Major League Soccer plans to kick off its 19th season with replacement referees.
On Friday morning, the Professional Referee Organization, which manages officials in the U.S. and Canada in cooperation with the two national federations and the pro leagues, announced that match officials have been locked out “following a rejection by referees of a no strike/no lockout agreement.”
PRO and the Professional Soccer Referees Association have been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement for months. But with no deal in place, MLS games now will go ahead with “a highly-qualified pool of replacement officials all of whom have officiated at the professional level,” according to PRO.
That replacement pool includes foreigners with FIFA certification now living in the U.S., former MLS refs and minor league officials “who PRO believes are qualified to officiate at the MLS level.” PRO put them through their paces at a training camp last week.
“We have made a substantial proposal to the Professional Soccer Referees Association and believe it is very fair and reasonable,” PRO GM Peter Walton said in a statement. “Our proposal represents a significant increase above current compensation for referees and places them above the average for officials around the world. We are disappointed it has been rejected.”
The PSRA has filed charges with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board complaining of unfair labor practices, and members reportedly voted 64-1 to authorize a strike. Walton claimed the threat of a strike before this weekend's games forced PRO's hand. The two sides were $440,000 apart on a total compensation package, according to The Washington Post.
"I am deeply saddened by PRO and Major League Soccer’s decision to lock out its officials in advance of the beginning of what could be a historic MLS season," PSRA lead negotiator Steve Taylor said. "PSRA has worked tirelessly to reach an agreement, however we have been met with resistance since the beginning being forced to seek relief from the [NLRB] on charges of bad faith bargaining and management threats against our officials. Those charges remain pending. We were hopeful to continue negotiations and even were seeking the assistance of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). It would appear, unfortunately, the league has decided to employ scorched-earth tactics instead."
Walton, a former English Premier League referee, said, “We have high confidence in the qualifications of our replacement officials and can ensure our fans, clubs and players that all games will be officiated at a professional standard that protects the integrity of our matches and the safety of our players.”
MLS has published a list of its opening weekend assignments that includes a bit of information on each replacement official. Several have experience working MLS preseason or NASL games, while four hail from Puerto Rico.
The MLS Players Union, which will be negotiating a new CBA this year, expressed its concern.
"We fully support the PSRA’s efforts to collectively bargain a fair contract," MLSPU executive director Bob Foose told SI.com. "PRO's decision to lock out the referees and use scab replacements presents a serious health and safety issue for our members. We will continue to monitor this situation closely, as it is our sincere hope that cooler heads will prevail, the parties will reach an agreement and PSRA officials will be back on the field as soon as possible."