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Major League Soccer referees picket in Dallas as season opens with non-union replacements

Chris Penso, a referee for Major League Soccer, pickets with other Professional Soccer Referees Association members in Dallas on Feb. 21, 2024.
Toluwani Osibamowo
Chris Penso, a referee for Major League Soccer, pickets with other Professional Soccer Referees Association members in Dallas on Feb. 21, 2024.

Major League Soccer referees picketed outside a Dallas hotel Wednesday to protest a lockout imposed by their training organization ahead of the 2024 season.

More than a dozen members of the Professional Soccer Referees Association and supporters gathered outside the Hilton Dallas Lincoln Centre Hotel, where inside, some Professional Referee Organization staff led a training for non-union referees to officiate upcoming MLS games.

PSRA, a union representing soccer referees across the United States and Canada, announced Saturday the union's members rejected a tentative agreement with PRO, which employs referees for Major League Soccer and other professional sports leagues. PRO announced that same day it would lock out union-member officials from the 2024 season.

"We have continued to see an incredible growth within Major League Soccer, and we feel that that growth should include us," fifth-year MLS referee Rosendo Mendoza said at Wednesday’s picket.

The picket came ahead of the first game of the 2024 MLS season Wednesday night, in which Inter Miami defeated Real Salt Lake 2-0.

FC Dallas opens its season at Toyota Stadium Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes.

PRO said the proposed five-year contract would have offered union members increases in salary and match fees, first- or business-class air travel for playoffs, the MLS Cup and Decision Day in 2027 and 2028 and additional health care benefits.

In a statement Saturday, MLS executive vice president of sporting product and competition Nelson Rodríguez said it was “extremely disappointing” that union members rejected the tentative deal.

"PRO worked for months and addressed all the issues that were raised by PSRA’s bargaining unit," the statement reads. "It is also unfortunate that the PSRA rejected PRO’s offer for a mutual no strike - no lockout commitment, which would have allowed all match officials to continue working during ongoing negotiations."

But union leadership said the proposed changes likely fell short of members’ expectations and lacked necessary quality of life improvements. The union also said it rejected PRO's "eleventh-hour" no-strike and no-lockout deal that would have frozen referees' wages at 2019 levels, rolled back job security provisions and had no increased workload or travel considerations.

More eyes have been on the league since Lionel Messi signed a multi-million dollar contract with Inter Miami last year, coming off the Argentina national soccer team’s 2022 World Cup win in Qatar. North Texas has garnered more attention in the soccer world in recent months, too. Though Arlington won't be home to the 2026 FIFA World Cup final, AT&T Stadium will still host nine matches.

The league employed replacement referees during another lockout nearly 10 years ago. Union secretary Chris Penso said being barred from the game they love is tough for referees.

“We want to be on the field. We live to be on the field, and there's nothing we want more to get back out there,” Penso said. “But at the same time, our membership expects fair compensation and, you know, decent living conditions, whether that's travel, medical benefits.”

Penso didn't give a timeline for how long the lockout could last, but he said PSRA is willing to get back to the negotiating table as soon as possible. A PRO spokesperson said the two groups’ legal counsel will meet to discuss further negotiations, but the organization’s focus now is on preparing for opening week.

PSRA members working in MLS have been working under a contract ratified in 2019 that expired last month, according to a union statement. PSRA said members also voted twice for contract extensions in order to have more time for bargaining to reach a ratifiable agreement, but those extensions expired Feb. 12.

Jeffrey Greeson, an assistant referee who also works as a software engineer, said he was part of PSRA during its previous round of contract negotiations. He said union referees have shown a growing unity in the past few months, and they weren’t as prepared five years ago to fight for the contract terms they wanted.

“It's (an) honor to stand here with my brothers and sisters in solidarity,” he said. “And the fact that these people have dedicated a lot of time and resources to come here and stay here, (I) can only be, you know, very thankful for that.”

While Greeson said he doesn't want to see any referee do poorly, he worries non-union referees won’t bring the same skill as union members who have trained with PRO for years, and who he says have sacrificed and dedicated more to the sport.

“So, we're here to fight to make sure that that is completely and fairly recognized, instead of taking advantage of our passion of soccer, and just being a part of the game is not enough for us,” he said.

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Toluwani Osibamowo