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NWSL has a refereeing problem

The officiating woes are a reflection of a bigger issue in the league. The NWSL is perceived as inferior when it comes to officiating assignments.

Chicago Red Stars v Houston Dash
The Red Stars’ Kealia Watt runs down the ball against the Houston Dash on May 29 in Houston.
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

After the Red Stars’ 2-0 loss Sunday to the Pride that featured a number of questionable fouls, midfielder Danny Colaprico took to Twitter to express her displeasure.

‘‘No place for this in our league,’’ she wrote.

Colaprico’s tweet shared a video of an attempted play for the ball by the Pride’s Taylor Kornieck that resulted in a yellow card for her and Colaprico exiting the match.

Overall, the game featured three yellow cards against the Pride and the Red Stars’ Colaprico and Morgan Gautrat leaving SeatGeek Stadium on crutches.

Red Stars coach Rory Dames has been vocal about issues with refereeing in the past and seemed to hit a wall on the matter after the game.

‘‘I’ve retired from getting upset about referees,’’ Dames said.

What Dames was upset about was the lack of accountability for the fouls that resulted in Colaprico and Gautrat needing MRI exams.

Dames had no problem with the first yellow card given to the Pride in the 43rd minute. But he took issue with two subsequent tackles that also resulted in yellow cards.

‘‘At some point, you have to send somebody off,’’ Dames said.

The officiating issues are a reflection of a bigger issue in the league. The NWSL is perceived as inferior when it comes to officiating assignments.

All referees in the NWSL are U.S. Soccer Federation or Canadian Soccer Association national referees. According to the league website, they are trained, assigned and evaluated by the Professional Referee Organization.

U.S. Soccer published a referee pathway in 2019 that included five tiers. The highest tier, FIFA, can officiate matches at the highest level internationally. The next tier down, professional, can officiate MLS matches, certain international matches and NWSL matches.

Below professional is the tier called national, which includes referees qualified to officiate national and professional matches in most leagues, including the NWSL, but not MLS.

The PRO website has a similar tiered model, the PRO2 Ladder, showing how it delegates its officials and creates opportunities for growth.

The ladder is broken up into four levels, A through D. Level D is considered the developmental group, which is made up of those considered to have potential as professional referees. Level C is the ‘‘initial stepping stone’’ from the developmental stage. Those refs are considered for assignment to the NWSL but not MLS. Those in Level B also can be considered for NWSL matches but not MLS.

Level A is described as the ‘‘premier’’ level and is comprised of refs who have been identified for promotion into MLS. The organization’s website says these officials can be selected for trial games in MLS to get experience officiating at the ‘‘highest level in North America.’’

Both tiered systems put the NWSL below MLS, creating a lower standard for the league despite the caliber of players on the field.

‘‘I don’t think anybody is satisfied right now,’’ NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said.

Baird said the NWSL is engaged and invested in its partnership with PRO. She went on to say that a number of officials the league pulls from Canada will be available now that the Canadian border is open.

Baird also said that the NWSL will be establishing a new ‘‘technical director’’ position that will work directly with PRO to improve the quality of the game and that the league is taking a serious look at adding a video assistant referee (VAR).

Dames said he thinks refereeing plays a role in international players choosing not to play in the NWSL, which affects the growth of the league.

Dames didn’t have any definitive word about whether Colaprico and Gautrat would be able to play in the Red Stars’ game Sunday against the Courage. Olympians Julie Ertz, Tierna Davidson, Casey Krueger and Alyssa Naeher have returned to Chicago, and Dames said he was hopeful they would be available.

Naeher was expected to see a specialist earlier in the week after suffering a hyperextended knee and a bone bruise in the Olympic semifinal match against Canada. An MRI exam showed no ligament damage, but U.S. Soccer said Naeher likely would be out for several weeks.