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Geiger's part in U.S. soccer history

BRASILIA, Brazil -- The moment didn't have the atmospherics of Joe Gaetjens in 1950, or Landon Donovan in 2010, or John Brooks two weeks ago. It is entirely possible, in fact, that the fans who knew enough to applaud this milestone could all fit inside the same elevator at the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha.

But when a former award-winning math teacher named Mark Geiger walked out of the tunnel at 12:53 p.m. local time today, into the sunlight, into the screaming embrace of 67,882 fans at France-Nigeria, he made United States soccer history nonetheless.

Until that moment, no American had ever taken the field to referee a match in the knockout stage of the World Cup. No American had ever survived the most brutal gantlet of this tournament that, in all likelihood, most of us have never cared to think about.

"We talk about the USA and the way the team got here, their grueling qualification process," says Peter Walton, a former English Premier League official who now heads the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) of North America. "Referees have an even harder task."

This gantlet began three years ago, as it does before every World Cup, when FIFA's referees' committee surveyed each soccer federation -- CONCACAF oversees the 144,000 registered refs in the United States -- and created a geographically diverse list of the top 50 officials in the world. Geiger, Major League Soccer's 2011 referee of the year, made the cut.

Mark Geiger's calm and composed refereeing has helped him make U.S. soccer history at the World Cup.
Mark Geiger's calm and composed refereeing has helped him make U.S. soccer history at the World Cup.

And from there, the committee assigned him to what amounts to increasingly pressurized test tournaments: from the Under-20 World Cup (he became the only American to ever officiate the final), to the 2012 Olympics in London (where he was one of 16 refs), to the 2013 Club World Cup (where he was one of only six).

Quietly, each match was graded by an independent assessor, who wrote up a narrative summary and assigned a score on a scale of 1 to 10, to one decimal place, for a range of categories. (Scores above an 8.4 are considered beyond satisfactory.) They include, but are not limited to: match control, application of law, positioning, man management, fitness and -- reflecting the importance of the bedside manner of the pitch -- personality.

Geiger, a 39-year-old who taught algebra at Lacey Township High in New Jersey until January 2013, kept passing these tests. And one year to the month after he left teaching, FIFA notified him via an early-morning e-mail that he was one of the 25 referees who'd been selected to work the World Cup. It was the biggest victory for the PRO since its inception in 2012, when U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that they would be jointly governing and funding the project. "The goal," Walton says, "was to make sure our referees were recognized within world soccer as world class by 2022."

Geiger did a reasonable job with France vs. Nigeria although many felt he should have sent Matuidi off.
Geiger did a reasonable job with France vs. Nigeria although many felt he should have sent Matuidi off.

Of course, Geiger's flourishing means that this phase of the U.S. soccer revolution is radically ahead of schedule. It means that PRO's contracting of sports scientists, nutritionists and psychologists to rigorously train top American officials is paying off. It means that the formerly foreign notion of hiring soccer refs full time -- that's why Geiger had left Lacey, despite receiving a Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching from the White House in 2009 -- is all worth it.

"Our refereeing society will get there sooner than perhaps our league will," Walton says of that 2022 target. "Mark and his team have brought my predictions forward." Coming into Brazil, Geiger's 39 international matches were the third-fewest of all the officials in the World Cup -- and 72 fewer than the fabled Howard Webb. Walton can feel Europe's whistle hegemony eroding.


On Monday morning, before Geiger grabbed the World Cup ball off its podium and marched it into the arena, Walton went to congratulate his finest employee in person. In the lobby of their nearby hotel in Brasilia, the Brit hugged Geiger and that aforementioned team of assistants -- an American, Mark Sean Hurd, and a Canadian, Joe Fletcher -- and exchanged good wishes. Conversation, conspicuously, stayed light.

"Like it was just another game," Walton says. "If we start thinking about the stage, or the consequences? We wouldn't referee on a natural basis."

The consequences, obviously, are vast. Last week, ref Ravshan Irmatov ran directly into Jermaine Jones in front of the box, flattening him along with a potential goal-scoring opportunity against Germany. A few days later, Luis Suarez bit an Italian shoulder and received no card of any kind, triggering a planet-wide furor. Then, this weekend, an Arjen Robben tumble won a yellow card and a penalty that helped send Mexico home.

"Today it was the man with the whistle who eliminated us from the World Cup," El Tri's excitable coach, Miguel Herrera, proclaimed to reporters afterward. "I hope they have a look at what happened and that this gentleman goes home just like we are."

It's not been an easy tournament for refs -- see Pedro Proenca, Netherlands-Mexico -- but Geiger has impressed.
It's not been an easy tournament for refs -- see Pedro Proenca, Netherlands-Mexico -- but Geiger has impressed.

And here's the thing: said gentleman probably will. The World Cup isn't just the pinnacle of a career, or an opportunity to fear drinks served to you by the citizens of a particular country for the rest of your life. It is an extension of the meticulously graded, survive-and-advance gantlet -- culminating in the final -- that, in actuality, has only just begun.

Geiger's nomination to work France-Nigeria was proof of the acing of two tests: he'd worked Colombia-Greece and survived to work Spain-Chile. Focusing on him today, during his third and most momentous exam yet, it was easy to see how he pulled that off. He effortlessly sprinted alongside counterattacks, testifying to his fitness. He pirouetted out of the way of abrupt breakaways and preserved his line of vision, testifying to his positioning. And he regularly and subtly touched the lower back of offenders, diplomatically conveying disapproval, testifying to his personality.

The 2-0 French victory was noticeably physical. But Geiger -- whose 3.79 yellow-card per game average ranked among the bottom half of his World Cup peers -- mostly let them play. His crew also disallowed a Nigeria goal, the first score of the match, that proved, indeed, to be offside.

Match 53
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"He had an excellent game," Walton texted me soon after Geiger's whistle blew. "Very pleased with all three officials."

Still, controversy did strike, as it always must. In the 53rd minute, French midfielder Blaise Matuidi nailed the left ankle of Nigerian midfielder Ogenyi Onazi with his cleat. Without hesitation, Geiger unsheathed a yellow. But as Onazi was carried away on a stretcher, replays would show the viciousness of the tackle in slow motion. On Twitter, a host of journalists wondered whether the ref's card should have been a red.

At the postgame press conference, the losing coach, Stephen Keshi, briefly -- albeit far more calmly -- went Herrera. He laid into Geiger. He objected to his disallowed goal, and the unpenalized physicality, and the Matuidi tackle. "I think he was biased," Keshi said into the microphone, and he seemed to believe it.

But that's not for a coach to judge, not officially. And whether FIFA's forthcoming grades validate Geiger or repudiate him, they must still testify to what makes his performance so special. They must still testify that the American was here.

A senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and based in New York. You can watch him every week on TV shows such as Around the Horn, The Sports Reporters and Olbermann. Follow him on Instagram (@pstorre) and Twitter (@PabloTorre).