Thomas Seán Purdy details his experience officiating a championship game at the Target USA Cup.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Soccer Journal, distributed by the United Soccer Coaches organization.
Can the safety of young athletes and respect for an opponent co-exist during an intense championship game even when conditions surrounding the game are brutal?
At one time a soccer dad, club team manager and assistant coach, I am now a soccer referee licensed by U.S. Soccer to work amateur games, as well as a soccer grandpa. I served as a referee July 13 through July 17, 2021, at the Target USA Cup tournament. The tournament is held at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota, and is the largest youth soccer tournament in the U.S.
The championship game for the 14-team, U19 Gold group pitted the Twin Cities Fire Soccer Club 02 against the Club Champions League (CCL) United Premiership. The teams are comprised of young women who are about 19 years old. The Twin Cities Fire Soccer Club is based north of Minneapolis-St. Paul while CCL United is headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Because of the pandemic, teams did not have the usual practice and league structures during the preceding year and months. Under return-to-play recommendations, when players practiced they were often required to wear masks, maintain social distancing as well as avoid huddles, high fives, and hugging. To be sure player safety-as well as fair play-have equal importance in youth soccer.
Additionally, many players were on high school teams whose seasons ended just a few weeks before. While this meant that players were in game shape, they didn’t get the benefit of playing together as a tournament-bound club team.
Then there’s the tournament itself. Like a great deal of the United States, temperatures were hot in Minnesota in July. Depending on the time of day and whether the playing surface was grass or artificial turf, field temperatures ranged from the upper 70s to close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Because of a recent lack of rainfall, the grass on several of the fields was brown and sparse and the earth was hard, so natural cushioning was tough to find. Though the grounds crew did their best, there were holes or dips in some places that made running at full speed treacherous for players and referees alike.
From Tuesday through Friday each of the teams played highly competitive games every day. Twin Cities Fire and CCL United Premiership made it through quarterfinals to their respective semifinal games, and they each had to win those on a hot Saturday morning to compete in the championship game later that sweltering afternoon.
Game time for the championship arrived. As I walked toward the teams during their warm-ups, I noticed several players on each team seated on portable benches wearing jerseys but not complete uniforms. Some team members, including a coach, had braces or bandages on their legs and arms.
“As I stood under the canopy slurping from my insulated water bottle, I turned toward the field and saw something surreal.”
In my role as center and head referee, I first checked player passes, the printed roster, and shin guards for Twin Cities Fire. There were a lot of scratches on the roster—injured players that could not compete in the Final.
Then I turned and walked back down the touchline, the sideline where the United team was finishing warm-ups. Before I could reach the team, three coaches—two from United and one from Fire—headed me off.
One of the coaches from United said, “Hey Ref, we talked and we only want to do 30-minute halves. Our team is playing without any substitutes, and Fire only has one.
We hope that’s ok.”
I was definitely surprised, but I understood. I felt a vibe that was becoming stronger.
I replied, “If coaches from both teams agree, that’s fine with me. We’re under a mandatory water break advisory on these turf fields, so I have to call a water break with a running time clock midway through each half. Are you ok with that? It will cut playing time further.”
“We are,” they replied.
“Ok then,” I said.
I checked the roster and player passes of the United players quickly, complimenting and smiling with out-of-uniform players on how they “took one”—an injury—for the team.
I walked toward the field manager’s pop-up canopy where referees complete scorecards and catch some needed water and shade. I told the field manager the coaches only wanted to do 30-minute halves instead of the normal 45 minutes. And, as subtlety as I could, added she should do with that information what she thought was necessary regarding tournament headquarters.
Now for the pre-game ceremony. The referee team walked as a unit along the touchline to mid-field. We organized a coin toss with captains from both teams and we paused to let a team manager take photos. In keeping with a game that was becoming non-traditional but was still of huge importance, I asked the coaches from both teams to join their team captains in the photos.
Players on both teams lined up to the left and right of the referee crew along the touchline for what is called an International or World Cup Walkout. We marched out in two rows to the center circle where the players fanned out so they could wave as their parents and supporters took photos. We did an about-face and waved to the coaches. I called for players to take their respective sides. I blew my whistle and the championship game was on.
I served as assistant coach for my son’s soccer team at this very tournament 18 years before. I felt the significance of the moment surging as I tracked Fire and United players back and forth across the field.
There was a fabulous series of passes, then a shot and Fire had the first goal. United would soon have their own glorious goal minutes later. There were plenty of hard but legal shoulder-to-shoulder challenges for the ball. I called a few fouls of the ordinary variety. Tripping here. Tripping there. None were of the reckless or serious foul-play type that might warrant the higher-level sanctions of yellow cards, red cards and player ejections.
At halftime, as our referee crew walked toward the field manager’s canopy, a tournament official I know approached with a look of concern on his face. “How many minute halves are you doing?” he asked. I told him the coaches agreed on 30-minute halves because they had so few substitutes. He frowned and I told him he could check with the coaches if he wanted.
As I stood under the canopy slurping from my insulated water bottle, I turned toward the field and saw something surreal.
Standing on the field with a bandage wrapped around most of her right hand and up her wrist, a United player received treatment from a team trainer. It looked like the trainer attempted to pop her fingers back into place as the player alternately laughed and winced. She took halting strides down the field with the trainer in tow to distract herself from the pain. Amazing.
The second half built on the urgency of the first half. The players challenged each other for the ball skillfully and forcefully using shoulders and legs. They adjusted their runs to counter the positions of opposing players, booted sharp passes across the field and lifted passes over the heads of opponents in easy arcs to switch the directions of attacks.
Soon after an offensive attack where a goal eluded them, Fire converted a series of passes and bursts of speed for a second goal. The score was two to one in favor of Fire.
In the remaining minutes, United tried mightily but failed to secure the goal needed to tie the score. I dutifully blew my whistle in three brief, shrill blasts and the game was over.
The players and coaches of both teams converged at the halfway line as players walked off the field. The mingling of different colored jerseys and voices had the musical notes of both elation and relief. But not defeat.
I heard one of the coaches call out “Let’s get a photo. Both teams!” Another irregularity.
As referees traditionally pose with winning teams at the awards podium for this tournament, I wanted referees to join in the unusual championship snapshot. “Can referees get in the photo?” I asked.
“Sure!” someone answered.
The players and coaches lined up, loosely alternating members of the respective teams in a deliberate and incredible display of unity. Our referee team took to our knees in front of the teams. I asked the parent taking the photo to take one with my smartphone and he obliged.
As we finished taking the joint team photo I became emotional. I just couldn’t help myself. The tournament had been grueling for players and referees. The unusual wisdom, cooperation and sportsmanship of these championship coaches and players on a hot and humid July afternoon were a transformational, transcendent joy to be a part of.
I stood up and turned around to face the teams as players and coaches began to move apart. I started to talk but struggled to get my words out. “I have something to say.” Everyone hesitated.
Choking on tears and emotion I offered the teams the biggest compliment I could manage to get out: “I hope, I hope my granddaughters grow up to be like you.”
Biographical Note: Thomas Seán Purdy is a United States Soccer Federation referee based in Wisconsin. He became a referee in 2006. His referee challenges include youth tournaments and league games across the U.S. He also officiated youth matches in Lisbon, Portugal, and a men’s professional match in Baia Mare, Romania. In addition, he served as team manager and assistant coach for his son’s club soccer team.