MLS might open season with replacement referees after labor deal is rejected

Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela (10) argues with a referee during an MLS soccer match between the Los Angeles FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps in Los Angeles, Saturday, July 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
LAFC forward Carlos Vela (10) argues with a referee about a call during a game against the Whitecaps. (Associated Press)

Major League Soccer might open its regular season Wednesday using replacement officials after members of the Professional Soccer Referees Assn. (PSRA) overwhelmingly rejected a labor deal with the organization that provides officials to leagues in the U.S. and Canada.

More than 95% of the union members who voted Saturday opposed both the proposed collective bargaining agreement and a no strike/no lockout proposal. In response the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) announced it would lock out the officials beginning at 12:01 Sunday morning. The MLS season kicks off Wednesday with Inter Miami and Lionel Messi hosting Real Salt Lake. The Galaxy and LAFC begin play at home next weekend.

The lockout will not effect the USL, NWSL and other leagues that employ PRO referees because those leagues have separate collective bargaining agreements.

“It’s extremely disappointing that the officials have voted against the tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement,” Nelson Rodríguez, the MLS executive vice president of sporting product and competition, said in a statement. “PRO has informed us of its contingency plan for the upcoming MLS season, which includes utilizing experienced professional match referees supported by veteran VAR officials.”

MLS used replacement officials for the first two weeks of the 2014 season when a labor impasse led to a lockout. The latest four-year agreement between PRO and the union expired last fall.

PRO and the union representing its officials began negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement in October and reached a tentative agreement last weekend. According to PRO, the five-year deal called for a 25% overall increase in salaries, game fees and benefits over 2023, the largest jump in the organization’s history. It also would have made PRO members among the highest-paid soccer officials in the world, according to MLS.

Peter Manikowski, the union’s president and lead negotiator, said the officials felt the agreement didn’t go far enough.

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“Feedback from our members indicates the failed ratification was driven by issues with the compensation and benefits PRO was offering, as well as a lack of improvements to travel, scheduling and other quality of life issues,” Manikowski, who officiated three MLS Cup finals as an assistant referee, said in a statement.

“The skyrocketing growth of MLS has significantly increased demands on officials mentally and physically. Our members are asking not only for fair compensation at a time when the league is experiencing record growth, but also for the ability to take care of themselves on the road and at home to continue officiating at the highest level that this sport demands.”

But while PRO and MLS seem resigned Saturday to begin the season with replacement officials, the union said it was “committed to promptly returning to the negotiating table … to reach an agreement.”

U.S. officials have recently proved to be among the best in the world. Center referee Tori Penso led a four-person U.S. officiating crew in the 2023 Women’s World Cup final in Australia. Assistant referee Kathryn Nesbitt, one of two Americans to work the last men’s World Cup final in Qatar, was part of Penso’s team, becoming the first U.S. official to have two FIFA medals from a World Cup final.

The lockout also comes at a delicate time for MLS, which has seen its global profile rise following Messi’s decision to join the league last summer. Apple, which is entering the second season of a record 10-year, $2.5-billion broadcast deal with MLS, saw subscriptions to its MLS Season Pass streaming service more than double after Messi’s arrival, according to the Sports Business Journal.

With more of the world watching MLS than ever before, a noticeable drop in the level of officiating could seriously hurt the league’s reputation.

“Replacement officials generally do not have the current experience and level of fitness required to do our jobs,” Manikowski said. “The sport and everyone involved — players, coaches and fans — deserve referees who are the best in North America.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.