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Tournaments Mar 10, 2013

Jefferson Cup: Referees performing under a harsh spotlight, too

By Michael Willis

RICHMOND, Va. – Refereeing: It can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the game for fans, coaches and players in high-profile matches and competitions.

Tasked with making quick, succinct judgment calls without any visual aid in real time, referees are consistently heckled, criticized, and under-appreciated, regardless of how effective they are. With a high level of competition found at showcase events, the stakes are even higher for referees to make the proper call, as their decisions can at times have drastic consequences and far-reaching effects.

The Jefferson Cup is noteworthy in this respect because the tournament actually brings in officials from around the country to make the tough decisions in these games. The Jefferson Cup, and the River City Sportsplex facility as a whole, runs a national referee academy on the fields in conjunction with U.S. Soccer, reining in professional referees to serve as instructors.

Among them are two very notable names, Mark Geiger and Chris Penso. Major League Soccer fans will recognize Geiger, who has been officiating MLS games since 2004 and more recently won the league’s MLS Referee of the Year award in 2011. A New Jersey native, Geiger is a highly respected, seasoned veteran who has been around the game for a long time, and as such his resume is long and distinguished.

Geiger is notable for being the first American referee to ever referee a major men’s international final match: In 2008 he officiated the FIFA U-20 World Cup final between Brazil and Portugal. He is also a staple at CONCACAF tournaments, and was assigned as an official at the Olympic Games in London in a match between Spain and Japan.

Meanwhile, Chris Penso is a younger, up-and-coming official in the soccer world with plenty of accolades to his name. A referee since his teenage years, his hard work has paid off in the form of regular MLS assignments and a nomination to the FIFA Panel of International Referees this year.

These referees are thoroughly vetted, and much like the players on the pitch in Jeff Cup showcase brackets, these referees are being assessed and evaluated.

“[Geiger and Penso] are U.S. Soccer international referees and they’re giving feedback to these referees,” Brian Smith, the Director of Training and Advancement for the Central Virginia Soccer Referee Association, told

It isn’t only those two who are doing the judgment, either.

“National instructors, senior national assessors, and other national officials are working with hand-picked referees to do these games and get feedback,” Smith continued. “In the past, we’ve had FIFA referees, national referees. Eight years ago MLS was using the Jefferson Cup as preseason for some of their referees, just to get them some [high-level] games … [We] partner with the Richmond Strikers to do the referees, we know what’s at stake.”

These referees certainly aren’t taking these games lightly. The officials at this tournament are acutely aware of the implications that a blown call could have in the grand scheme of things.

“The Jefferson Cup is one of the top five tournaments in the country,” said Smith. “It’s up to us in the CVSRA to provide excellent officials. It’s one thing to come out and lose 1-0 to a team in a great game, but it’s another thing to turn around and [lose the game on a blown call]. That’s always going to happen, but we need those referees that are going to step up to this level of competition.”

And just in case anyone was wondering whether or not referees are versatile and flexible in their manner of officiating, Smith also had an answer for that as well. Smith acknowledged that some officials call games tightly and have a specific style, but that others also have a tendency to let things go and allow players to not be bogged down with excessive officiating.

“Every referee is different, every team is different. What we look for is referees that are able to come out and see what the teams want,” he said. “We want these kids to be able to showcase their talents. And for some of our referees, they want to showcase their talents because they also want to step up to the next level. We work hand in hand.”

So in many ways, these referees are in the same situation as many of the players they are officiating: proving themselves on one of U.S. youth soccer’s bigger stages.

+Find the full range of our Jefferson Cup coverage here ]

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