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Analysis: Flawed officiating system continues to plague HS soccer

A hard fought first-round playoff 4A Boys match between Plum and Upper St. Clair was pushed into overtime on Saturday afternoon, with both teams battling for the golden goal.

On a narrow field, with both teams loading up the box, and countering back-and-forth, this was a typical, fairly even high school match that would be decided on one big play or mistake for either side.

Or a glaring mistake by a three-man officiating crew — using an archaic three-whistle system with no true linesman.

And that’s exactly what happened.  I’ll get to that in a bit, but let me set the stage first, as it was a pretty good game between Upper St. Clair and Plum.

Upper St. Clair were the slightly better side, but Plum had its moments of possession and chances.

The Panthers took a 1-0 lead in the first half in the game’s 24th minute, after John Gordley’s shot on frame from distance was saved by Plum keeper Gavin Ekiert, but sophomore Aidan Gordley beat a pair of Mustangs to the rebound.

Upper St. Clair was doing a good job in limiting Plum’s attack to passes around the box, a few through balls to try to get past a strong back line and some shots from distance, like Callan Scharba‘s strike from 25 yards that sailed only a couple of feet over the cross bar with 11:30 left in regulation.

While the players were clearly putting in a great effort on both sides to win the game, it was the officiating throughout that was hard to watch. In numerous instances, the officials, who lacked proper fitness, and only able to move subtly enough but struggling to keep up with play, were missing all kinds of calls.

There were at least three instances where they blew the whistle to assess a foul or card, instead of letting the team that had ‘advantage’ to play out its possession. The officials that were positioned on the sidelines, but not linesman appeared to be in the way of players and were slow to react when action came in their direction. Often times, the two sideline officials were behind the play, instead of being in the line of the ball.

Let me make this clear to the soccer knowledgeable readers: these side officials are not linesman. They don’t carry a flag. They’re simply additional referees on the field.

Instead, when they make an offside call, they blow the whistle, and give us the old-fashioned, American football ‘offsides’ position.

You know what I am talking about, kind of like this…
Finally, with minutes ticking away late in the contest, Plum’s Jordan Floyd received a pass 35 yards out from goal, and he had plenty of room to shoot. Instead of playing yet another through ball into the stifling USC back line, Floyd boomed a shot that sailed over the USC back line — and bent into the right corner.

The goal set off a celebration — and Plum was right back in it.

The teams would go beyond eighty minutes of regulation — and late in the first 15 minute overtime period — it was Upper St. Clair bringing the pressure to Plum.

The Panthers best chance came on a well delivered free kick to the far post area, which a few unmarked players in black USC jerseys missed connecting on chances to hit the golden goal.
With Upper St. Clair pushed back out to the midfield, but keeping possession, they came forward again, this time junior Ben Burlovic sent a diagonal ball through the tight Plum back line.

Senior Christopher Lloyd clearly got behind the Mustangs defenders — and took a few touches, and had to dart to his left to avoid Ekiert who had to come off his line to prevent a shot. Lloyd then delivered a shot into an open goal as a few Mustang defenders desperately tried to race back to make a lunging save.

My immediate reaction when the pass from Burlovic found Lloyd?

He was offside.

Then saying to myself, why are they still playing on?

There was little doubt on this one. Of course, I didn’t have the best angle, but the USC forward had clearly slipped about two or three feet behind the Plum back line — and was in a clear advantage to score the game winning goal entering the box with only the goalkeeper, who came off his line.

The lower official on the sideline (again, not a linesman, and didn’t have a flag to alert the center ref) was about five feet behind the play, so he wasn’t in the precise spot he should have been to make the call. Still, I was up in the press box toward the center of the field, and not on the line either, but it was one of those very obvious offside calls you can pick out a mile away.
The three men in stripes came together after the goal was scored while the Upper St. Clair players were celebrating, and it would hold up.

Look, the way the match was going, Upper St. Clair had clearly was having its way late in the overtime period, and appeared on the verge of getting the game winner. Regardless, would have been nice for the match to not have been decided on such a poor non-call.

There’s no doubt that human error can happen, and officials are prone to make mistakes.
Offside calls will always be one of the greatest challenges in the beautiful game.

Watching the officiating at Plum on Saturday reinforced something that I’ve been saying for years. The two whistle and three whistle system still used at the high school level, despite its best intentions to help slower and unfit officials to keep up with the game, is ultimately a flawed system.

What’s most common, especially during the regular season games is a two refs system, which they move in somewhat similar positions to where the AR would be in a game officiated in the diagonal system of control.

Quite frankly, this is an oversimplification, though, as the ref need not be exactly on the touchline in most situations (like the AR is positioned by the touchline throughout the game) and is not always in line with the second-to-last defender.

Then, come playoff time, they throw a third official (with a whistle) into the mix.

But even with the three officials to make it right, don’t serve as linesman and don’t officiate the games using the system that is used everywhere else in the world. The supporting, side officials still can blow the whistle, and they remain on the field, albeit, they’re off to the side a bit. It’s almost like they’re in no man’s land.

In addition, many of our best soccer officials are not officiating high school games, what instead we have, in Pennsylvania, are officials who simply have to pass a written test.
That’s it. Pass a written test, and you’re on the field, officiating games.

Don’t believe me, just go to the PIAA web page, and see for yourself.

Many of these officials have been doing it a very long time, and lets face it, they’re older guys who are not exactly in peak fitness. And, not to be too stereotypical, but they’re pretty set in their ways of seeing the games in front of them.

Yes, I’ll say it. We have too many Grandpa Simpsons still reffing these games.

Many are also basketball, lacrosse and volleyball officials too.

Look, the standards and level of scrutiny are getting greater now in soccer because the level of play is far exceeding the competence of the officiating.

When talking with a lot of coaches, especially the ones that coach at the club and youth levels, where the traditional center assigned referee works with two linesman, they often have become so numb to working with poor high school officiating, that they have to simply shrug it off.
Kind of like Plum’s assistant coach, Raf Kolankowski, who clearly wasn’t happy after the match, but got philosophical with me yesterday after the match, “That’s high school officiating for you.”

So, if you see bad officiating in the next few weeks, and chances are that you will, what you can all do is demand better. It might not even be wholly fair to take it out on these poor guys trying to do their jobs. They probably don’t know better.

Share this article and send your feedback to the proper channels.

And my advice to parents — keep it cool. Please, please, please — keep it cool.

The officials are going to make mistakes. Let the coaches deal with it. Just support your kids, and leave that between the coaches and officials.

Maybe more pressure needs to be put on PIAA, and even further the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).  There are other states that use a traditional center ref, and two linesman, but Pennsylvania, remains behind the times.

Finally, I believe there are many good officials at this level, and even the ones that are mistake prone, and don’t understand the game, need to at least be officiating the game in the proper system.

Change the system, and things will get better.

Otherwise, this will continue to be a persisting problem for the game we love.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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