Mark Geiger has been refereeing in Major League Soccer (MLS) since 2004, taking charge of over 150 games – including Play-Offs – in that period. He’s also officiated in numerous major tournaments, including the 2012 Olympic Games and the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
I remained a high school maths teacher even after turning professional as a referee and maybe there will be time to return to the profession I gave up in 2013, once I have hung up my whistle. Having said that, there may well be opportunities combining teaching and football. And, while I’m hopeful there will be many options open to me when the time comes, that is very much a discussion for another day!
What I can say is that my old schools and the board of education could not have been more helpful. The timing of our season here certainly helped me schedule my games, sure, but I’d go so far as to say I may never have reached the World Cup semi-final and Olympic quarter-final level that I did without such fantastic co-operation from my employers in the early days.
I was able to do a surprising amount of work remotely and I’ll always be grateful to the principals I dealt with and for their understanding of my goals.
I was aged five when I started playing, as did most kids from my area of New Jersey. People in Europe may not appreciate that soccer is the most popular youth sport in the US, so it was both a means of making friends and seeing them regularly, too.
At 13 I actually started refereeing as a means to make some money, and I didn’t realise there was so much more to it until I turned 20. That’s the time I started to go out of my way to watch role models like Esse Baharmast, Kevin Stott and Brian Hall, all of whom you’re probably familiar with.
MLS was just getting started when I was 22 and it wasn’t until then that I felt confident enough to develop my own style, thanks to the support of local mentors such as Brian Fenlon and Barry Towbin.
Having refereed at the highest level, nowadays people look to me, at the age of 41, to provide that role model myself, and I’m very involved in Maryland and Jersey in bringing through younger referees. I consistently communicate with referees far and wide as a mentor, in fact.
The thing is, you don’t even realise there’s any kind of transition under way until long after it’s taken place! For example, I still felt like a rookie, or novice as you might call it, for four or five years of the MLS, and it honestly seems like it’s only in the blink of an eye that you’ve become a senior referee yourself…
It’s also partly because of an expanding league and the constant sense of the addition every year of new teams with new players, that lent my experience an unfamiliar component, so I felt relatively new for the longest time.
You can’t afford any sense of complacency either, and although I’ve never stopped working hard, there is a slight difference between keeping yourself on your toes as a veteran and the homework you undertake when you feel you are still trying to prove yourself.
When people ask me about preparation, there is nothing unusual in my routine. I used to have so many pre-match superstitions I felt they were consuming me, but I cut them all out. Now that’s all over with, it basically amounts to watching games to learn the styles of the players you are going to be refereeing throughout the season.
Obviously, nothing can replace the experience of being out there, but observing their interaction, I find, does help enormously with your game management. Each player requires different treatment, something again I’m fortunate to have already taken on board in the course of 17 years of teaching! So you try things out that you’ve planned beforehand in a game situation and, if it works, you go ahead and add it to your box of tricks, so to speak.
My team, or crew, has consisted for many seasons of fellow American Sean Hurd and the Canadian Joe Fletcher, who you may recall from an incident in the tunnel at the Maracana during the 2014 World Cup. More on that incident in a future column!
I owe a lot to my crew, and our body language is a big part of our success. Any doubts can be conveyed by a simple glance and they have also come to learn precisely when I do need help and when I don’t. Together we have come a long way.