Last month, the New York City FC won the MLS Cup title against the Portland Timbers. Emotions ran high as the championship was bagged in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in extra time. Many big names in Major League Soccer put their pedal to the medal at Providence Park that night. It just so happens that PRO referee and USA Cup veteran Fotis Bazakos was running alongside them.
With the news of his assignment to the MLS championship, we asked Bazakos a few questions about his experience as a lifelong referee before the big game.
Bazakos found his passion for refereeing by watching his father, Mike Bazakos, and uncle, Chris Georgopoulos, on the field. “They found themselves involved in the growth of the referee program in Minnesota, and my brother Elias and I were accustomed to watching them teach clinics on the weekends, all over the state,” said Bazakos. The Bazakos evolved into a family of officials, with each of them going on to referee at various levels of play.
After registering with US Soccer in 1988, Fotis officiated the USA Cup the same year. “Those early years of USA Cup, working games with my brother and my dad, created a lifetime of memory,” Bazkos noted. Since then, Bazakos has refereed numerous USA Cup tournaments—so many that he has lost count.
Bazakos’ childhood job launched his professional journey to the MLS Cup. Even with decades of experience in the neon shirt, he was quick to recognize how much the assignment meant to him. “This really is one of those opportunities that doesn’t come up often in life. A lot of things have to go right, for a long time, in order to be appointed to this match. I’m proud to be working with this crew whose selection is a reflection of their quality and the rest of our peers,” Bazakos said. “Every career has its ups and downs. As Alfred Kleinaitis would put it, sometimes the ball bounces your way, sometimes it doesn’t. I have been a US Soccer referee for over 30 years and in MLS for 10 years. All the effort and cumulative ups and downs, get reflected in this moment. At this moment, the ball is bouncing my way, and I can enjoy that.”
Whether it be a professional game inside a multimillion-dollar stadium or a peewee tournament, the yellow shirt holds the same authority. At the same time, both positions are notoriously underappreciated. On any given day, referees make split second decisions pursuant to a game’s precise rules, all the while keeping pace with players and dealing with unruly heckles from the sidelines. The position requires exceptionally strong character, conflict resolution, and decisiveness. Bazakos asserted that the uniqueness of this challenge is his favorite part of the job, adding “I haven’t really come across anything else in life that simultaneously requires everything I’ve got physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
When asked what advice he would give to an official starting out, Bazakos stressed the importance of having a mentor that’s appropriate for the level you are at. “You can rely on that person for the challenges you will encounter. When you’re ready for the next level, find your next mentor, and so on. Then be ready to give back to a mentee.”
As fans, we often underestimate the impact of a quality referee on a game. However, the fact of the matter is your team’s skill or fan section’s spirit does not matter if there’s no one to blow the whistle. There is no MLS Cup— or any sanctioned game, championship or not— without those in striped or neon shirts. Officiating requires a special skill set to deliver fans and players unforgettable moments.