Analysis: Flawed officiating system continues to plague HS soccer

A hard fought first-round playoff 4A Boys match between Plum and Upper St. Clair was pushed into overtime on Saturday afternoon, with both teams battling for the golden goal.

On a narrow field, with both teams loading up the box, and countering back-and-forth, this was a typical, fairly even high school match that would be decided on one big play or mistake for either side.

Or a glaring mistake by a three-man officiating crew — using an archaic three-whistle system with no true linesman.

And that’s exactly what happened.  I’ll get to that in a bit, but let me set the stage first, as it was a pretty good game between Upper St. Clair and Plum.

Upper St. Clair were the slightly better side, but Plum had its moments of possession and chances.

The Panthers took a 1-0 lead in the first half in the game’s 24th minute, after John Gordley’s shot on frame from distance was saved by Plum keeper Gavin Ekiert, but sophomore Aidan Gordley beat a pair of Mustangs to the rebound.

Upper St. Clair was doing a good job in limiting Plum’s attack to passes around the box, a few through balls to try to get past a strong back line and some shots from distance, like Callan Scharba‘s strike from 25 yards that sailed only a couple of feet over the cross bar with 11:30 left in regulation.

While the players were clearly putting in a great effort on both sides to win the game, it was the officiating throughout that was hard to watch. In numerous instances, the officials, who lacked proper fitness, and only able to move subtly enough but struggling to keep up with play, were missing all kinds of calls.

There were at least three instances where they blew the whistle to assess a foul or card, instead of letting the team that had ‘advantage’ to play out its possession. The officials that were positioned on the sidelines, but not linesman appeared to be in the way of players and were slow to react when action came in their direction. Often times, the two sideline officials were behind the play, instead of being in the line of the ball.

Let me make this clear to the soccer knowledgeable readers: these side officials are not linesman. They don’t carry a flag. They’re simply additional referees on the field.

Instead, when they make an offside call, they blow the whistle, and give us the old-fashioned, American football ‘offsides’ position.

You know what I am talking about, kind of like this…


Finally, with minutes ticking away late in the contest, Plum’s Jordan Floyd received a pass 35 yards out from goal, and he had plenty of room to shoot. Instead of playing yet another through ball into the stifling USC back line, Floyd boomed a shot that sailed over the USC back line — and bent into the right corner.

The goal set off a celebration — and Plum was right back in it.

The teams would go beyond eighty minutes of regulation — and late in the first 15 minute overtime period — it was Upper St. Clair bringing the pressure to Plum.

The Panthers best chance came on a well delivered free kick to the far post area, which a few unmarked players in black USC jerseys missed connecting on chances to hit the golden goal.

With Upper St. Clair pushed back out to the midfield, but keeping possession, they came forward again, this time junior Ben Burlovic sent a diagonal ball through the tight Plum back line.

Senior Christopher Lloyd clearly got behind the Mustangs defenders — and took a few touches, and had to dart to his left to avoid Ekiert who had to come off his line to prevent a shot. Lloyd then delivered a shot into an open goal as a few Mustang defenders desperately tried to race back to make a lunging save.

My immediate reaction when the pass from Burlovic found Lloyd?

He was clearly offside.

Then saying to myself, why are they still playing on?

There was no doubt on this one. The USC forward had clearly slipped about two or three feet behind the Plum back line — and was in a clear advantage to score the game winning goal entering the box with only the goalkeeper, who came off his line.

The lower official on the sideline (again, not a linesman, and didn’t have a flag to alert the center ref) was about five feet behind the play, so he wasn’t in the precise spot he should have been to make the call. Still, I was up in the press box toward the center of the field, and not on the line either, but it was one of those very obvious offside calls you can pick out a mile away.

The three men in stripes came together after the goal was scored while the Upper St. Clair players were celebrating, and it would hold up.

Look, the way the match was going, Upper St. Clair had clearly was having its way late in the overtime period, and appeared on the verge of getting the game winner. Regardless, would have been nice for the match to not have been decided on such a poor non-call.

There’s no doubt that human error can happen, and officials are prone to make mistakes.

Offside calls will always be one of the greatest challenges in the beautiful game.

Watching the officiating at Plum on Saturday reinforced something that I’ve been saying for years. The two whistle and three whistle system still used at the high school level, despite its best intentions to help slower and unfit officials to keep up with the game, is ultimately a flawed system.

What’s most common, especially during the regular season games is a two refs system, which they move in somewhat similar positions to where the AR would be in a game officiated in the diagonal system of control.

Quite frankly, this is an oversimplification, though, as the ref need not be exactly on the touchline in most situations (like the AR is positioned by the touchline throughout the game) and is not always in line with the second-to-last defender.

Then, come playoff time, they throw a third official into the mix.

But even with the three officials to make it right, don’t serve as linesman and don’t officiate the games using the system that is used everywhere else in the world. The supporting, side officials still can blow the whistle, and they remain on the field, albeit, they’re off to the side a bit. It’s almost like they’re in no man’s land.

