MLS commissioner Don Garber says league is prepared to deal with referee lockout

Guido Gonzales, centre, Major League Soccer (MLS) professional referee, picket with other referees and supporters outside MLS headquarters, after MLS implemented a lockout against referees following their rejection of a contract offer, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in New York. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lionel Messi’s first full season in Major League Soccer started with replacement officials Wednesday when Inter Miami played host to Real Salt Lake, and Commissioner Don Garber said the league is not sure what will happen next.

The Professional Soccer Referees Association picketed in New York and Dallas on Wednesday, less than a week after the organization overwhelmingly rejected a tentative agreement with the Professional Referee Organization — which supplies match officials to MLS, the NWSL and other leagues.

“I can’t remember, in my 40 years in sports, of having a bargaining unit reach an agreement and not have their members support it,” Garber said. “Very disappointing.”

Garber said MLS remains hopeful that an agreement is struck, and said he was left to wonder if the rejection of the deal suggests “a disconnect between the members and their elected negotiators.”

“It almost seems as if this was intentional,” Garber said. “I don’t know how you get to a point where there’s a work stoppage and not know what it is that you’re disagreeing about. That’s frustrating. I imagine it’s frustrating for fans. It’s certainly frustrating for us, but we’ll see how it plays out.

“I will tell you that we are very prepared and are more than willing to manage this in a way that’s in the best interest of our players, our teams, the best interest of our fans.”

Earlier Wednesday, MLS — citing the labor issue — said it would postpone implementation of new rules and procedures regarding timed substitutions, off-field treatment and plans to make in-stadium announcements when VAR is utilized.

PRO locked out the union on Sunday. The PSRA said the tentative agreement lacked a sufficient economic package and quality-of-life improvements.

Cristian Campo Hernandez, who worked some MLS Next Pro and USL Championship games last season — as well as some women’s college soccer matches last fall — was the referee Wednesday night.

“The solidarity and support we’re receiving from so many in #MLS is truly amazing,” the PSRA wrote on social media Wednesday. “Not only in Dallas and NYC today at our pickets, but all around the league. We thank you for your support and we look forward to seeing everyone in the stadiums soon.”

MLS previously said PRO’s proposal for wages, benefits and travel was a 25% improvement from last year.

PRO said the tentative five-year agreement included guaranteed pay increases this year of 10-33% for referees, 75-104% raises for assistant referees and 15-100% for video match officials along with increased match fees. Salaries and match fees would have increased 7% in 2027 and 3% in other years.

It’s not the first time MLS has needed replacement officials. They were also used in the first two weeks of its 2014 season before the sides reached a five-year contract after the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service entered talks.

There has been no announcement of any scheduled meetings to resume talks.

“I’m sitting here today with officials who I am confident will do a good job,” Garber said. “Not knowing what it is and how far PRO is apart from the PRSA, and that is just not something that I can say is normal in the bargaining dynamic.”

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