MLS said it will start its season on Saturday with replacement referees after an impasse between the league's referees and their employer, the Professional Referees Organization, forced a lockout.
MLS and PRO said the lockout of referees belonging to the Professional Soccer Referees Association took effect at 11 a.m. on Friday, according to Steve Taylor, the union’s vice president.
"Although it is regrettable that the Professional Soccer Referees Association rejected PRO’s offer to continue with the current referees while negotiations continue, we have great confidence in the plan for replacement referees that PRO has put in place," said Mark Abbott, MLS president and deputy commissioner.
The two sides have been attempting to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement since last year, but have not been able to agree on a host of economic and non-economic issues.
The lockout appears to be preemptive, in that that union had voted last month 64-1 to authorize its board to call a strike whenever it deemed it to be appropriate.
"As chair of the negotiating committee I am deeply saddened by PRO and Major League Soccer’s decision to lockout its officials in advance of the beginning of what could be a historic MLS season," Taylor said via email.
"PSRA has worked tirelessly to reach an agreement, however we have been met with resistance since the beginning being forced to seek relief from the National Labor Relations Board on charges of bad faith bargaining and management threats against our Officials. Those charges remain pending."
The replacement referees come from a group that includes FIFA referees who have moved to North America from overseas, retired MLS referees, and referees from other professional leagues in the United States. In preparation, PRO said that the replacement referees attended a training camp last week.
The referees for games this weekend are: Alan Kelly, a FIFA referee originally from Ireland; NASL referee Andres Pfefferkorn; former MLS referee Jorge Luna; former MLS referee Abbey Okulaja; former MLS referee Ramon Hernandez; former FIFA referee Ioannis Stavridis from Greece; current FIFA referee Javier Santos from Puerto Rico; and current FIFA referee William Anderson from Puerto Rico. MLS posted the names Friday on its website.
"We have made a substantial proposal to the Professional Soccer Referees Association and believe it is very fair and reasonable," said PRO general manager Peter Walton, an English Premier League referee from 2003-12. "Our proposal represents a significant increase above current compensation for referees and places them above the average for officials around the world. We are disappointed it has been rejected."
PRO said in the 1 1/2 years since its formation, it had increased full-time officials from two to nine and added 11 part-time officials.
"We have high confidence in the qualifications of our replacement officials and can ensure our fans, clubs and players that all games will be officiated at a professional standard that protects the integrity of our matches and the safety of our players," said Walton.
The two sides met earlier this week, and have been in consistent contact with one another since then. Taylor indicated that the PSRA had received PRO’s most recent offer on Wednesday, but following a three-and-a-half hour conference call with its members decided to reject that proposal.
The union also rejected PRO’s offer of a no-strike/no lockout agreement. Taylor estimated that the two sides were about $400,000 apart in terms of economic issues.
A source with knowledge of negotiations said Friday two sides are more than $1 million apart.
Taylor indicated that the union had been seeking the assistance of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the organization that helped broker the CBA that was negotiated back in 2010 between MLS and the MLS Players Union.
"It would appear, unfortunately, the league has decided to employ scorched earth tactics instead," he said.
"We have requested a plethora of information, including financials, that PRO and MLS have refused to provide, instead demanding we take their pleas of poverty at face value," said Lukas Middlebrook, a lawyer for the union.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.