In addition, many of our best soccer officials are not officiating high school games, what instead we have, in Pennsylvania, are officials who simply have to pass a written test.

That’s it. Pass a written test, and you’re on the field, officiating games.

Don’t believe me, well then just click here, because here’s PIAA’s “how to become an official’ page.

Many of these officials have been doing it a very long time, and lets face it, they’re older guys who are not exactly in peak fitness. And, not to be too stereotypical, but they’re pretty set in their ways of seeing the games in front of them.

Yes, I’ll say it. We have too many Grandpa Simpsons still reffing these games.


Many are also basketball, lacrosse and volleyball officials too.

Look, the standards and level of scrutiny are getting greater now in soccer because the level of play is far exceeding the competence of the officiating.

When talking with a lot of coaches, especially the ones that coach at the club and youth levels, where the traditional center assigned referee works with two linesman, they often have become so numb to working with poor high school officiating, that they have to simply shrug it off.

Kind of like Plum’s assistant coach, Raf Kolankowski, who clearly wasn’t happy after the match, but got philosophical with me yesterday after the match, “That’s high school officiating for you.”

So, if you see bad officiating in the next few weeks, and chances are that you will, what you can all do is demand better. It might not even be wholly fair to take it out on these poor guys trying to do their jobs. They probably don’t know better.

Share this article and send your feedback to the proper channels.

And my advice to parents — keep it cool. Please, please, please — keep it cool. The officials are going to make mistakes. Let the coaches deal with it. Just support your kids, and leave that between the coaches and officials.

Maybe more pressure needs to be put on PIAA, and even further the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).  There are other states that use a traditional center ref, and two linesman, but Pennsylvania, remains behind the times.

Finally, I believe there are many good officials at this level, and even the ones that are mistake prone, and don’t understand the game, need to at least be officiating the game in the proper system.

Change the system, and things will get better,

Otherwise, this will continue to be a persisting problem for the game we love.








  1. I have the video of Lloyd’s goal at the end and a picture of the second they Burlovic passed the ball and Lloyd was NOT offsides at all their left center back was dropping and kept Lloyd on. If you want the picture or video as proof email me and I will send it to you because you have no right to say that we didn’t win that game fairly


    • It is such a shame for a team to work so hard for so many years and then lose on a clearly bad call. Everyone knew it was offsides, and some of the USC parents came up to us afternoon the game because they felt bad that they won unfairly. Plum may or may not have lost anyway, but it should have been on a fair goal either way. I don’t know how USC can even be proud of a win in this circumstance. There was another article posted on triblive today that said the same thing about the offsides goal. Clearly everyone but the one guy above trying to make excuses knew it was a bad call. You won dude. You won unfairly. Accept it and move on. Plum has to accept that they lost unfairly so at least be honest enough to admit it and quit trying to make excuses. There are lots of videos. Not just yours. Nice try though.


    • Would you be willing to post that on Twitter or anywhere that everyone can see it? I have yet to find a coach/parent willing to accept that a bad call went their way and from all reports, this one went your way. I, like most was not there to see it, but am among those who feel too much is invested by parents/coaches/schools/players to accept the poor level of officiating we see day in and day out. Again, I do not know what happened, but I would very much like to see it so if you can post it somewhere for all to look at that would be great. My hope is it is exactly as you describe and your team got through fairly.

      I think this game deserves better treatment than WPIAL gives it, but I would also give credit where credit is due if they got this one right. Please post the video/picture.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an extremely flawed and prejudicial article that may have single-handedly significantly damaged high school soccer. To those who actually are inside high school soccer, it’s obvious that the author is very myopic with his analysis; let me set the picture straight.

    The author mentions “a glaring mistake”. This comment made by a prejudice person from a viewpoint of the press box several hundred yards away, at an angle that that is incredibly skewed, who is focused on and watching the play of the ball rather than looking at the whole field. Just an FYI, a player who is all the way across the field (usually unobserved by everyone except by the official responsible for the offside) can still keep a player on-sides. There is no way for a person in the press box to be able to make that call – period.

    While many do not like the 3-whistle system, it’s a moot point; that’s what the PIAA dictates. Of the several thousand high school soccer officials across the state, only a handful are USSF trained (center and flags) and of those, only a few are younger people. To change an entire system for a few is, frankly, ridiculous and would take years to accomplish. That said, I can make arguments for the merits of both systems – I’m not prejudice towards either.

    Did the officials blow some calls? Did they take “advantage” away? Maybe; it happens. But, guess what, if we have flags on the sidelines and they are 5-yards behind the play, they, too, are also going to miss the offside call – that has nothing to do with the system; that’s being in the wrong position to make the call. Yes, this could be because the increasing age of the officials as you stated and yes, they are getting older – see below for my thoughts on that. Like it or not, there are not enough USSF officials, young or old, to cover the increasing number of soccer games at the high school level.

