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MLS refs to return as lockout ends

Union representing MLS referees agreed to approve a new collective bargaining agreement, with experienced MLS refs now set to return to action this weekend.

The 'real' MLS refs are coming back, like Marcos de Oliveira and this crew. Photo: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

The months-long labor dispute between MLS and its experienced referees has finally been resolved.

According to The Athletic, members of the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) officially voted in favor of adopting a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, meaning the league and its officials now have a labor pact in place through the 2030 season.

MLS has been using replacement officials since the 2024 season began, with the league and its owned-and-operated ref intermediary, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), unable to agree to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the PSRA, the union that represents the refs.

The old CBA between PRO and PSRA (acronym soup, it's delicious) expired on January 15. Talks continued after its expiry, and PSRA members had a new CBA presented to them for a vote in mid-February, but overwhelmingly rejected it. 95.8% of PSRA members voted "no" to that mid-February proposal, leading PRO to officially lock out its PSRA refs on February 17.

On Friday, New York City FC radio broadcaster Glenn Crooks first reported that PSRA had reached another new tentative agreement with PRO on an agreement that would end the ref work stoppage—but that agreement was still pending a vote of approval from PSRA members, the same group that overwhelmingly rejected the previous CBA proposal.

What the refs gained

The disagreements between PRO and the PSRA hinged on referee compensation and travel, with the ref union looking for across-the-board pay increases and improvements to travel and accommodation policies for its officials.

The piece from The Athletic breaking the news (subscription required, but worthwhile) includes some details on the new CBA, which looks to include pay improvements for PSRA referees and assistant referees of every experience level, while also making increases and improvements to MLS match fee payouts and travel policies for PSRA members.

Reports from both The Athletic and ESPN first indicated that the usual, non-replacement MLS officials would be back in charge of matches as soon as this weekend.

Almost immediately after the publication of this article, MLS shared this statement confirming thr new CBA, which also says in part, "We look forward to having the PRO match officials return this weekend, and we thank MLS players, coaches, and clubs for their professionalism, and our fans for their support throughout the opening month of the season."

PSRA has also released a statement on the CBA deal, saying in part that it has "won much-needed improvements while demonstrating the value of having the best referees in Major League Soccer on the pitch."

So long, 'replacement refs'

MLS refs returning to work mercifully will end a "replacement ref" era that brimmed with controversies. Those controversies included things like a replacement ref needing to be pulled off a match because public photos were shared of said ref in a pink Inter Miami CF jersey–on the same day he was to oversee one of Inter Miami's matches.

There was also a significant uptick of VAR use while the non-PSRA refs were in charge, something the referee union was quick to point out as part of its war of words with MLS and PRO.

The replacement refs brought with them some controversial decisions and handling of matches. The first one that comes to mind is this weekend's bizarre first half between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew, which managed to go down as "the longest first half in MLS history" because there were 16 minutes of stoppage time added due to a controversial red card decision against Columbus's Derrick Jones, a goal disallowed by VAR, and yellow cards aplenty.

The mess in Charlotte came a week after CF Montréal head coach Laurent Courtois said “Something was taken away from my guys" after his Montréal squad lost a hugely controversial match away to the Chicago Fire, one that included 22 added minutes combined at the end of each half, one of several MLS players and coaches who seemed to reach their breaking point while working alongside the "replacement refs."

The league seemed willing to ride out the lockout for as long as it took, with Don Garber publicly praising the work of the replacement refs, but MLS also could not have liked seeing and hearing more and more chatter among fans, pundits, and league personnel about issues with the non-PSRA officials.

That chatter should dissipate now that the league's most seasoned match officials are returning to work, with better pay and travel accommodations codified in a new years-long agreement.