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MLS sends more officials to FIFA World Cup than any other league in world

Mar 31, 2018; Orlando, FL, USA; Referee Jair Marrufo warns players to calm down during the second half between the Orlando City and the New York Red Bulls at Orlando City Stadium. (Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)

When Mark Geiger and Jair Marrufo learned they had been selected to be referees at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the celebration on that spring day in Dallas wasn’t unlike those of the teams that qualified for a spot in Russia.

There were joyous hugs and a bottle of bubbly popped at the Professional Referee Organization two-week camp.

“We had a small celebration. We had champagne with our group because I think everybody recognized that not only was it great honor for the [five overall guys], but it’s also a recognition of the level of officiating here in North America, an indication that we’ve got some really good officials within our ranks,” Howard Webb, PRO’s general manager, told Pro Soccer USA.

There are more Major League Soccer officials in Russia than any other league in the world. And although the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup, it is the only country with two referees selected for the World Cup.

Selected after a lengthy qualification process to get to Russia were Geiger and Marrufo, as well as assistant referees Frank Anderson, Joe Fletcher — the lone Canadian chosen — and Corey Rockwell.

“Naturally we’re delighted really,” Webb said. “The five officials who have gone out there have obviously been part of the soccer scene here for some time and have invested a lot of time and energy themselves into developing their careers. I think they are really great ambassadors for what has happened here over the last few years.”

It is a second straight World Cup for Geiger, who worked three games in Brazil, while Marrufo is officiating in his first World Cup after being among the final cuts for 2010 and not being selected in 2014.

“To keep going, being resilient and getting an opportunity now is really great news and a testimony to his determination to keep going,” Webb said of Marrufo. “I’m delighted all five have a chance to be part of this amazing event in Russia.”

Fletcher is also working his second straight World Cup, while Anderson and Rockwell are making their first appearance.

Webb knows how special it is to work at the World Cup. He officiated at two — 2010 and 2014 — and being the referee of the 2010 final between the Netherlands and Spain was the pinnacle of his sterling career.

“To be around all of that for the six-week period you get a real sense of the privilege and to know you’re playing an actual part of what is being looked at by the world makes you feel pretty lucky really,” Webb said. “When I took charge of the 2010 final, I became known as the World Cup final referee. You carry that label with you into every game you go into.”

Webb’s advice for PRO’s five officials is not dissimilar to what the 19 MLS players selected to play for their national teams heard from their MLS coaches before going to Russia.

“Don’t go out there and try to do something different, don’t go out there and try to impress or show the world how good you are,” Webb said. “Just go out there and do what you’ve done week in and week out that has got you to that level and stay as relaxed as you can be.”

Unlike the players who are guaranteed at least three group stage matches, every match is of the knockout stage variety for officials.

“You’re only guaranteed one game,” Webb said. “If you perform well in that game, it opens up the door to the next one.”

Geiger and Marrufo won’t just get work as the men in the middle. They will also see time as Video Assistant Referees. As the manager of video assistant referee operations, Webb helped provide the implementation of VAR in MLS and he’s excited to see it utilized at the World Cup for the first time.

Marrufo was in the VAR room for the Iran-Morocco match Friday, while Geiger will be the VAR for Argentina-Iceland on Saturday.

Through the first four matches, VAR hasn’t been used yet. And Webb is fine with that.

“I’m a strong believer in that we need to maintain a high threshold of intervention and we only get involved when something really clear and obvious jumps out that everyone accepts is a clear error,” Webb said.

A native of Rotherham, England, the Three Lions are Webb’s lone rooting interest at the World Cup. Well, them and the five PRO officials.

“The ideal scenario would be an England final refereed by officials from MLS,” he said. “That would be utopia for me.”

The experience of being a World Cup referee is invaluable and Webb believes it is something that will also help raise the bar among PRO officials as well as serve as inspiration for those coming up through the development pathway.

“I think it will really raise the bar,” Webb said, “I’m pretty sure this will serve as a shining example of what is achievable in this game.”

World Cup officials  profiles

MARK GEIGER

Role: Referee/VAR
Nationality: United States
MLS Stats: Has been the referee for 174 matches and has been the fourth official in 66 games through the end of the 2017 season.
Professional Debut: Columbus Crew SC vs. San Jose Earthquakes (May 29, 2004)

Geiger is set to work his second consecutive FIFA World Cup, the only American referee to do so. He was named the MLS Referee of the Year twice — in 2011 and 2014 — and was the Concacaf Referee of the Year in 2014. Geiger also worked the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2011, the 2012 Summer Olympics, the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup, the 2013 and 2015 Concacaf Gold Cup, the 2014 MLS Cup, the 2016 Copa America and was the VAR for the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup.

JAIR MARRUFO

Role: Referee/VAR
Nationality: United States
MLS Stats: Has been the referee for 223 matches and has been the fourth official in 38 games through the end of the 2017 season.
Professional Debut: Colorado Rapids vs. New England Revolution (May 10, 2000)

Marrufo was selected for his first FIFA World Cup after just missing the cut in 2010. The MLS Referee of the Year in 2008, Marrufo worked a pair of FIFA U-17 World Cups, the MLS Cup in 2006 and 2015, the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Concacaf Gold Cup in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015, Copa Central Americano in 2014, the MLS All-Star Game in 2014 and Copa America in 2016.

FRANK ANDERSON

Role: Assistant Referee
Nationality: United States
MLS Stats: Has been an assistant referee for 200 matches through the end of the 2017 season.
Professional Debut: 2005

Anderson, who was named the MLS Assistant Referee of the Year in 2016, worked the Parapan American Games Final in 2015, the MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup in 2016 and the Concacaf U-20 Championship in 2017.

JOE FLETCHER

Role: Assistant Referee
Nationality: Canada
MLS Stats: Has been an assistant referee for 93 matches through the end of the 2017 season
Professional Debut: Toronto Lynx vs. Montreal Impact (June 8, 2003)

Like Geiger, Fletcher, the lone Canadian chosen, has been selected for his second consecutive FIFA World Cup. He was also an assistant referee for the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, the 2008 Concacaf Champions Cup final, the 2011 and 2013 Concacaf Gold Cup, the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup, the 2011 and 2015 Canadian Championships final, the 2012 Summer Olympics, the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup, the MLS Cup in 2014 and 2016 and Copa America in 2016.

COREY ROCKWELL

Role: Assistant Referee
Nationality: United States
MLS Stats: Has been an assistant referee for 226 matches through the end of the 2017 season.
Professional Debut: Colorado Rapids vs. FC Dallas (April 8, 2005)

Rockwell, who was named the MLS Assistant Referee of the Year in 2011, was an assistant referee for the 2012 U.S. Open Cup final and Copa America in 2016.

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