    So let’s discuss the increasing age of the officials – commentary like yours does not help – rather, it significantly hinders. As you stated, the game of soccer is getting bigger, better, faster. However, the number of officials is not – the number of officials is decreasing annually and subsequently, the average age of the high school official is going up annually. So, why is this trend so prevalent? That answer is easy – there are not enough young officials joining the ranks.

    There are several reasons why the young official/former player is not joining the ranks of high school officials. Yes, one of the reasons is the 3-whistle system; we hear it from the handful of USSF officials that refuse to do high school soccer. However, it is also due to the excessive abuse of the fans; the verbal personal abuse from the coaches; the ever increasing rude and arrogant behavior of the players; the meeting requirements of the PIAA (six required meetings of an hour or more and one mandatory rules meeting); the fees paid by the schools – the expenses of the officials are going up annually, the fees are not; the lack of a good recruiting plan by the state (their idea is to have the official find his/her replacement); of course, negative commentary like yours; and more. With your article, you have effectively provided the thousands of next gen officials (and their parents) with a negative viewpoint which will be very difficult to overcome.

    Lastly, of all the PIAA high school varsity games that my chapter officiates, only two do not use three officials for every game, boys and girls. I cannot speak for the other chapters or the schools they assign, but I can say that this could very well be because we don’t have enough officials to provide three for every game. Even our chapter which has more officials than the other District 7 chapters asked schools to change dates of games because we didn’t have enough officials to cover their games.

    In summary, while your article is not wrong, it is so skewed with lack of all the information that it is more damaging than informative. Try doing something that will benefit the game rather than ripping it apart.


    • John M, while I can agree with some of what you post, your reply does lose credibility when you attack the article writer as “prejudice” and claim he has a poor view from “several hundred yards away”. You claim to be on the “inside” when it comes to high school soccer so you should know that not only does the press box offer a better view of offside than an out of position referee, but that it is impossible to still be on the property and be “several hundred yards away”. The field is only 120 yards long and I don’t know of a press box located 100+ yards from the field.

      Your reply seems to indicate you only partially agree that there is a problem and that we are just stuck with it. Again, as someone on the inside I would think you would want better for the kids. Whatever your position is in the high soccer world I thank you for the time you invest in the kids and this great game. The original article did nothing to hurt the situation that is certainly broken.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. John,
    Great article, however; you failed to mention that the refs rotate. So if the center ref is controlling the players and has verbally warned a player who is “playing on the edge”, when the new center comes in it’s a clean slate…and the game gets out of control.
    Also, the refs run off of the field and do not stay to shake hands with the players and coaches. It seems to the fans, players and coaches that they show a lack of sportsmanship by doing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tony –

      The rotation is part of the 3-whistle mechanics and warnings to coaches or players are “supposed” to be passed onto the other two officials at the time they occur, something which is supposed to be discussed in the officials’ pre-game meeting. At the higher level, this usually does take place, but you’re right, often not done and should always be done. Regarding the hand shaking, this is PIAA policy and we adhere to it. Regretfully, not everyone at the high school level has a “sportsmanship” decorum at the end of the game so they opted towards the safety of the officials. This year I know of three red cards issued post game to coaches that charged the official after the game. I can only imagine what would have happened in a line up.

      However, both replyers have missed a major part of my reply – its not the 3-whistle system; its what we have to use and the logistics of changing to a center/flags system is not logistically feasible. The game was not decided by the system; it was decided by the players and, if you believe the author, the poor officiating. However, besides me, another replyer has stated he has photo proof that the offside so much in question, was not. And contrary to “Withhelds” reply, one cannot see the straight offside line from the press box, I don;t care how far away it is.


  4. You have a point in questioning the 3-whistle system used in HS soccer in PA but for the wrong reason. A missed offside call? Allegedly. In either referee system, the side ref (or AR) is supposed to be even with the offside line. In either system, the side ref can be out of position and miss a call. So while I agree there are issues with the 3-whistle system, this isn’t one of them. I say this as one of the Grandpa Simpsons who refs these same players and coaches in the spring with flags and one whistle and in the fall with 3 whistles.

    It’s worth noting that the biggest shouts for offside coming from the stands (or press box) occur when the attacker is making a run at the back line, is even when the ball is played (therefore ONSIDE) but way behind the defenders when he receives the ball. This looks like its offside but it isn’t. I’m not saying this is what occurred in this game. I wasn’t there.


  5. In our wpial semi final game we had a ref no show. The game was started with a 2 man system for 34 minutes until a ref for the 2nd game showed up and joined in our game. There is no excuse for this, how bout a 4th alternate ref for these bigger games. The whole system needs to change it’s affecting high school soccer. Why does the wpial/PIAA not follow FIFA laws? A 3 man system with a center and 2 ARs with flags is good enough for the World Cup but not high school PA soccer????


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