MLS may need replacement officials after referees vote to strike

<span>Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

The Professional Soccer Referees Association (PRSA), the union that represents professional referees in North America and Canada, has voted to authorize a strike, the union said in a statement on Monday.

The vote means it’s probable that the MLS season, which kicks off on 21 February with a match between Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami and Real Salt Lake, will begin with replacement officials.

“We knew the frustration levels were high, because these officials have not benefited from the growth of our sport and PSRA was forced to file an unfair labor practice charge to address alleged direct dealing committed by certain PRO [Professional Referee Organization] managers,” Peter Manikowski, president and lead negotiator of the PSRA, said.

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The Athletic reports that the PRSA asked for a pay-scale increase of up to 90%. The PRO, which is responsible for servicing officials in MLS and other professional soccer leagues in the United States, countered with an offer in the single digits.

PSRA officials working mainly in MLS have been under an agreement that was ratified in February 2019. The agreement expired on 15 January 2024, and was extended to 31 January 2024. The PSRA comprises approximately 250 members, who are employed by the PRO.

A potential work stoppage would also complicate the introduction of new league rules for the upcoming season, specifically those aimed at cutting down time wasting. MLS has taken a leading role in enforcing the International Football Association Board’s mandate to boost the amount of time the ball is in play over 90 minutes. Ifab is the governing body that determines the laws of the game.

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After experimenting with new rules in MLS Next Pro, a developmental league, MLS will introduce the most stringent time-wasting rules in world soccer for the 2024 season. A new rule devised to cut down on players feigning injuries will require a player to leave the field for three minutes to receive treatment if they remain on the ground for more than 15 seconds. MLS reported that over the 18 months of implementation in MLS Next Pro, there was an 80% reduction in stoppages due to players receiving on-field treatment.

There will also be a crackdown on time-wasting during substitutions. A rule change will require a substituted player to leave the pitch within 10 seconds. If not, the oncoming substitute will be kept off the pitch for 60 seconds or until the next stoppage in play. There are exemptions for injuries and goalkeeper substitutions. MLS reported there were only 10 violations across 3,150 substitutions during the MLS Next Pro trial period.

A potential strike could mean the league is forced to delay the implementation of its new rules or work with replacement officials who have yet to officiate games with the new restrictions.

In its statement, PRSA highlighted the potential issues with replacement officials. “Any decisions by PRO to bring in officials who are not members of PSRA could have a substantial impact on the upcoming MLS season,” the union said. “In 2014, PRO started the MLS regular season with replacement match officials, and their lack of familiarity and experience with MLS teams, players, and specialized rules created detriment for the quality of the matches.”

Replacement officials were last used during the 2014 labor dispute. The PSRA said refereeing errors “skyrocketed” during that period.