MLS Commissioner Don Garber says league is 'very prepared' to deal with referee lockout

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Messi's first full season in Major League Soccer was beginning with replacement officials Wednesday when Inter Miami played host to Real Salt Lake, and Commissioner Don Garber said the league is not sure what will happen next.

The Professional Soccer Referees Association picketed in New York and Dallas on Wednesday, less than a week after the organization overwhelmingly rejected a tentative agreement with the Professional Referee Organization — which supplies match officials to MLS, the NWSL and other leagues.

Garber said MLS remains hopeful that an agreement is struck, and said he was left to wonder if the rejection of the deal suggests “a disconnect between the members and their elected negotiators.”

“It almost seems as if this was intentional,” Garber said. "I don’t know how you get to a point where there’s a work stoppage and not know what it is that you’re disagreeing about. That’s frustrating. I imagine it’s frustrating for fans. It’s certainly frustrating for us, but we’ll see how it plays out.

“I will tell you that we are very prepared and are more than willing to manage this in a way that’s in the best interest of our players, our teams, the best interest of our fans.”

PRO locked out the union on Sunday. The PSRA said the tentative agreement lacked a sufficient economic package and quality-of-life improvements.

“The solidarity and support we’re receiving from so many in #MLS is truly amazing,” the PSRA wrote on social media Wednesday. “Not only in Dallas and NYC today at our pickets, but all around the league. We thank you for your support and we look forward to seeing everyone in the stadiums soon.”

MLS previously said PRO’s proposal for wages, benefits and travel was a 25% improvement from last year.

PRO said the tentative five-year agreement included guaranteed pay increases this year of 10-33% for referees, 75-104% raises for assistant referees and 15-100% for video match officials along with increased match fees. Salaries and match fees would have increased 7% in 2027 and 3% in other years.

It's not the first time MLS has needed replacement officials. They were also used in the first two weeks of its 2014 season before reaching a five-year contract after the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service entered talks.

There has been no announcement of any scheduled meetings to resume talks.

“I’m sitting here today with officials who I am confident will do a good job,” Garber said. “Not knowing what it is and how far PRO is apart from the PRSA, and that is just not something that I can say is normal in the bargaining dynamic.”

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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press