It was years in the making.
On Sunday morning, I finally decided to write a column about the state of high school soccer officiating — primarily addressing my concerns with the current setup of a two and three whistle system (as opposed to the traditional center official with two linesman), after attending a pair of boys WPIAL round of 16 playoff games at Plum High School on Saturday.
Sitting and watching the games on Saturday along with a former English professional soccer player and someone who I’ve coached with at the high school level, only sparked and reinvigorated my stance as we both our shared frustrations.
We both sat there watching officials who were struggling to keep up with the pace of play.
Sure enough, I felt compelled to finally write something.
So I did.
And man, I never imagined that I would receive as much response as what followed.
Based on the majority of the responses, most people who’ve been involved with the high school game are equally frustrated how games are being officiated.
Coaches are demanding better too.
“It all starts with a good leadership team. A team that looks for feedback to make the game better. If our leaders (PIAA and referee assignors) aren’t willing to make the game better (for officials, players, coaches and fans) how can we keep up with the growth of the game in the US?” J.C. Mahon, head girls coach at Avonworth, asks.
“At a national level, the question has been asked, and high school play is a facet of that development, so why not ask better of ourselves.”
As part of the column, I also shared some of the highlights of the Plum-Upper St. Clair game, and in particular pointed out it ended on a golden goal — on what what many contended (including myself) was an offside infraction by Upper St. Clair, as the three-man referee crew looked out of position on the play to make the proper call.
Of course, this would spark additional response from some folks from Upper St. Clair as well as officials (more on that in a bit).
Clearly, there’s no doubt that offside calls are always difficult to make, unless you are in the proper position. Was it offside? To most observers, it was. But, to be fair others responded to me in messages to show pictures or explain that it was a close call (which very well have been the case).
The one thing, in hindsight, in bringing up some significant concerns about the system of officiating, was using an non offside call was probably not the best example.
We could go back-and-forth all day long about the call. It was made, and what is done, is done. In sports, judgement calls are always going to be scrutinized.
My purpose of the column was to — as one anonymous official who did email me sharing his concerns about the current set up — “get the conversation started in a meaningful way.”
What I would like to see, are officials who are in the proper position to make those calls. And the current system, doesn’t provide enough consistency that this is happening across the board.
And that has been my biggest issue, not just with that one play where offside is or is not called, but with the consistency and quality of officiating throughout each game and the confusion that comes from three whistles — and refs rotating around like it’s musical chairs during the games.
One official who responded to the column stated:
“I hate the three whistle system. Its awful. However, there is no desire, at the state level, to change it. I have no idea why.”
At the heart of some of the challenges that our local chapter in particular is dealing with includes some bullet points that were shared with me in an email message from another dedicated, local official:
- Pool of officials is too small and certainly isn’t growing
- HS games are played six days a week (though Fridays are light) and just to cover the entire schedule some refs are working two or three games a day, for at least five days of that week.
- A traditional one whistle and two flag system means you either get that older official trying to run the middle for a full 80 minutes or the people you do trust to work the middle would be doing it five or more times and week and quality would suffer.
- Even if you decide to go a traditional system now, you are forcing a pay cut on whomever runs the lines, and you potentially drive out some people and there would literally not be enough bodies to cover the schedule.
It is clear, that there are significant problems, but not many immediate solutions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t demand better.
In addition, my column prompted what appeared to be an ‘official’ (no pun intended) response from John G. McConahy, a current WPIAL/District 7 official, who was compelled in his message to ‘set the picture straight.’
Here’s McConahy’s full response:
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.
To be fair, I thought it would be a good idea to share McConahy’s response.
As one of the other officials pointed out, if this conversation can move forward in a meaningful and positive way, then maybe we can work together to make a difference to make the high school game better, and all coaches, players, fans and parents, can at least take a moment to understand the officials perspective and what they’re dealing with.
McConahy, though, seems awfully defensive and sends off a vibe that we’re stuck with the current situation as it is and we just have to deal with it.
And that’s simply not acceptable — not just by me — but by most people who love and follow and support high school soccer.
The last thing I want to do, is rip the game apart. I have created this site, and covered the sport because after years being in and around the game as a player and coach at both the high school and collegiate levels, I am passionate about seeing the sport grow in our region want to enhance reporting and coverage for Pittsburgh’s soccer community and fan base.
In addition, I made sure to mention in the previous column that we should make sure that cooler heads should prevail, and that much of what’s wrong with the system is not the fault of the men and women doing their jobs within the current framework as it exists. There’s certainly merit in McConahy’s concerns about fan behavior.
I have seen officials step in, and ask school representatives to eject spectators to leave venues for unruly behavior. In addition, the WPIAL makes an announcement before every game, shortly before the anthem, to encourage all fans to join the players, coaches and officials in participating in sportsmanship.
How well that message gets through, is another story.
Another current WPIAL coach mentioned something to me that from their experience officials don’t shake hands with players and coaches after the games, but instead walk away immediately after each game. I understand part of that reasoning is for the safety of the officials.
Maybe there’s a lot of resentment that has built up on both sides over the years, but that is unacceptable if that is the case — and especially if officials are being told to walk away.
I realize and have seen first hand that there’s a problem with parents and fan behavior — and again — as I mentioned in my previous column — fans and parents must do a better job at controlling their emotions from the stands. Yes, it’s a significant problem that exists. We can’t ignore this either in the context of this problem with officials as it does permeate into the mindset and is at the forefront of challenges that current high school officials are facing.
There are still a lot more action remaining in the WPIAL playoffs, and then we’ll ascend into November with a two-week dash through the PIAA tournament. This is an exciting time for soccer in our region.
Let’s hope that we can move forward in the next month, and the years to come, in ways that will improve and benefit the game.