Friday’s meeting with Panama represents the biggest match the United States men’s soccer team has played in years. If the Americans don’t at least tie Panama, any hope of an automatic qualification to the 2018 World Cup disappears, and the USMNT will either have to survive a playoff with the fifth-place team from Asia or miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
In such a crucial match, even the smallest detail can be critical. However, the style of the referee is anything but a small detail. Given that the referee affects everything from game flow to the amount of time the match ultimately takes, the identity of the man with the whistle is often a critical part of the match. That’s one of the main reasons that FIFA requires the official to come from a neutral country in all competitive matches.
Roberto Garcia of Mexico will be the man in charge of the match when the Americans and the Panamanians take the pitch on Friday night in Orlando, Fla. He’s a 42-year-old from Mexico City who is no stranger to the international stage.
Here are five things you need to know about Garcia.
1. He’s Been On Big Stages
At the Copa America, the championship of South America, each participating nation selects at least one referee from its country to work matches during the tournament. In each of the past two Copa Americas, Mexico has chosen Garcia as its head referee. In the most recent edition in 2016, Garcia ended up working in a quarterfinal match, a 4-1 Argentina victory over Venezuela.
The fact that he was working a quarterfinal in such a major tournament speaks to how well-respected Garcia is in Mexico. So does the fact that in 2013, he was chosen to officiate the final of the U-20 World Cup between France and Uruguay, the second time that he’s been selected to work a final for a major international tournament following the 2011 U-17 World Cup. He’s also officiated in the FIFA Club World Cup, an international tournament matching the champions of each of the six continental confederations.
In short, he’s not going to be intimidated by the moment. He’s been here before many times, and he knows how to handle an important match.
2. He Knows Both Teams Well
Nothing that the United States or Panama does on Friday will surprise Garcia, because he’s seen them against each other twice before. In 2015, Garcia officiated all three of the United States’ group stage matches at the Gold Cup, including a draw with Panama. He’s even seen the teams play a World Cup qualifying match before, as he was in charge when the USMNT defeated Panama in 2013 in Seattle.
Overall, the United States has been moderately successful in matches involving Garcia, winning three times, drawing once and losing once. However, one positive for Panama is that all of its players should easily remember Garcia’s officiating style from their June match against Honduras, which ended in a draw that Panama secured with a goal in the 90th minute.
If not for an injury he suffered at the Club World Cup in December 2016, he’d be even more familiar with the squads. When Panama hosted the U.S. in March, Garcia was slated as the referee. However, he tore a muscle officiating a quarterfinal match in Japan, forcing FIFA to replace him for the USMNT’s 1-1 draw with Panama.
3. He’s Also Hoping to Make The World Cup
Just like the teams, Garcia also has the World Cup as his pinnacle. For all of his success, he’s never managed to make it to soccer’s ultimate tournament. Each confederation only sends a handful of referees to the World Cup and rarely does a country get more than two referee spots from its confederation. For the past three World Cup cycles, Garcia has found himself blocked by veteran officials Benito Archundia and Marco Rodriguez.
However, Archundia retired in 2011 and Rodriguez followed after officiating Germany’s World Cup semifinal win over Brazil. With neither of them around to take Mexico’s spot, a strong performance from Garcia in this match might secure his own trip to Russia in the summer. Should that happen, he probably wouldn’t be seeing either the U.S. or Panama in Russia. At the World Cup, FIFA elects to assign referees from a neutral confederation, meaning that if Garcia makes it, he’ll likely be officiating matchups involving European, Asian, African or South American teams.
4. He Doesn’t Hesitate to Throw the Book
Garcia is not what most soccer fans would call a lenient referee. When he’s challenged by players and forced to take control of the match to put a stop to shenanigans, he has no problem asserting his authority with a card.
During his career, he’s averaged 4.5 yellow cards per match, with the majority of those bookings coming in matches in Liga MX, the Mexican domestic league. In World Cup qualifiers, he’s been a little slower to pull out the cards, but not by much. He’s given out 23 yellow cards in seven matches, an average of 3.28, and he’s never given a red card in a qualifier.
However, if he displays the same style he did in his most recent match, both teams will need to be careful. Last week in a match between Toluca and Club America, Garcia handed out 11 yellow cards and a red by the time the final whistle had blown.
5. He’s Given Yellow Cards to Neymar and Lionel Messi
The mark of a good official is a willingness to stand up to star players. When a superstar such as Cristiano Ronaldo knows he can intimidate an official into giving him a call, he won’t stop trying to manipulate the referee until the match is over. With Garcia, that shouldn’t be an issue.
In 2015, Brazilian star Neymar attempted to gain some space on his free kick attempt by removing some of the vanishing spray Garcia had used to mark the free kick area with his hands. Garcia wasn’t pleased and showed Neymar a yellow card.
He also had no qualms showing a yellow card to Messi and didn’t give in to the Argentinian’s complaints about physical play when he officiated a match involving Colombia and Argentina. According to Messi, Garcia simply told him that the game is more physical in South America than it was in Europe and he wasn’t going to be calling a foul for what he considered a minor offense.
This is an official who knows the international game and isn’t going to let either team wrest control of the game from him. He’s not going to be intimidated by anything, and both teams would be wise not to test him.