ward’s postgame press conference, he talked about the lack of protection from the league when hard tackles occur and how they respond to questions asked about them.
Ward tells that Emily Sonnett broke her ribs in a game against Orlando on March 19, 2022, after being kicked in the ribs twice during the game. The league responded by saying “well, she finished the game.” Ward continues by saying that “we went in and talked about the Carrie Lawerance tackle on Tara McKeown… and the league came back and said “well, Carrie Lawerance pulled her leg back… trying to reduce the amount of force that she went in with” You watch Ashley Hatch, she pulls her leg back, she lifted her leg, yes, you call a foul you give a yellow card, you do whatever you want but she’s pulling her leg back. She gets a $100 fine and nothing happens to Carrie Lawerence.”
Ward speaking up against the league is not something you see often in the NWSL as players and coaches alike do not want to get fined for what they may say in a press conference as we have seen happen throughout the recent years. Ward calls for the league to do better saying, “The league has to do a better job. They absolutely have to do a better job.” Ward showed a lot of composure in formulating his response but his anger and frustration were very apparent as he says that “they’ve already injured Trinity, they’ve already broken bones on two of our players. I don’t know what else it is going to take for them to step up and actually take this seriously.”
Kris Ward is one of the first coaches to speak up against the league for the lack of consistency throughout and how we have, in fact, reached a point where players are being injured because of it. Ward gave us a behind-the-scenes look at what the league tells the players and coaches after games that had questionable calls and that look was not a good one for the league at all.
PRO may be one issue but when the league also is failing to protect its players and/or hand out responsible and consistent punishments, it shows failure. The league needs to figure out how to effectively manage games and deal with consequences if they are not handled in the game. In the first part of Ward's press conference (seen above), he tells that he was given no explanation as to why the Spirit's goal was disallowed and he had a conversation with the referees at half saying "I warned them [the referees] in the first half. I told them, based off of what they were allowing that the game would descend into someone getting pushed, someone getting kicked, something happening..." This shows that the referees are aware that people believe the game is getting out of control, and these people and coaches do step up and say something, yet nothing changes and that's why we have the problem we have.
I know how hard it is to referee a game and I only do the youth levels on much smaller fields. It is hard. There is a lot going on in a referee’s mind during a game, they have to stay alert all game long. They have to make decisions on the spot when there are two different groups of people yelling different things at them. Fans need to remember that being a referee is one of the hardest jobs, and missed calls and wrong calls will happen occasionally. It becomes a problem when we reach where we are in the NWSL, where players are not being protected. Player safety is paramount in any league and game and when players could become injured at the decision of the referee, we have a problem.
The only way things will change is with more investment from PRO and the league, which who knows when that may come. Until then, we are a bit stuck, just hoping that the refereeing will be decent every weekend.