I’m a fairly new referee, and I’m hoping to get some insight into a particularly difficult game I was an AR for over this past weekend.

I’m writing to get an opinion regarding two incidents that occurred during a highly charged U15 game in [my state] over the weekend. First, I’d like to address the general atmosphere of the game. It was a very physical game with lots of bumping and jostling for position, and several cautions were issued in the first half. At one point during the first half I overhead the coach of the blue team instructing one of his bigger players that he should, to paraphrase, dish it back as hard if not harder than it was being served. I kept an eye on that player and did not notice any overly-aggressive behavior, so I thought nothing of it. Before the end of the half the red team, down 1-0, tied the game up through a fantastic half-volley from around 20 yards out. The goal scorer had been a threat all game and was clearly the red team’s most talented player. By the midpoint of the second half that same red player had been knocked around a bit, and the situation reached a boiling point when he was tackled by a blue player well after the ball had left his feet. The blue player was cautioned, but at this point in the game several red players pointed out that they had overheard the blue coach instructing his players to target the red team’s goalscorer. The players of both team were mostly Hispanic, and as such these instructions would have been given in Spanish. None of my crew spoke the language and, as such, we had no way of knowing if the red team’s claims were true. I called the center ref to my position and explained the first half incident I had overheard, but he decided to only warn the coach and not take any further action. While there was no direct proof that the coach was instructing his players to target the opposing team’s best player, the actions of his players on the field as well as the conversation I’d overheard earlier led me to believe that the Red team’s claims of deliberate targeting were substantiated. Were I in the center, I believe I would have dismissed the coach from the game. In this situation do I have enough evidence to do so? Would the correct call be a dismissal of the coach or, as my center did, simply offer a stern warning?

The second incident occurred with around 5 minutes remaining in the match. At this point the red team was winning 2-1, and the atmosphere had gotten even more difficult. Both coaches were being aggressive in their dissent of referee decisions and players were beginning to act similarly. A blue player played a through ball which was contested by a blue player and the red goalie. The two players slid feet first and collided at full speed. It was clear that both players were in a considerable amount of pain but it was also clear there were no severe head or bone injuries. With these two players down, the referee allowed play to continue around 30 seconds longer. I did not get a chance to ask him why he did not stop the game immediately, but I believe it was because the blue team had a clear advantage with the goalie down and the ball in the red penalty area. The ball was eventually cleared by the red team and the game was stopped. After a minute or two on the ground, the blue player was helped up and off the field by his coach and a teammate. The red team claimed that they had only one goalie, and as such the referee allowed them to treat their player around 5 more minutes. The blue team was furious that the game had been stopped for so long, believing that the goalie should have been substituted for one of the general players on the red team’s bench. They even went to far as to claim that the referee was required to have the goalie taken off the field and substituted. I have several questions regarding this situation. First, what is the suggested protocol for stopping play when a team has a clear advantage? In this case, the blue team had a clear advantage with the red goalie injured on the ground and the ball in the red penalty box. Should play be allowed to continue until the advantage is ended or is it the duty of the referee to stop play immediately when two players have sustained significant, but not severe, injury? Could the referee have stopped play immediately and determined the play reckless on the part of the blue attacker? It was a clear 50/50 ball, but had the goalie gone into the challenge head-first as opposed to feet first he would have certainly sustained a severe head, neck, or facial injury. This being the case could a foul be called on the blue attacker for a careless or reckless challenge? This call would have the advantage of stopping play immediately without regard to the blue team’s advantage. If a goalie is down for a significant period of time is the referee required to ask that he be substituted? The final question addresses the method of restarting the game had it been stopped immediately to address the injury on the field. In this case, play would have been halted by the referee when the blue team had a clear advantage. Is it the duty of the referee to restart the game in a manner that restores this advantage and, if it is, what would have been the best method of restoring such an advantage?

I apologize for the length of the email. I’m sure you guys get lots of these and I don’t mean to take up a disproportionate amount of your time. I’m anxious to hear the opinions of some experienced referees regarding these situations. As I said before, I’m very new to refereeing, and while I do have aspirations of reaching the highest levels, games like these make me wonder if I have the willpower to control highly intense games and make correct decisions that keep the match fair. I believe that, were I in the situations described above, I would have dismissed the blue coach for instructing the deliberate targeting of a player and I would have called the blue player for a reckless challenge. Both decisions would have been aggressively disputed, since the sending off of a coach is extreme and the blue player would have had to be cautioned for the challenge on the goalie. That caution would have been the player’s second caution and would have resulted in a sending off. I look forwards to hearing what you guys have to say about the situations. Thanks for listening.

USSF answer (October 13, 2011):
Incident 1:
If you did not understand the words of the coach’s message to the player, then you could not report it to the referee unless you had some other indication that the player was supposed to “take care of” his opponent. You might have mentioned it to the referee immediately if you had a suspicion, but that is not conclusive proof. By reporting it when you did, you at least provided some assistance to the referee for the match report.

By taking no action against the coach beyond the caution, the referee did not display the courage expected of a referee. We hope your rules of competition require this caution, as no team official may be cautioned (or sent off) for anything; they may only be expelled for irresponsible behavior, which this act certainly merited.

Whatever the coach may or may not have said or exhorted his players to do, the primary focus of the referee must be on what the players actually DID. They can choose to ignore their coach’s advice or they can be egged on by it – it is still their behavior on the field which determines the referee’s response to any particular incident.

Incident 2:
• Audible or visible dissent by a coach is irresponsible behavior, for which the correct punishment is expulsion. “Aggressive” dissent requires immediate expulsion.
• “Serious” is in the eyes of the beholder. If the referee believes the injury to be serious, he should stop the game immediately, no matter what the game situation. The referee’s primary job is player safety, not playing the advantage for a dubious reason. And in making this decision, the referee MUST take into account the age and experience of the players. Given this was a U15 match, there does not appear to be any reason to delay the stoppage.
• An injured goalkeeper may be treated on the field for as long as it takes to determine whether he or she can continue to play. The opposing team has no vote here.
• Any punishment for misconduct van be made only by the referee ont he spot. It’s a “youhaddabethere” situation. However, sliding in feet first against a goalkeeper warrants consideration of at least carelessness, if not actual recklessness, or even excessive force if the tackle were performed at high speed and/or two-footed and/or with studs exposed and/or with one or both feet raised above ball height.
• If play was stopped immediately to address the (serious) injury, the only possible restart — barring a foul — is a dropped ball at the place where the ball was when play was stopped.. No, referees do not normally slant the restart to account for a possible “advantage’ for one of the teams.

We might suggest that the referee showed too little courage throughout the game. If a game starts poorly and becomes wild and woolly, then the referee must ensure that it slows down and remains a part of the beautiful game, not some sort of war.