Embarking on the journey to become an MLS referee is a distinct career path that marries a love for soccer with a dedication to fairness, integrity, and the rules of the game. This guide outlines a structured path to achieving this prestigious role, drawing from a deep understanding of the sport and its regulatory aspects.

Step 1: The Role and Responsibilities of an MLS Referee

Becoming an MLS referee starts with grasping the comprehensive roles and multifaceted responsibilities critical to the sport’s integrity.

Key Responsibilities 

Referees in MLS have a comprehensive set of responsibilities that go beyond just enforcing the rules during the game. They are crucial in ensuring player safety, managing in-game dynamics, and maintaining the integrity of the sport. Their decisions can significantly impact the outcome of matches, emphasizing the need for fairness and accuracy.

Position Types

The MLS officiating team comprises various roles, including the center referee, assistant referees (linesmen), and the fourth official. Each position has distinct responsibilities: the center referee manages the game flow and makes major calls, the assistant referees monitor offside positions and assist in calling fouls from different angles, and the fourth official manages technical area behavior and substitutions and provides additional support to the refereeing team.

Skills and Qualifications 

Successful referees share several key characteristics:

  • Game Management: The ability to control the flow of the game and make decisions that players and coaches respect.
  • Communication: Clear and effective communication is crucial in conveying decisions and managing the dynamics between players on the field.
  • Physical Fitness: Like players, referees must maintain high fitness levels to keep up with the pace of play.
  • Self-Belief and Resilience: Confidence in decision-making and the resilience to handle pressure and criticism are essential.

Mastering these roles and responsibilities is the cornerstone for anyone aspiring to successfully navigate professional soccer officiating.

Step 2: Gain a Strong Foundation in Soccer Officiating

Laying the groundwork with a solid understanding of soccer officiating is a crucial early step in learning how to become an MLS referee.

Education and Training

Offered by the U.S. Soccer Federation, these courses lay the foundation for all soccer referees, focusing on the basics of soccer laws, officiating mechanics, and game management.

U.S. Soccer Learning Center

A crucial online platform that provides access to various educational content, including courses, webinars, and other resources aimed at referees at all levels.

Referee Certification

Starting at the grassroots level, referees must pass through progressive certification levels, each designed to prepare them for higher levels of competition​.

Advanced Training Sessions

For referees aiming to reach professional levels, advanced training sessions provided by the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) and other entities are available to refine their skills further​.

With a robust foundation in the rules and mechanics of soccer, you’re well-prepared to tackle more advanced officiating challenges.

Step 3: Acquire Practical Experience

Hands-on experience in various levels of soccer matches is invaluable for those looking to progress in their officiating career.

Volunteer and Officiate Local Games 

Build experience by officiating to develop practical skills in game management and decision-making. 

Youth Soccer

Begin with local youth soccer leagues. These games provide a less intense environment in which to develop basic officiating skills.

High School Matches

High school soccer games can offer a more structured environment and introduce you to working with coaching staff and more competitive play.

Amateur Leagues 

Officiating for amateur adult leagues adds experience with higher competition and physicality, preparing you for the intensity of semi-professional and professional matches.

Mentorship and Networking

Seek mentorship from experienced referees and connect with your local referee association to learn about advancement opportunities and gain support.

Each game you officiate brings you closer to mastering the art and science of refereeing, a vital step toward reaching the MLS level.

Step 4: Advance Through the Ranks

Climbing the officiating ladder requires dedication and a willingness to embrace increasingly competitive matches.

Progress to Higher Levels

  • College Soccer: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) oversees college soccer in the United States. To officiate at this level, aspiring referees must meet specific qualifications, such as passing the NCAA Soccer Referee Test.
  • Semi-Professional Leagues: These leagues serve as a bridge between amateur and professional levels. In the U.S., leagues such as the United Soccer League (USL) Championship and USL League One offer opportunities for referees to gain experience in more competitive matches.

Regional and National Competitions

  • Regional Tournaments: Participation in regional tournaments, such as the U.S. Youth Soccer Regional Championships, allows referees to showcase their abilities on a larger stage and gain exposure and experience.
  • National Tournaments: The U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) organizes national tournaments like the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, where referees can officiate matches involving teams from various levels, providing valuable experience for higher-level competition.

Your journey through the ranks hones your skills and demonstrates your readiness for the professional stage.

Step 5: Join the Professional Referee Organization (PRO)

Joining PRO is a transformative step for those on the path to becoming MLS referees.

Join the Professional Referee Organization (PRO)

Eligibility for PRO

Entry into PRO is a pivotal career advancement for referees aiming to officiate professionally in leagues across the United States and Canada, including MLS. Officials for PRO2, a developmental tier within PRO, are identified by U.S. Soccer National Soccer Coaches as potential candidates, highlighting the importance of recognition and recommendation by established figures within U.S. Soccer for progression.

