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The man in charge of MLS referees weighs in on what to expect when soccer returns

Famed referee Howard Webb chatted with reporters this week on what changes we might see

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PRO general manager Howard Webb
Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

They’re easy for fans to forget about—until a bad call, of course—but referees will play a crucial part of soccer’s return from the coronavirus pandemic hiatus.

“Whatever the return to play looks like, if it is in a festival-type setting, the officials will be tested in the same way as the players because when we’re out on the field, it’s not possible really to socially distance for our officials when they’re doing their job,” famed former referee Howard Webb said in a conference call with reporters this week.

Webb worked his way up the refereeing ladder, eventually spending a decade as an official working matches for FIFA and the Premier League. He remains the only referee to oversee a UEFA Champions League and a FIFA World Cup final in the same year. These days, he heads up the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), which is the group that provides refs for MLS, NWSL, and USL matches.

When games return, Webb said there might be some adjustments, such as eliminating pre-match handshakes, increasing the number of subs from three to five, or even instructing referees to keep a safe distance from players, whenever possible. But between the lines, soccer will still remain soccer, he said.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to have ask players to play in a different way in terms of the actual playing of the game,” Webb said. “Tackling is tackling, heading is heading, and officiating is officiating. That will need to take place in a normal way.”

MLS is reportedly considering hosting all 26 teams in Orlando, and holding all training sessions and matches there. Under the plan, all players, staff, and referees would stay in quarantine in hotels, something Webb has discussed with his staff.

“If we’re asking them to, for example, travel to a certain venue and to stay there for a period of time without being able to go home or go to work in between games, then that might not be achievable for some people. We’re hoping as many as possible will do that,” Webb said. “The initial feedback we’ve had has been positive about the numbers. We’ll try to create opportunities for everybody who is available. They’re really keen to get back on the field, keen to get started again.”

The biggest change for the PRO referees could be calling matches without fans in the stands. Webb said he’s hoping to bring in fellow English referee Anthony Taylor to talk to his staff about what to expect. Taylor recently called a Champions League match between Paris Saint Germain and Borussia Dortmund, which was played behind closed doors right before the coronavirus shutdown fully began.

“I’ve read somewhere a few days ago that people felt the referees might somehow benefit from having no fans in the stadium,” Webb said. “I take a different view. I think having fans in the stadium makes us even better as officials because we feed from the atmosphere.”

Matches in Orlando would be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, which has fields with few existing camera points. Even so, Webb said video review (VAR) will still be a part of games there, if the proposal goes forward.

“VAR protocol has always included the option to use a number of camera numbers,” Webb said. “That’s always happened. Our MLS Cup Final has more cameras than a regular season game, some leagues have greater numbers than others. We can run it on less numbers. Every camera that’s in there is a bonus in terms of giving you some angles. Having six, eight cameras is obviously something that you can work with. It will give us angles on situations that the referee couldn’t see in real-time that we can utilize. We’ll work with what we’ve got.”

Until that happens, Webb said he’s continuing to stay in touch with his referees, making sure they’re fit, healthy, and prepared for whatever comes next.