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The MLS season is set to begin on Feb. 21 as Inter Miami hosts Real Salt Lake but there will likely be replacement referees to begin the season after the Professional Soccer Referees Association voted against the proposed Collective Bargaining Agreement, which would lead to the Professional Referee Organization locking members of the PRSA out from officiating league matches. There was a tentative agreement between PRO and PRSA's leadership but when it went to a vote among members, it did not pass. 

There are now 66 replacement refs who are set to be used to kick off the campaign next week, according to The Athletic. PRO has received a commitment of 66 officials with 26 of those being eligible as center referee or fourth official and 29 as assistant referee, the report states. 

"It's extremely disappointing that the officials have voted against the tentative agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement reached by the Professional Soccer Referees Association and the Professional Referee Organization," MLS Executive Vice President of Sporting Product & Competition Nelson Rodríguez said. "PRO worked for months and addressed all the issues that were raised by PSRA's bargaining unit. 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.  

"PRO has informed us of its contingency plan for the upcoming MLS season, which includes utilizing experienced professional match referees supported by veteran VAR officials.  We are confident in the comprehensive plan they have put in place."

In total, 97.8% of eligible PRSA members voted on the proposal with an overwhelming 95.8% voting not to ratify the agreement between PRO and PRSA leadership. In a statement released by the PRSA, executive leadership believed that PRO's economic package fell short of expectations while also lacking appropriate quality of life improvements. PRSA's current agreement was ratified in 2019 and extended twice before the eventual expiration on Feb. 12 of this year, only nine days before the season is slated to kick off.

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"We live for this game, giving it 100 percent of our dedication, experience, fitness and ability," Peter Manikowski, president and lead negotiator for PSRA, said. "The skyrocketing growth of MLS has significantly increased demands on officials mentally and physically, and as such has increased demands on both our professional and personal time. Our members are asking not only for fair compensation at a time when the league is reporting record growth, but also for the ability to take care of themselves on the road and at home to continue officiating at the highest level that this sport demands."  

This won't be the first time that MLS has started the season with replacement referees as it also happened in 2014. With current PRSA members being familiar with the players in the league and the pace of play along with new rule changes, replacement referees could cause hiccups in the early going when every point will matter for making playoffs in a deep 29-team league.

"This game evolves rapidly and play happens quickly," Manikowski said. "We think replacement officials generally do not have the current experience and level of fitness required to do our jobs. The sport and everyone involved – players, coaches and fans – deserve referees who are the best in North America at knowing the MLS game and its current rules and applications."

This means, as CBS Sports soccer rules expert Christina Unkle points out, these replacement referees will be put into a difficult situation with only a week or two weeks' notice, saying that many haven't trained "at the highest professional level." One of the new rules is that if a player doesn't leave the pitch in 10 seconds after a substitution, the sub can't enter the pitch for a further 60 seconds and without training, that can cause hiccups while learning the standard flow to the game out of the gate.

Key terms of the rejected proposal, which would've been a five-year collective bargaining agreement, are as follows:

  • Increase in guaranteed pay for the first year of the agreement.
  • A 7% increase in 2027 for all salaries and retainers and match fees along with a three percent increase in all other years. The highest mid-contract raise ever offered per PRO
  • First/Business class travel for MLS Cup Playoffs and for Decision Day 2027 and 2028.
  • Enhanced injury continuance, physical therapy reimbursement, employer contributions for reimbursable health care costs, and increased severance.

The PRSA rejected a proposal through the 2024 MLS Cup that was a no-strike/lockout proposal which adds urgency to finding an agreement with seasons beginning one after another all of which would need to be overseen by replacement referees until an agreement with the PRSA is found. 

"Time has been of the essence to conclude a fair deal and move forward together with renewed positivity ahead of our 12th year of supporting the growth of the professional game in the United States and Canada," Mark Geiger,  PRO's general manager said. "We made meaningful progress during recent bargaining, agreeing to fair pay increases, and addressing many of the PSRA's concerns with respect to non-economic items. This represented approximately a 25 percent overall increase over 2023 when comparing salary, retainers, game fees, and benefits plus the addition of business class travel for the MLS Cup Playoffs. The result of the membership vote is disappointing."

While PRO was warned by PRSA leadership that this may be the case with the tentative agreement, it doesn't seem like PRO was prepared for that to happen.