PRO Development Programs

Once part of PRO, referees undergo rigorous development programs designed to refine their officiating skills to the standards required for professional soccer in North America. This includes assignments in major leagues such as MLS, NWSL, USL, and NPSL, underlining the broad scope of opportunities available within PRO for advancing referees.

Pathway to PRO

For new officials, the journey begins with registration as a grassroots official with their state, emphasizing the structured pathway from amateur to professional levels. This structured approach facilitates a clear progression pathway, starting from youth levels and advancing through the ranks based on performance, skill, and the potential to succeed at higher levels​​.

PRO’s Mission and Impact

The formation of PRO was a collaborative effort between U.S. Soccer, MLS, and the Canadian Soccer Association to elevate the quality of officiating in professional soccer leagues. This move underscores the commitment to developing top-tier referees capable of representing the United States and Canada in FIFA competitions. The organization also focuses on increasing the pool of professional quality officials from a younger age, highlighting the long-term vision for officiating excellence in North America​.

PRO Development

Once part of PRO, continue refining your skills through their development programs, embracing advanced training, evaluations, and mentorship opportunities to prepare for MLS-level officiating.

Active participation in PRO is crucial for those aiming to refine their skills for MLS officiating roles.

Step 6: Apply to Major League Soccer (MLS)

After refining your skills and accumulating experience through the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), the next significant milestone is applying for a position as an MLS referee. This final step involves a strategic approach to demonstrate your readiness to officiate at the highest levels of professional soccer in the United States.

Prepare Your Application

Compile a comprehensive dossier that includes your officiating resume, certifications, a detailed log of matches officiated at various levels, and any accolades or recognitions received. Highlight your participation in PRO development programs, emphasizing key learnings and improvements.

Showcase Your Experience

Document your experience, especially in high-level matches and tournaments. This should include any roles you’ve played in officiating college, semi-professional, and professional matches and your contributions to regional and national competitions.

Networking and Recommendations

Leverage your mentorship and connections within the refereeing community and the wider soccer network. Secure recommendations from seasoned referees, coaches, or soccer administrators who can vouch for your abilities, professionalism, and readiness to officiate in MLS.

Stay Informed about Openings

Regularly check the MLS and PRO websites, and stay connected with your referee association for any announcements regarding openings for MLS referees. These organizations often post job listings or calls for applications for new officiating talent. Jobsinsports.com is another excellent resource.

Submit Your Application

When positions become available, submit your application through the official channels provided by MLS or PRO. Ensure your application is thorough and professional and highlights why you are a suitable candidate for an MLS refereeing position.

A meticulously prepared application reflects the culmination of years of experience and development, setting the stage for entry into the elite ranks of MLS referees.

How Much Do MLS Referees Make?

The financial prospects for MLS referees are quite structured, varying based on their experience and the number of games they officiate. Here’s a detailed look at how much MLS referees earn, drawing from multiple sources:

Earnings Based on Experience Levels

  • Level 1 Referees, who are the least experienced with 20 games or fewer, earn around $565 per game. Assistant referees at this level make approximately $255 per game, and the fourth officials get $205 per game.
  • Level 2 Referees, with 21 to 40 games of experience, see an increase, earning $670 per game. Their assistant referees earn $310, and fourth officials earn $230 per game.
  • Level 3 Referees, who have officiated 41 to 75 games, earn $775 per game. The assistants at this level earn $360, and the fourth officials earn $260 per game.
  • Level 4 Referees, the most seasoned with over 76 games, earn the highest at $875 per game. Their assistants earn $495; fourth officials earn $285 per game​.

Special Game Fees

Referees also earn more during special events:

  • Playoff games pay referees $1,000 in the initial rounds and $1,200 in the later stages. The MLS Cup final pays $1,500 per game.
  • Assistant referees and fourth officials also see increased rates during these playoffs and special games​.

Annual Earnings

Top referees who frequently officiate throughout the season can earn annual salaries of around $55,000. This includes regular game fees and special assignments like All-Star games, which provide additional earning opportunities.

These structured earnings highlight the potential for financial growth as referees gain more experience and officiate in more high-profile matches.

For those drawn to the world of sports officiating, each step from education and certification through practical experience and professional development is crucial. By progressing through different officiating levels, from local youth games to national tournaments, referees build the skills and visibility necessary to ascend to the MLS level.

Join the Jobs In Sports Community

As you pursue a career in sports officiating, JobsInSports.com is an invaluable resource that will help you along the way. We encourage aspiring referees to:

  • Explore Job Listings: Regularly visit JobsInSports.com to check for new job postings in sports officiating and related fields. Whether you’re looking to start at the grassroots or aim for professional levels, you’ll find opportunities that match your career stage and goals.
  • Join for Free: Sign up for a free membership at JobsInSports.com to receive job alerts directly to your inbox. Stay informed about the latest openings.
  • Upgrade to a Paid Membership: Consider a paid membership to gain full access to all job listings, detailed employer information, and exclusive opportunities. 

Start your training, engage with the community, and take your passion for soccer to the professional fields of MLS with the support of Jobs In Sports.