Corey Rockwell, a Marietta native, has been part of refereeing crews for 297 MLS games, dating to his debut in 2005.
He very much wants to reach 300.
Thanks to grit and technology, whenever the league restarts from its COVID-19 forced hiatus, Rockwell has his flag and whistle on hand to go back to work as an assistant referee.
“If they were to say in two weeks could you be ready to go, I could say, ‘Yes, I’m fit and mentally ready to get back out there,’” he said.
Now residing in Phoenix, where his full-time job took him 14 years ago, Rockwell rises early to avoid the 105-degree temperatures to run approximately six miles a day, either electronic dance music or ’90s grunge powering him around the streets or up a steep hill. He tries to hit 25 miles each week. Rockwell wears a heart-rate monitor that sends information to the Professional Referees Organization and ensure that he is staying physically fit.
To stay mentally fit, Rockwell participates in different video sessions put out by PRO.
For a few hours per week, Rockwell competes against 150 other referees in online quizzes featuring videos of past plays or, in another session featuring the same number of referees, VAR reviews. The referees are asked what they would do in the situation. Some weeks feature handballs, others feature offside, others challenges. Rockwell’s goal, not yet reached, is to finish among the top five.
The videos are sent from obscure tournaments, such as the Nations League in Europe, that most referees probably didn’t see live or see highlights from to avoid giving anyone an unfair advantage.
“A few have been very contentious,” he said. “Half say yellow. Half say red. They are very good clips.”
None of the sessions are mandatory. Rockwell’s dedication has a larger goal: He is 46 years old and very much wants to be selected for a crew for the 2022 World Cup. If asked to work, he would become the second American male referee, joining Mark Geiger, to work in two World Cups.
It almost certainly would be his last one.
Rockwell also works on different presentations asked for by state soccer associations. Putting those together gives him a chance to review his own work.
He points to last year’s Atlanta United game at Portland, when Pity Martinez was fouled but no call was made by Rockwell, as an example of a learning point and chance to help those just coming up in the profession.
“What did I miss? What could we have done different?” Rockwell said. “It was 100 percent a PK.”
Rockwell once was one of those breaking into refereeing. He began officiating games in Powder Springs when he was 16 years old to make money. He enrolled at Georgia Tech, where he played for the club team for two years. Needing money to pay for tuition, he began working as many as 14 high school games per week, sometimes skipping classes to stay involved in the game he loves.
He graduated with a degree in industrial engineering and later earned an MBA from Arizona State.
For now, Rockwell stays prepared and waits.
Only three more MLS games, one more World Cup.
“I think the skills have continued to improve, but nothing beats being on the field and being in game situations,” he said. “That’s what I’m itching to get back for.”