Airman moonlights as national soccer referee

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt Lindsey Maurice
  • 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
As a young boy growing up in Paraguay, South America, playing soccer came as natural as walking.

So, it's no surprise that Master Sgt. Oscar Ortiz would one day become one of the few U.S. military members to moonlight as a referee for Major League Soccer, the premier soccer league in the United States.

Now in his ninth year refereeing and having worked games in more than 10 major cities across the country, the Air Education and Training Command Technical Training Management System Production chief said he has always had a passion for the sport.

"I started kicking a soccer ball as soon as I could walk," said Sergeant Ortiz. "As far back as I can remember, I played the sport with family and friends."

"I love the simplicity of the game," he said. "It's a game anyone can play -- tall, short, big, small, boy, girl -- it appeals to everyone."

The sergeant said he hadn't always thought of being a soccer referee. His first opportunity came after an injury he suffered while playing on the base team in Misawa, Japan.

"I was sitting out recovering from a knee injury at one of the games when the referee didn't show up," he said. "I hadn't refereed before that, but knew the game well so they let me step in his place."

From there, the sergeant bought a book about refereeing and, before he knew it, was working as a referee for the base's youth soccer league.

"Knowing that my playing days were over, refereeing kept me involved with the game," he said. "As a referee you get to see an entirely different side of the game. There's nothing like it. Your job is to keep the game safe and to keep it fair."

Sergeant Ortiz said his transition into the professional realm didn't come easy. But with dedication and hard work, he earned his status.

The sergeant began his career at the entry-level, working with youth leagues ages 6-10 and progressing to the higher age groups -- up to 19 years old. After gaining some experience, he moved on to get his certification as a state referee working with adult amateur leagues competing at local and state levels.

From there, he earned his certification from the U.S. Soccer Federation to become a national referee working upper-level domestic games (including professional leagues and above.)

In some cases national referees also get to work international matches at lower divisions such as those for under 17-year-old teams from different countries, said the sergeant.

One of his most memorable refereeing experiences came from one of these games.
"Working the Disney Showcase tournament in Orlando refereeing the game between Japan and Spain was one I'll always remember," he said. "Speaking Spanish and having learned some Japanese while stationed in Japan gave me the opportunity to talk with the players in their respective languages. It was a great experience."

According to Sergeant Ortiz, there are more than 140,000 registered referees in the United States. Approximately 350 are certified as national referees having to recertify every year by working at least two professional-level games during the season. Currently there are about 60 referees working in Major League Soccer.

Sergeant Ortiz said he was also privileged to act as the fourth official at an exhibition game between Club Barcelona, Spain, and Club America, one of the top teams in Mexico, last fall in Houston at Reliant Stadium.

In the fourth official capacity he was positioned on the sideline between the two teams' benches working administrative duties including substitutions, checking team rosters and game equipment, and acting as a diplomat between the two teams.

"The feeling of walking out onto the field with 70,000 screaming fans in the stadium was indescribable," he said. "Not to mention being on the same field as some of the best players in the world, some of them having just returned from playing for their countries in the World Cup. It's something I will never forget."

During the soccer season, which runs from April to November, the sergeant said he works anywhere from one to four weekends out of the month, refereeing MLS and United Soccer League (much like a minor baseball league) games.

During the games he can work any of four positions including the official in the center of the field, one of the two sideline officials or the fourth official as he did in the Houston game.

"As long as my legs hold out I plan to do this," said the sergeant. "This sport is a part of me and it always will be."