For more than 15 years, Chico Grajeda has been one of the most prominent referees across all levels of soccer in the U.S. A mainstay in the professional and collegiate games, Chico has been a part of 10 NCAA Division 1 College Cups and 3 MLS Cup crews, and arguably has one of the broadest resumes in the business.
Beneath a seemingly gruff exterior lies a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, slightly superstitious referee who happened to find his stride on the field a little later in life than some of his peers. After spending 10 years in the Navy, Chico worked as a nurse manager until becoming a Full-Time Referee with the Professional Referee Organization a few years ago. He began working in MLS in 2002 as a 4th official, but worked only 16 total games as a Referee from 2004 through 2008. Conversely, he’s worked nearly 20 games in the middle each year since, the lone exception being 2015, when he missed most of the season recovering from an injury.
This past weekend in San Jose, Chico worked his 150th regular season game as a Referee in MLS. When you add in his 7 matches as Referee in the MLS Cup playoffs (including the 2013 MLS Cup), 121 regular season games as a 4th official, and 7 assignments as 4th Official in the playoffs (including MLS Cup 2011 & 2012), he will cross the 300 game threshold in the near future.
We caught up with Chico recently and got his thoughts on his Video Assistant Referee (VAR) role in MLS, life off the field, and how his fitness routine has evolved through the years.
Let’s start with life off the field – give us a bit about your gym business, your hobbies, and anything you still want to accomplish down the road.
G.A.C. Fitness is a 25,000 sq ft facility that my wife and I own. This space consists of a main gym, a field/turf room, a multipurpose room, child care, and a large boxing area. We offer group classes, sports-specific athletic performance training, SilverSneakers (a national fitness program for those 65+), personal training, and nutrition support. My “time off” from refereeing consists of training my athletes, preparing them for fitness tests, and increasing their reaction time, power, speed, and agility. We discuss the mental and physical challenges of the game, as well.
You’re a couple months shy of being the oldest current Referee in MLS. What fitness adjustments have you made through the years that have helped, and is there anything you would have done differently?
Well, I love fitness, I still don’t cut any corners when it comes to my fitness. The biggest adjustment in 2017 is my “Physiological Recovery”: nutrition, sleep, weekly massages, and dry needling. I’m very in tune with my body – I pay attention to all of the little aches and pains and I don’t ignore them.
You’re literally the cover guy for VAR around the world, and you’ve been instrumental in the early stages of implementing this process in MLS. Are you excited for the debut of VAR, and what do you think the average fan will think about VAR?
I’m extremely excited to be part of history. I love that Major League Soccer has taken a leadership role in this project. I anticipate that the average fan will be very receptive to VAR. In my opinion, the hardcore fans may be a tougher sell, because the game won’t be quite as “clean” or “flawless,” because VAR will address only the big, game-changing decisions – goals, penalty kicks, sendoffs, and mistaken identity.
You’ve been a long-time NCAA referee. What is exciting, or different, about the college game? Are there professional players now who remember you from when you worked their college games?
Ah…the college game! Having been part of 10 NCAA Division 1 finals, the collegiate game will always have a special place in my heart. The biggest difference is that these are student-athletes – they still play the game for the love of their school colors and school pride. One of my biggest satisfactions in MLS is when a former student-athlete goes out of his way to shake my hand – they always come up and ask about their old school or ask if I’ve seen a certain coach recently. I hope they always remember me as a fair and honest referee and person.
What’s left for you to accomplish, and what are your goals for the next few years?
I think in general, there’s alway something to accomplish. For me, I still want to learn. I still want to improve my skills. I still want to be part of this elite group of PRO referees. I’m enjoying each game as if it was my last game, and I’m taking time to look around the stadium and enjoy the moment. I will make a decision about next season or the following sometime during the winter break. In the meantime, I’m going to do what I love, because I love what I do!