Saturday 21 September 2019

Irishman in the middle flying high in the USA

Cork’s Alan Kelly has graduated from officiating in the League of Ireland to presiding over the biggest matches in the evolving world of Major League Soccer. Ahead of the season-ending MLS Cup final, he tells Daniel McDonnell about the transition to a professional lifestyle in an environment that challenges referees on a daily basis

Cork-born MLS referee Alan Kelly. Photo: Getty
Cork-born MLS referee Alan Kelly. Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It will be 1am back home when the MLS season climaxes with a Saturday night showdown between Toronto and Seattle and an Irishman is preparing to take a central role.

His proud father has made the journey across the Atlantic to offer support. Two of his children will be in attendance too. And his employers have forensically mapped out every aspect of his preparation from arrival in Canada on Thursday. Meals, travel, hotels and all the other little details. It's all geared towards peak performance.

But, for Alan Kelly, success will be putting in a display that warrants little mention in the post-mortem aside from inside officiating circles. For the referee, no news headlines equals good news.

Robbie Keane is the most famous Irish export to America but Kelly has quickly become the master of his own field. His appointment for the MLS Cup decider, the keynote fixture of the season, came as no surprise.

For the second year on the trot, the Corkman has been voted as the top official in the expanding league with management, players and supporters contributing to the final vote.


"We get enough flak," said Kelly, speaking ahead of his trip to Canada. "So the award is a nice recognition for the job we do."

Praise is a rarity in his line of work, particularly so during his old life on the League of Ireland beat.

A thick skin is required to succeed and Kelly developed it in a job where that old cliché about only missing the good ones when they are gone springs to mind.

When he announced that he was emigrating, Kelly was taken aback by the amount of nice messages he received from characters that might have called him other names in the heat of battle.

The 41-year-old's initial brief was to work as a training and development manager with the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) but a dispute involving the established MLS referees created a crisis that got him back on the pitch. He has seamlessly adapted to an environment that is totally different to his old patch under a variety of headings.

Moving Stateside has opened his eyes to another way of doing things and the on-field culture is just one of them.

He learned the game in a scene where everybody knew everybody; he was immersed in the league because he grew up watching his father Pat preside over matches. The MLS lacks that familiarity, but the interactions can be more polite.

"From a dissent point of view, it's not as aggressive, let's say," Kelly laughs. "Everything is finished with a 'sir'. I've always been a ref that likes to communicate, to get on with guys and the players know we have a job to do. The coaches are the same way."

From the top of the head, the only comment he can recall which really irked him was a player arguing that Kelly shouldn't have been appointed to any game where Keane was involved because of the Irish link.

In return, he pointed out that the same logic would rule out all the American refs too. He'd never met Keane before.

The theme of harmonious interactions can extend to the supporters too. "I don't think I've ever walked off a League of Ireland pitch and heard people complimenting your performance.

"It's not the done thing," he continues. "Here, there's some places where some people are really respectful for the job you do."

There is a season-ticket holder at LA Galaxy who is always waiting in the same place at full-time. "If you've a good game, he'll tell you and say, 'Well done'," continues Kelly.

"Other times he'll just say, 'Not your best day, not your best day.' The price for his feedback is a red or yellow card as a souvenir. A punter at New England offers the same fair and balanced service.

"It is nice to walk off the pitch and not be met by a whole load of vitriolic comments," he concedes.

The MLS can do hostility, though. Kelly was used to being in charge of sparsely-attended games where he might hear every shout.

Now, he is part of a league where the average turnout exceeds 20,000. In the hours after the 2014 World Cup final, he was tasked with a Seattle-Portland derby that drew a crowd of 64,000. That's a noisy gig.

In many ways, the tasks beyond the white line have turned out to be the smoothest part of relocation. The real changes have occurred in his lifestyle.

Kelly was unsure how it would all work out when he opted to take the leap with his wife Laura and their kids Eva (9) and Aaron (6). They live in Duxbury, a town south of Boston near Cape Cod with warm summers and chilly winters.

Four feet of snow is no longer a novelty. This year will be the first Christmas they spend in the US and with good reason - in October Laura gave birth to their third child Quinn so they have decided against travelling.

Eva took an interest in Donald Trump's election and joked about going into politics until her father pointed out that her baby sister, as a fully-fledged American citizen, is the only clan member eligible for the role.

Laura has a network of friends and they are important because her husband is absent so often because of work duty. For the first time, he is a professional referee.

In America, it's a way of life, an insight into the authorities' determination to bring the sport to another level.


Every morning, whether he's at home, on a trip or even visiting family back in Ireland, Kelly must attach two electrodes that examine his heart rate and brain activity.

That is filtered back to the sports science department of the referees wing that monitor every aspect of an official's preparation.

It is a fast-paced league that demands physical fitness, and Kelly can notice the standard lifting year on year, so all the actors in the show need to improve in tandem with that.

And the other major element that his superiors have to consider is the wide distances covered across the US and Canada which asks a lot of the body.

"I train five days of the week; and we get some time off depending on our schedule.

"The support network is incredible, like nothing I've experienced before. They monitor everything. Our sleep pattern, our eating habits, the impact of travel.

"It's not like home where the referees would get together whenever they could.

"Our referee corps is spread all over the country but every two weeks we get together for a training camp (in Dallas or Salt Lake City) where we go through DVD analysis and other details.

"I leave home on a Wednesday morning, have a training day on Wednesday, a full day on Thursday and then from Friday morning I go from there to the destination for the weekend game. The distances are so vast that every game is like a European trip."

He was in charge of 23 matches this term, which essentially means the guts of 23 weeks away from home.

From his house, there are a handful of destinations that can be accessed by road - New England Revolution, the two New York teams and Philadelphia Union are manageable - but he's mostly racking up the air-miles.

Already, he knows that a January training camp in Pasadena will kick off 2017. The schedule is comparable with that of any player.

He speaks with enthusiasm about the brief, yet it should not be confused with relief that he's escaped Ireland.

His connection with home remains strong and his affection for the league is obvious.

A glance at his Twitter feed shows that he's spent most of the autumn following Dundalk's European exploits from afar. And there are days where he misses the aforementioned Irish aggression.

"There's times where you need somebody to really give you an earful to gee you up a little bit," he chuckles.

What happens next? He continues to have an open mind on his future, even if the continued evolution of the game in the US might suggest that he's landed in the right place at the right time.

One downside of his career move was that it took him off the FIFA roster - he had Champions League and high-level international experience - as he had switched federations from UEFA to CONCACAF.

If he'd stayed on Irish soil, he might have continued to climb that ladder. He doubts that the door will open again.

"I've done my international stuff as far as I'm concerned," he says.

His longer-term ambitions extend to the teaching side of things, the original reason he packed his bags. "I feel I've lot to give in terms of the coaching aspect, the assessing, the mentoring, it's what I want to do," he says.

"What the last three years has given me is a wealth of experience. That's where I see my future. Whether that's here, or somewhere like home, is for other people to decide."

Tonight, in the white-hot atmosphere at the BMO Stadium, all the big decisions rest on him. The responsibility will sit comfortably on his broad shoulders.

Toronto v Seattle, live, Sky Sports 3, tomorrow, 1.0 am

Irish Independent

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