MLS to lock out referees, replacement officials a possibility

The Professional Soccer Referees Association said Saturday that 95.8% voted against a tentative agreement with the Professional Referee Organization.


LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 4: MLS Referees (L to R) Justin Howard, Ricardo Fierro, Guido Gonzales Jr, Corey Parker during a game between Minnesota United FC and Los Angeles FC at BMO Stadium on October 4, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Melinda Meijer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Major League Soccer will lock out referees after its union rejected a tentative contract, putting Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami on track to open the season next week with replacement officials.

The Professional Soccer Referees Association said Saturday that 95.8% voted against a tentative agreement with the Professional Referee Organization, which supplies match officials to MLS, the NWSL and some lower-tier leagues. The union said 97.8% of eligible members voted.

Their previous five-year agreement had been set to expire on Jan. 15, and a pair of brief extensions ended Monday. PRO will lock out the union at 12:01 a.m. EST on Sunday.

“We are left with no choice but to institute a lockout and use qualified nonbargaining unit officials so that games can go ahead as scheduled,” Mark Geiger, the former referee who became PRO’s general manager in February 2023, said in a statement.

Messi and Miami play the MLS opener at home against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday.

The PSRA, which has about 260 members, said the tentative agreement lacked a sufficient economic package and quality-of-life improvements.

“The skyrocketing growth of MLS has significantly increased demands on officials mentally and physically, and as such has increased demands on both our professional and personal time,” union president Peter Manikowski said in a statement. "Our members are asking not only for fair compensation at a time when the league is reporting 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.”

MLS said PRO’s proposal for wages, benefits and travel was a 25% improvement from last year.

PRO said the tentative five-year agreement included guaranteed pay increases this year of 10-33% for referees, 75-104% raises for assistant referees and 15-100% for video match officials along with increased match fees. Salaries and match fees would have increased 7% in 2027 and 3% in other years.

First-class or business-class air travel would be added for the postseason and for the final day of the regular season in 2028.

MLS used replacement officials for the first two weeks of its 2014 season before reaching a five-year contract after the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service entered talks.

League executive vice president Nelson Rodriguez said the union rejected a no strike-no lockout proposal. He said in statement that PRO would use “experienced professional match referees supported by veteran VAR officials,” a reference to the video assistant referees.

PRO had 66 officials committed to work during a lockout, according to information provided to The Associated Press. Among that group, 26 could be referees or fourth officials and six referees, assistant referees or fourth officials. Five could be fourth officials or video assistant referees and 29 could be assistant referees.

Eleven of the referees have past experience at FIFA events or first-, second- and third-tier professional leagues.

PRO managers who have been certified for VAR in the past will be available for video referee work.

With over 350 supporters, this edgy faction wants to revolutionize Major League Soccer and bring the famous South American ambiance to stadiums in the United States, starting with South Florida.
Copyright AP - Associated Press
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