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How the USL Academy League Finals provided a platform for referee development

By Staff, 01/30/23, 12:00PM EST


Young officials received mentorship, instruction from experienced crew during November event

At the 2022 USL Academy League Finals last November, the players weren’t the only ones aiming to further their on-field growth.

Throughout the week’s event, officials from Florida Soccer Referees served as the referees, assistant referees and fourth officials as they sought to take their next steps toward reaching the next level.

Under the supervision of State Referee Administrator Christina Unkel and State Advance Referee Initiative Director Ted Unkel, as well as current PRO Referees senior panel member Rubiel Vazquez and PRO Manager of Senior Referees Alan Kelly, the officials were offered instruction and mentorship both during the day’s games and in evening film sessions held at the United Soccer League’s headquarters.

The group was also joined by Pedro Trejo, current Manager of Referee Development with U.S. Soccer, and National Referee Coaches Nami Imaizumi and Jeffrey Mullen, who brought their expertise while also aiming to identify officials who could have the potential to move into higher levels of assignments in the future.

“[There are] two big things about this tournament,” said Ted Unkel. “One, the structure. They allow us to give us time, give the referees time to decompress. We actually get a time to talk to them between the games. Hopefully that improvement goes from match to match.

“[Two], now we can provide video evidence that shows exactly what the point of view is and then talk through the conceptual level of that. Hopefully, by the end of the night, maybe we look a few plays a little differently and that has been priceless here. We’ve been able to do it night after night after night, and hopefully that has built on to the next day’s performance.”

Among the players competing at the USL Academy League Finals were those who have already signed professionally with clubs in the USL Championship and League One, or who have played as USL Academy signings in the leagues. For the young officials aiming to take the next step into officiating professional games in the future, the week’s experience is one that long-term will help shape that path and provide strong new candidates to officiate high-level contests.

“We know what a normal path for a referee is,” said Unkel. “You’re working in-state, maybe in your region in the country at a national tournament to get some type of exposure, but to know that we have it right here in our backyard here in Florida, it’s excellent.

“These guys aren’t hopping on planes to get high-level education, a high level of tournament. Hopefully if we put them in more situations just like this, challenge them, and then they get better coming out of these challenges.”