If you’re a soccer referee, you love, love, love to be assigned to a semifinal game of a big tournament.
The players play their hearts out knowing that a victory can mean the difference between first or fourth place. The coaches are out of their skin, living vicariously through the players. The spectators… they’re simply insane.
The referee and assistants have to be an alert force that is simultaneously impartial and judicial.
I arrived early Sunday morning for my 8 a.m. game thinking I was going to be Assistant No. 1 for the AYSO Section 1 Area R U-14 Boys semifinal game between Corona 1 and Moreno Valley 2. Through a clerical error, I was handed the assignment after the scheduled referee was determined to be unavailable.
I had half-thought about the possibility of this happening on the drive to the game, and remembered the USSF training mantra: Be Ready For Anything. I also probably said to myself, ‘Nah. He’ll be there. He’s always there,’ cause dude’s always there. Well, he wasn’t. And I was at least half-ready.
We check in the teams on the field. It’s cold. The players are still wearing sweatshirts, gloves and beanies, and I make them remove it all. “I’m not wearing (a beanie),” I say to a coach/parent who asks, “Why not?” I do allow the goalkeepers to wear their skull caps, however. I’m not completely cruel.
The game is fast-paced from my first whistle and I don’t call for a foul until after the first goal is scored in the fifth minutes. I’m talking some really good soccer here. Lots of control, passing and build-up play from both sides.
Corona 1 starts to dominate possession after their first goal and looks to strike again behind its two tall forwards, No. 10 and No. 12.
No. 12 delivers the pass upon which the first goal is scored and applies the finishing touch to Corona 1’s next two goals before Moreno Valley 2 finally got one back.
Halftime arrives after 35 minutes and my AR tells me of a parent who is creeping near the goal line, yelling technical advice on Moreno Valley 2’s sideline. I have to act upon this information and decide to speak to Moreno Valley 2’s coach. I simply tell him that all coaches must stay within 10 yards of the halfway line and all spectators must stay between the 18s. He responds positively to that.
The second half begins and Corona 1 immediately attacks through No. 10. Trailing the play up the left wing, both No. 10 and a Moreno Valley 2 defender go down in what looks like a wreckless tackle from behind. No. 10 pops back up, however, and says that the Moreno Valley 2 defender “got all ball.” “He didn’t foul you?” I ask. “Nah. All ball,” he said. I change my call to a dropped ball, told No. 10 that I appreciated his honesty and play resumed.
Later, I initially (and very briefly) signaled for a goal before my AR raised his flag for an infraction he saw in the goal area. I raced over and was advised to disallow the goal because of goalkeeper interference; the goal scorer was just “four or five feet” from the keeper and had obstructed the GK’s line of sight directly preceding the pass that led to the goal. I had not seen that infraction, and trusted my AR. “No goal!” I bellowed, swinging my arms out in front of me in an ‘X’. Corona 1’s sideline blows its top. Stay calm and keep refereeing.
Corona 1 adds another goal on a counter-attack and the teams settle upon a 4-1 final. Moreno Valley 2 players sulk off the field. The team’s best player stays down at the top of the penalty area for several moments before I walk over and tell him how well I thought he played. I perked up enough to walk away.
After the team handshakes, all the players came to shake my hand or give me a fist bump (which I prefer) and both coaches were respectful — even the one I reprimanded for language in the first half. In between, about five or six assistant coaches and parents came to shake my hand.
I had thought I was going to assistant on a big match but it turned out I was the one in charge. I managed the game, its players and agents, and proved up to the task.
Next time, next year, I’ll be a little more than half-ready.