Major League Soccer will once again use substitute officials for matches this weekend amid an ongoing labor dispute between the Professional Football Referees Association (PSRA) – the union that represents its referees – and the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), the funding body by the MLS that administers the officiating professionals in North America.

On Tuesday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber addressed the ongoing labor dispute in a roundtable with Athleticsstating in no uncertain terms that the league was prepared to support the PRO and continue to use substitute referees for as long as necessary.

“We are prepared to manage this labor dispute with the PRO in any way that is necessary to ensure that we come out of this in a way that is rational,” he said. Garber. “PRO will continue to sit down and negotiate with PSRA to hopefully reach a resolution – but if there is no resolution to be reached, we are more than prepared to see this through.”

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PRO blocked the membership of PSRA on February 18 when PSRA members rejected a tentative agreement that was agreed between the negotiators for both sides. Negotiations between PSRA and PRO have continued to deteriorate in recent weeks, with both sides filing unfair labor practice complaints against each other and clashing in the press.

Earlier this month, the PRO told the PSRA membership to accept the terms of their latest offer by March 11 or they would offer “less favorable” terms. This date has come and gone without any agreement. So far, multiple sources close to the negotiations say, federal mediators have not scheduled any further meetings between the parties.

The lockout has been a popular talking point for fans and pundits during the first few weeks of the MLS season, with some questioning whether MLS’ public image has been damaged by the dispute and the use of substitute referees. Asked if he thought the league was affected in that way, Garber pushed back against the idea that league fans felt negatively about the work stoppage.

“We do fan research on a regular basis,” Garber said. “We have a fan base of tens of thousands of people that we talk to regularly. There is no feedback to the consumer that the issues we hope to have resolved with the PRO, our labor dispute, will have any impact on our league. Now, I read your columns and I read other media reports: this view that it’s having a negative impact on the league… Not only do we not see that through the research that we do, but we have to look at where we are. The replacement officials are – not by our standards, but by PRO standards – are of a pro (professional) standard.

Garber said MLS is prepared for a long lockout if necessary (Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports)

Garber went on to offer his thoughts on the performance of the PRO pool of substitute umpires. Late last week, MLS Vice President Nelson Rodriguez sent a memo to the league’s Board of Governors stating that the league felt that the replacement umpires were on par with their predecessors and had “(maintained) consistency in umpiring”. Garber largely echoed Rodriguez’s sentiments.

“Officiating is not an exact science,” Garber said. “More technology is being used. We have officials who we think are doing a really good job, our players think they are doing a good job, our coaches think they are doing a good job and they will continue to work and in a way that will be supported by PRO until there is a solution.”

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Substitute referees have received mixed reviews from players, coaches and fans. Each of the league’s first four weeks has featured an example of a missed or incorrect call, often one that fundamentally affected the outcome of the game in which it was made. than they were in 2023, although the sample size is still quite small. Even according to PRO’s own rating standard, a points-style system the organization uses to rate its officials, substitute referees have fallen short of the standard set by the full-time PRO group.

Garber expressed disappointment at the PSRA membership for rejecting PRO’s latest offer, suggesting it would have made the PSRA membership “among the highest paid officials in the world.” MLS, Garber said, has invested over $150 million in official development (through PROs) since 2012.

“We were supporters of PRO when they reached an agreement with their bargaining unit for their officers that offered a 25% raise,” Garber said. “Now, I don’t know about any of you, (but a) 25% annual salary increase is not a bad thing. Overall, we think it’s a really solid thing. They asked for a landmark deal, we offered a landmark deal through the PRO, and then their members didn’t support it. That was surprising to us.”

PSRA President Peter Manikowski responded to Garber’s comments in an email Athletics.

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“The commissioner didn’t do so well with the facts,” Manikowski wrote in part. “As we would say, he has to have a better angle on the game. In the (tentative deal) voted on by the membership, some officials’ salaries would increase by less than 5% at a time when the league is experiencing record revenue growth. And it’s also wise to remember that a large percentage of a small amount is still just that – a small amount.”

The appearances of substitute referees have been under the microscope this season (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

PSRA also disputed Garber and Rodriguez’s assertion that the league’s substitute umpires are performing to a similar standard to full-time PRO officials.

“For the impact the PRO-imposed lockout is having on the sport already, look no further than the delay in implementing MLS’ new speed-of-play rules (for injuries and substitutions),” Manikowski wrote, referring to the new regulations MLS announcements then postponed after the lockout went into effect. “Or, fans can also watch the number of video replays triple during the final weeks of the season. See what happened in MINNESOTA The game against Orlando last weekend to see an out of control game where the ball was not in play for the fans to enjoy. No team official, player or footballer speaking directly could say that refereeing was a ‘good job’. If PSRA-represented officials were to be judged as scab judges, MLS executives would be apoplectic.”

In his comments, Garber also expressed frustration with the U.S. Soccer Federation the withdrawal of funds for PROleaving the MLS to bear most of the expenses for the day-to-day operations of the organization.

“That dynamic will ultimately work itself out,” Garber said. “It will end up being positive for the overall refereeing program, but it is proving that our officials need to improve. This will trickle down to Major League Soccer, and eventually trickle down to soccer NWSL and USL, to fund it. By the way, I think the Federation has its obligation to do that and (the professional leagues) have taken on that obligation because the Federation has other objectives and other needs along their schedule.”

Once locked out by the PRO, PSRA members are guaranteed their jobs back when the labor dispute is resolved – the PRO simply cannot fire them, or permanently replace them with their new team of replacement judges . While Garber’s remarks were pointed, he also expressed confidence that a resolution could be reached, as Rodriguez did. For its part, PSRA, through Manikowski, also expressed a hope that the two sides would reach an agreement sooner rather than later. But the tone expressed by both sides in this dispute is unmistakable.

“The anti-union tactics that MLS has used over the years are to be expected and the Commissioner’s comments follow that same line,” Manikowski said, referring to similar protracted and contentious CBA negotiations between the league’s players and MLS and a referee lockout. of PRO in 2014. “We, the union of workers who stand in solidarity, will see this through to a satisfactory resolution.”

(Photo: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

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