Veteran MLS Referee Takes Position With Region IV, Discusses Officiating Topics
By Ryan Loy, US Youth Soccer Communications
Richard Heron has spent the majority of his life on the soccer field, and more than two decades of that time on the field included a whistle in his mouth and cards in his pocket.
With an extensive refereeing background — including work in the MLS, professional indoor leagues and youth leagues — the 58-year-old Heron hopes to use his experience and knowledge to benefit US Youth Soccer, as he was recently named Region IV Referee Chairperson.
"I recently, back in August, was invited to take a FIFA instructors course down in Jamaica given by [current FIFA instructor] Peter Pendergast that I took and passed," Heron said. "I believe I have a lot of information and knowledge to pass onto the referees... My job is moving forward with the referees and to get the instruction to them to make them better."
It’s easy to hear the passion and respect he has for the profession as he talks now, but Heron admits he got into refereeing by accident.
He played soccer for much of his life until he bagan coaching following a couple knee operations. Around that time, he ran an indoor facility in Chicago, and one of his responsibilities was assigning referees to games. One night, a referee didn’t show up and Heron couldn’t find anyone to replace him.
"I knew some of the rules," Heron said. "I jumped on the field and refereed the game, and everybody seemed to like what I did. I actually enjoyed it myself. It was probably about a month after that, I signed up for referee classes. That’s how it all started."
From there, Heron said he started refereeing youth games and worked his way up. In 13 MLS seasons, he officiated more than 100 matches. The Phoenix native has also worked as a referee assessor and coach, helping to monitor, evaluate and mentor current MLS referees. Heron plans to work with State Referee Administrators to improve Region IV referees and help solve any problems that my arise during games.
"A lot of assessors can go out there and assess the game and give the referees feedback. That’s the easy job," Heron said. "If you don’t help the referee solve a particular problem that he or she had in the match, then you really aren’t doing any service to the referee, period."
Read the following Q&A to see what else Richard Heron had to say about his goals for his new position, his background in refereeing, the necessary fitness needed to be a referee and more.
**The answers to the questions have been edited for length.
Is there a specific thing you’d like to accomplish with the new position? Is there a way you can tell referees are improving?
I’ve refereed for many years, especially in MLS and so forth. I started out doing youth games back in Chicago. That’s where I lived and started out refereeing and worked my way up. I’m also on [U.S. Soccer Director of Referee Identification and Training] Herb Silva’s identification team. We go around the country to different select tournaments and we identify up-and-coming referees, and that’s part of what I’m going to tie in with my new position, as well. I can sit for 15 or 20 minutes and tell how a guy is going to be. I am going to pass along some of that knowledge to the assessors who will be assessing the games. When you’re selected for a referee at the top level, whether it’s the World Cup or the European Championships or the FIFA World Club Championships, you’re selected based on your previous assignments and how you did in the game. It’s as simple as that. That’s how I’m going to tie this all in. I want the guys to be rewarded for good performances. We’re not going to be putting guys on games that don’t belong there if they have bad performances. It’s that simple. Do you reward a child that has bad behavior? You don’t. It’s the same principle.
What are the different challenges of refereeing a game at different levels? Are there differences between youth games and the MLS?
Obviously, No. 1, you’re talking about amateurs vs. professionals. It’s the same principle. Referees who referee at the amateur level — I’m going to be honest with you because I’ve seen it, even at the adult level when it comes to the amateur — a lot of guys don’t take it as seriously as they should. They really don’t. For me, it’s unacceptable, and I’ll tell you why. The youth players, whether they’re playing in their State Cup or the team makes it to Regionals, those players are expecting the referees to be top notch. You have to come out and give it your all each game. For those kids, this is their World Cup. They expect you to be good and on top of your game. If you don’t take it seriously and make errors, you could literally send a team home. At any professional level, that’s expected of the referee, so we don’t even have to discuss that. Does that mean a referee is going to have a bad performance now and then? Absolutely. It happens. We’re human beings. It’s an attitude thing. Sometimes at the youth level, for some strange reason, some don’t take it seriously because they think, "Oh, it’s only a youth game."
