For the love of the game

Soccer: Criticism of officiating in 1987 has led a former coach to become one of the sport's elite officials in the United States.

Howard At Play

May 26, 2002|By Gary Davidson | Gary Davidson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Rob Fereday is not someone who shrinks from a challenge. Take the day in 1987 when, as a youth soccer coach, his sideline criticism of a referee was met with the retort, "If you think you can do better, why don't you join us?"

Fereday thought about it, then traded his clipboard for a whistle.

Since then, coaching in the Glen Burnie Soccer Club and Maryland Olympic Development Program has become a fond memory for Fereday, who recently moved from Elkridge to the Laurel area. For the past decade, he has worked the annual Columbia Invitational Soccer Tournament on Memorial Day weekend, although family affairs are keeping him way from this one.

In 15 years, Fereday - who coached kids in soccer before playing the sport himself for the first time at age 22 - has risen from youth and high school assignments to become one of the elite officials in the United States.

At 40, he is one of 10 Americans designated to work international matches as an assistant referee (formerly called linesmen) by FIFA, soccer's international governing body. He is also a senior assistant referee for Major League Soccer, having worked games as close as Washington and as far away as Los Angeles and San Jose, Calif., since the pro league's 1996 inception.

Officiating, said Fereday, "became almost like a disease. You get into it, you enjoy it, you can't get enough of it. ... I was just having fun being around the sport - and soon it became a drive."

Fereday credits two men with his rise in officiating - Jim Bober, a national-level referee and evaluator of officials from Pasadena in Anne Arundel County, and Baltimore's Paul Tamberino, four-time MLS Referee of the Year.

"He had a good eye, and he diagnoses situations well," said Bober, "and he listened."

Fereday said Bober told him early that he could go far in officiating, if he worked at it.

"Of course, the young kid that I was, my head swelled bigger than anything in the world," Fereday said. He asked Tamberino to mentor him, and they remain not only colleagues but friends.

"His knowledge of the game is pretty wide," said Tamberino, who also held FIFA's referee's assistant status before stepping back in 1999. "Rob relates very well with the players. He has a kind of humor the players relate to. [He] can calm things down with a phrase. He's an honest fellow, too. Players respect when you make a mistake you admit and then get on with it."

Fereday's most controversial call was actually a noncall - in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. A long pass from one Ecuadoran deep in his half of the field to a sprinting teammate at midfield became a breakaway goal that gave the South Americans a late, 1-0 win over the U.S. men's team in August 1997.

As ref's assistant nearest the break-away player, it was Fereday's snap decision that allowed the unusual play to proceed. He decided the breakaway player had been on-side and kept his signal flag down. Despite loud protests from the America bench and many fans who saw the play as being off-side, thus halting it, Fereday said game tape showed his noncall was correct.

Officiating is a second vocation for Fereday, a full-time cost analyst for an aerospace firm. Weekends, and sometimes in midweek, Fereday flies or drives to his MLS matches or, sometimes, international matches. He has worked international games in the United States but has been outside the country only once, to Trinidad.

"I have some very understanding folks that I'm associated with," Fereday said of his primary employer. "The company is absolutely wonderful. They give me the flexibility to take assignments."

His wife, Judy, a cost analyst at a competing aerospace firm where Fereday once worked, also supports his dual careers, he said, adding that e-mail and cell phones are essential to communication for the couple.

To enter the upper echelon of soccer officials, Fereday had to make a difficult decision. Though he prefers being referee - the controlling official in soccer, in middle of the field - he was offered a spot on the FIFA panel as an assistant, which meant being one of two subordinate officials running the sidelines. Accepting that essentially precluded him from ever serving as referee in international and in MLS matches.

"I felt very comfortable with that decision." Fereday said. "I take the assistant referee as being a very important role. ... There's a lot of responsibility and pressure on the assistant referee. I took that as an honor, to be part of any international group."

Fereday does officiate in the middle in A-League games, as well as other pro, college, high school and amateur games - about 100 a year, total.

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