A year ago, Peter Walton was a well-respected referee in the English Premier League, but after a decade officiating at the top level in Europe, last March he hung up his whistle to step into the unknown and take up a new challenge in North America.
In Walton's first day on the job as general manager of the newly formed Professional Referees Organization (PRO), he had a blank slate to work from. In under a year, he has taken some major steps towards building an organization that supports and develops referees in the United States and Canada.
The end goal is simple. He hopes his organization can help raise the standard of officiating in North America and ensure that, in a few years, Major League Soccer's referees are grouped amongst the best in the world. It's a lofty target, but one which Walton believes is attainable.
This week at Major League Soccer's Broadcast meetings in Arizona, I had the chance to talk in depth with Walton about the progress he has made and the changes that are being introduced for the 2013 MLS season.
"Managing expectations has been a big thing," Walton said. "With any new venture, people expect results straight away. I can get quick wins by looking at fitness levels or recognizing challenges, but it's all about culture. I have to keep owners, fans and media in check about how quickly change can happen."
One of the biggest impacts made by Walton is a big increase in the number of professional (full-time) referees working in MLS. This year, that number will be nine, an increase from just two last season. Those referees will also get together for training camps on 20 occasions throughout the season. That's a massive increase compared to 2012 when they only met together twice all season.
"I inherited a squad of 37 referees of which two were professional. I met with my officials just twice last season. So I needed to look at that quickly," Walton explained. "We will now have 21 referees looking after our games with nine full-time and the others part-time. We have now given them an ability to attend training programs, but also an opportunity to live, breathe and sleep the product.
"We have got twenty training programs in place through the course of the season. Those programs are three-day events where we get together and look at their nutrition, fitness, themes of games and matches coming up in terms of their education. They will speak together, share best practice, become a team, and that can only help."
It seems an obvious step. More professionals, more training sessions and chances to share best practice will lead to better referees. That will play a major part in increasing the standard of officiating in North America and in turn, helping MLS achieve its goal of being one of the world's top leagues be 2022.
It's also about changing the perception of U.S. and Canadian referees around the world as well as at home.
"The game in North America is evolving very quickly, but our referees still have to referee what is in front of them. With the quality of play a little bit higher around the world, my experience is that it makes it easier to referee games when the standard of play is higher. That's because you know where the ball is going, you know what is in the minds of the players and there is a pattern to the game. In MLS, sometimes our referees have to administer cards and discipline just because of the enthusiasm of the player concerned," said Walton.
It's hard not to be impressed by Walton's achievements so far in his first year in North America. Listening to his plans for the future, he seems like the ideal person for this job. He has the experience, but he also is brimming with enthusiasm for the task that lies ahead.
Fans will forever moan about the standard of officiating in games involving their teams. That's just a natural part of sport. But it's great to see that soccer in North America will be able to benefit for years to come thanks to the creation of the Professional Referees Organization.