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Benefield: Young referee on the rise keeps a cool head, helps others do the same

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In an avocation that is increasingly marred by adults behaving badly, 18-year-old soccer referee Adofo Membrila is quickly learning tricks to ease on-field tensions. When addressing an upset coach, Membrila, a recent El Molino High grad, uses their name and doesn’t simply call them “Coach.” When speaking with players, he doesn’t gesticulate and makes sure his hands remain within the square of his chest. He reminds himself to smile.

And sometimes, he just flat-out buys time to let heads cool.

Once, when reffing a men’s under-19 game, things were getting out of hand. At one point, Membrila sounded his whistle and called for a noticeably aggressive player to come to him. Instead of pulling a yellow caution card from his pocket, which might have incited even more aggression, Membrila positioned himself side-by-side the player, pulled out a notebook and began to write. Or so it seemed.

“I was just pretending I was writing,” he said. What he was really doing was pushing the pause button to let all 22 players on the field, as well as everyone on the sidelines, take it down a notch. As he “wrote,” he talked to the player who seemed at the center of some particularly questionable tackles.

“You have to be calm,” he said. “You have to sympathize with them. I say, ‘Let’s keep playing, yeah? I don’t want to send you off. Let’s keep playing.’”

“The body language that I used was side-to-side,” he said. “Talking side-to-side, you talk as colleagues. If you talk to a person like you are confronting them, they get pissed.”

Membrila has the on-field officiating strategies of a seasoned pro, but the enthusiasm of a relative newbie. Despite his youth, he’s getting noticed by soccer officials who are keen to pull him up the ladder to more high-profile games and showcases.

Since spring, he’s been summoned to Idaho and Colorado, and on Wednesday, he and Windsor High School student and ref Oscar Gullen, 15, left for a top-tier Elite Club National League tournament in San Diego. He officiates games, he gets assessed and he goes through extensive training and debriefings.

“I was just in Idaho for national championships for youth soccer. I was assessed by four FIFA referees and it went really well,” he said.

He’s played soccer his whole life, but he took up officiating games when he was 12. He immediately got the bug. And according to Ezequiel Molina, a national-rated referee who assigns referees for Santa Rosa United and works as a mentor for Molina and other young, aspiring officials, Membrila has made huge strides in the nuances of the job.

“He has improved so much,” Molina said. “He always listens. He was willing to learn.”

And some strides are literal. Membrila is fast. And he’s also got a natural feel for the game. And he finds a way to combine the two.

“That captured my attention,” Molina said.

“As a referee it’s not about running fast, it’s not about running a distance — it’s about finding the right angle,” he said.

At this level, there is not Video Assistant Referee (thank God), so a ref has to see it to call it. And that takes an understanding of the game — how it flows and where players are likely to move themselves and the ball.

But Membrila talks a lot about not only understanding the flow of the game, but the mentality of players.

“I know what it’s like to be fouled,” he said. “Players get really hurt.”

Membrila said he talks throughout the game, especially to players who seem to be riding the fine line between playing a physical game and a dangerous one.

“My referee (mentor) always says, ‘A good referee marks a foul, but a great referee prevents a foul,’” he said.

And a huge piece of officiating at this point is dealing with both the action on the field and the nonsense off of it. The loudmouth coaches, the vulgar fans, the obnoxious parents — they are an element that officials have to deal with in increasing measure. Membrila said that learning to handle that part of the game has had perhaps the steepest learning curve.

In a 2017 survey conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials, 57% of the 17,000 respondents reported having to break up a fight and slightly less than half said they had felt unsafe or feared for their safety on the job because of bad behavior. Thirteen percent of those who responded said they had been the target of physical assault.

Who causes the problems with sportsmanship? Referees responded that parents are the problem 39% of the time, coaches are the cause 29%, fans 18% and players 10%.

And this will surprise no one who has attended a youth or high school sporting event lately — 57% of referees said sportsmanship is getting worse, not better.

No wonder people are leaving the gig in droves.

In the high school officiating ranks alone, 80% of officials quit before their third year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Membrila was officiating a game three years ago when parents from opposing squads seemed like they were about to square off.

“I said, ‘Please, please, just have some class.’ And they just stared at me. It was kind of funny,” he said. It was as if they didn’t understand the concept of class.

“From there, they walked away …and we kept playing.”

But, as these things do, the argument kept going. The police were eventually called — to a youth soccer game.

“I learned. I used to care about what people said,” he said. “People say these little things. And I’m like, ‘I have heard so much worse.’

“It really doesn’t affect me anymore.”

In August he’ll head to San Francisco State, where he is planning to study international marking and business management. He’ll also focus on officiating top-caliber adult league games and hopes to get some semipro assignments. His goal? He wants to be a professional FIFA official.

Molina said the journey to become a professional official is not unlike the one to become a professional player — it’s competitive, it’s rigorous and it’s loaded with pitfalls and setbacks.

Membrila is all in. He said a big piece of his evolution as a referee has been to allow himself to make mistakes, learn from them and move on.

“If I make a mistake, I’m sorry. I thought it was a foul,” he said. “Accepting mistakes has made me a much better referee … we are not perfect.”

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