A refereeing career taught Matthew Foerster how to make difficult calls
Published in 2022 Texas Rising Stars magazine on March 22, 2022
Matthew Foerster began playing soccer at age 7, and picked up refereeing just four years later.
“I’d spend the weekends at the soccer field, playing in the morning and refereeing a few games afterward—or vice versa,” he says. “I did it for fun at first, some money on the side. It was fun being a 12-year-old, getting to tell parents and coaches to focus on the game.”
He continued officiating and playing as his family moved from Pittsburgh to Arkansas, and as he went on to the University of Dallas. Near the close of his collegiate playing career, Foerster was approached by a couple of mentors about climbing the referee ladder.
At Arkansas, where he was getting his J.D., Foerster worked his way through the amateur circuit, traveling for matches in Tennessee, Missouri, Florida or the Carolinas. And it was a nice stress reliever—for example, between his 1L and 2L, when he was trying to write a student note to get onto law review. “I started working on it, but there was the East National Championships in June,” he says. “I basically just said, ‘Uh, I’m not going to worry about this stressful writing thing—I’m going to go spend a week in Florida and referee soccer.’”
In 2009, a year after joining Arnold & Placek in Austin, Foerster made it to the lower professional levels. He felt ready, but those first games were nerve-wracking. “It’s very similar to the kind of anxiety you feel before a big trial,” he says. “You learn how to recognize it, and you learn how to manage it. And every game or trial adds another level of experience and confidence, but you always have a little bit of nerves beforehand.”
Major League Soccer called two years later, and after participating in their camp, Foerster began receiving fourth official assignments and then, later, center referee assignments. Around this time, MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation created the Professional Referee Organization, which gave referees centralized employment contracts and an expectation of regular assignments, among other upgrades. “It was a really cool experience to be one of the first 20 center referees in the PRO for MLS,” Foerster says. “But I was also a practicing lawyer by that time, so it was a very difficult year professionally.”
For his two most-active years, Foerster would finish his workweek by heading to Austin-Bergstrom on Friday afternoons, ref the entire weekend, and fly back Sundays. “Travel became my least favorite part,” he says. “If there’s a summary judgment hearing the following week, it would be a stressful trip.”
Nonetheless, he kept at it until 2014, when the PRO made center refereeing a full-time gig. For Foerster, with a newborn at home, it became an impossible task. “Very few people get the opportunity to make a living being involved in a game they loved playing as a kid. It was very enticing, but there was not enough time in the day to do it all,” he says. “For my long-term professional goals, I wanted to focus on my legal career.”
His most challenging game had come the year before. Salt Lake City had a home match against rival Sporting Kansas City. In the scorching heat, at the start of the match, a KC player served a cross-field ball, and an SLC defender crushed the winger. “I was on the other side of the field, and I didn’t get a good look at it. I honestly wasn’t ready for that kind of major collision that early in the game,” Foerster says. “My assistants didn’t really give me any clear information, so I gave a yellow card. And I’ve seen it back 100 times afterward: It’s a red card every single day of the week. It set the tone for a game … that I just wanted to end from the very first minute.”
Foerster still keeps in touch with his refereeing buddies, and though he’s happy to have both feet in the legal profession, he does miss the locker-room adrenaline rush before matches. He takes the lessons with him, regardless.
“The biggest thing you learn refereeing is a projection of confidence or calmness, even when inside you are uncertain. A difficult game often asks the referee to make a very challenging judgment call, and to sell that decision to 22 players on the field—and maybe a few thousand spectators,” he says. “There are times in litigation where you’ve got to do the same thing. Particularly in a hearing, where somebody says something unexpected, and you’ve got to decide how you’re going to respond to that and convince the judge that you’ve prepared it.”