Mark Geiger (left) with his fellow referees at the 2000 US Youth Soccer National Championships.
Former US Youth Soccer National Championships referee heads to the world's biggest stage
FRISCO, Texas (May 19, 2014) — Each season, the fields at the US Youth Soccer National Championships are filled with hundreds of individuals who dream of one day making it to soccer’s biggest stage.
That fact held true at the 2000 National Championships in Orlando, Fla., — a tournament that featured several players who would go on to have success professionally and with the U.S. National Team. But only one person from that event has secured his place on the field this summer in Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Mark Geiger, 39, was selected in January to referee at this summer’s World Cup, becoming the first American since 2002 to be chosen. The honor was 25 years in the making for Geiger, who refereed at the 2000 National Championships — as well as a half-dozen US Youth Soccer Region I Championships and several US Youth Soccer New Jersey State Cups — before eventually becoming a regular referee for Major League Soccer.
“The email came at 2:24 a.m. FIFA Headquarters are six hours ahead. By the time I woke up at 6:30 in the morning, I saw the email and there were already a few text messages from friends who saw it posted on the website,” Geiger said about finding out he was selected.
“It was extremely exciting. Just to be part of the selection process the past few years has been a great honor — to be able to showcase yourself and be given that opportunity to make it. But then to receive that email, I was elated when I woke up that morning.”
Just as players have to work hard to rise to the top, it took Geiger years of working on his craft to get to this point.
He began refereeing when he was 13 in his hometown of Beachwood, N.J., when his parents wanted him to begin saving some money. Geiger enjoyed soccer and played at a local club, so refereeing seemed like a natural fit for a job that would keep him active in the sport.
Geiger started working recreational games and local leagues before he was recommended for the New Jersey State Cup. He and his fellow referees continued to be evaluated, and Geiger said he must have been performing well enough because he kept moving up.
“I went to the [US Youth Soccer Region I] Regionals for six years. Each year, it was a goal to get myself selected for Nationals,” Geiger said. “It took a number of years to get there, so to finally achieve it was very exciting… We’re able to be seen at the National Championships by U.S. Soccer national assessors and national staff, so things started taking off from there.”
Following the 2000 National Championships, the New Jersey native secured his national badge and refereed some events sponsored by U.S. Soccer before breaking into the MLS in 2004.
Geiger, who made it a personal goal when the league began in 1996 to work one MLS game, continued to grow as a referee and earned the honor of MLS Referee of the Year in 2011.
The World Cup-bound official said it’s “extremely difficult” for referees to work their way to the professional level, and once they are there, there is always a possibility the first game can be their last.
“Once you’re there, you’re not guaranteed to get that next game,” Geiger said. “Even if you’ve been reffing 10 games or 50 games, each could be your last one. You need to keep performing well and consistently to stay at that level.”
Even with his success in the MLS, Geiger wasn’t expecting anything as the 2014 World Cup approached. Now, having been selected as a World Cup referee, he said it is outstanding and exciting to have the opportunity to work in Brazil.
Once Geiger and the other referees arrive in Brazil, they will continue to work on improving their craft. Each day, they will have on-field and classroom training. The field training consists of simulating various scenarios and calling them as if it is a real game. Each day will focus on a different situation in a game — from corner kicks to counter-attacks to positioning and movement. The on-field training will be followed by a classroom session where the referees review key match incidents from the previous day’s games by making decisions and evaluating the match referees’ performances.
While he’s come a long way from working youth games in New Jersey, Geiger knows referees at every level are still learning — and still subject to making mistakes. He said fans, specifically parents at the youth level, should understand referees do the best they can each game and simply call what they see.
“I think parents need to understand the players are not perfect, and I think they get that part. The coaches are not perfect, but also the referees are not perfect,” Geiger said. “We are out there because we love the game. We enjoy the sport. We’re trying to give back to the sport that has done so much for us.”