Is there a lesson or moment that sticks out when you learned something that a person outside of the refereeing profession wouldn’t think about?
That’s an interesting question. I believe you learn from games. I had a coach back in college who always said to me, "There’s no greater teacher than the game, itself." What he meant was that the game itself will teach you things that you never thought possible, and that’s how you learn as a referee. Again, it’s kind of like being a parent. You don’t know whether you’re going to be a good or bad parent until that child is born. It’s the same thing with a referee. I have no clue about Joe Doe over here when he goes out and does a game. I have no idea whether he’s going to be good or bad until he goes on that field, blows that whistle and starts to do the game. It’s the only way.
You talked about assessments earlier. What goes into a typical meeting in assessing a game?
First and foremost, look at the game in its totality. Then you look at the areas where the referee exceled. That includes fitness, positioning, decision making and foul selection. Then you also look at any incidents that might have happened during the game. It could be an elbow situation. It could be a studs-up tackle. It could be a last-man foul where you may have to send that player off. Anything like that, you focus on the incidents in the match that can help the referee get better. If he got it right, there’s nothing to talk about. But if he didn’t get it right, you want to give that referee options to think about next time. In MLS, one advantage compared to youth games is that every game is taped… A lot of times you don’t actually see everything while you’re at the stadium. That’s where the television comes in as good reference point for you. That’s pretty much what we do. We break things down for the referees to help them.
What type of physical training goes into being a referee?
To be successful, you need to train. At the professional level, these guys are training pretty much every day. They might take one day off a week. For the most part, these guys are training five or six days each week. At the youth level, I want to say you should be training a minimum of four days a week. You go to certain places, like Texas for example. I’ve done a few games in Houston and Dallas before I retired. You know about the humidity down there. When you take that as a factor, you have to be fit. It’s that simple. You have to be running and training every day. That means you do long runs, where you’ll go out and do maybe eight, nine or 10 miles. The next day, you might incorporate speed work, where you’ll do sprints on a track. You have to vary it so you’ll get the best of both worlds. Some guys will incorporate doing a bike ride. You have to lift weights, too. There’s a lot involved.
How did you view referees prior to actually becoming one?
When I was a player and a coach, first of all I was never red carded in a game in my entire career. That’s No. 1. As a coach, I just sat there and didn’t say anything to the referees when I coached because your games are won and lost in practice. All my work was done in practice with the boys. I pretty much just sat there. I didn’t say anything to the referees because that’s my demeanor. That’s a battle you’re not going to win. If you want to talk to the referees, you know there are certain ways to talk to them. Yelling and screaming doesn’t get it done. It’s a respect factor. That’s how it’s got to be.
Is there difficulty with parents at the youth level as a referee?
There are always difficulties with parents. There’s a fine line, obviously. If any profanity comes out, and you know who did it, you need to get rid of them. But just the normal yelling and screaming, saying "Hey ref, what are you doing? Are you blind, ref?" You’ve got to let that go. But once profanity comes out, that’s totally different. That’s crossing the line.
As a referee, how do you view issues like replay and goal-line technology? Things that can help a referee when having to make tough decisions.
I don’t believe in replay at all. The game is based on all judgment calls. Foul or no foul. I do favor goal-line technology because too many goals have been not given. The most famous one, recently, was in the World Cup three years ago in the England-Germany game. I’m not saying it would have changed the outcome of the game, but now you go into the locker room being tied, 2-2, rather than being down, 2-1. It’s totally different. I’d definitely favor goal-line technology. We need it now. The game and the players are too quick. The assistant referee cannot be where he should be because the game is just too fast. It’s that simple. I definitely think goal-line technology would help.
Is there a player or coach who sticks out someone who was difficult to work with or overly enjoyable to work with?
I’m not going to mention any names. There have been many players over the years that I’ve had good relationships with, and there have been one or two that I have not. Every referee goes through that. And it’s the same with coaches. I’ll put it this way. Every referee has one coach who doesn’t like them, for whatever reason. It’s as simple as that.