Last week Kelly collected the MLS Referee of the Year award in only his second season stateside.
Kelly was one of the three nominees for the 2014 award last season after only arriving in January but after a full season under his belt, he was voted top match official for 2015 by MLS clubs, players and media — accumulating more the twice the amount of votes the other two nominees (Baldomero Toledo and Jair Marrufo) received.
Speaking from his Boston base, Kelly was delighted with the award.
“I’m honoured and proud to have won it. Individual awards are not something that I strive for but I’m happy to receive the recognition for the job that we do. Any of the other nominees would have been worthy winners.” Having taken charge of Champions League, World Cup qualifiers and European Championship qualifiers, Kelly took the plunge in moving to the US when offered a job by former English Premier League official Peter Walton, who is the General Manager of the Professional Referee’s Organisation (PRO) in the States. The Cork native is now settled south of Boston with his wife and two young children.
“We’ve settled in really well. Eva and Aaron are settled in school, have made new friends and are involved in various sports and activities. They have even lost their Cork accents!
“My wife Laura has her own network of friends that she has met, as well as some family that live close by. She is also training hard and just completed her second half marathon of the year.
“We obviously miss family and friends but all in all, we are really pleased with the move.”
Kelly still keeps a keen interest in League of Ireland football and flew home for the FAI Cup final. “Last year was the first FAI Cup final I missed since 1986, so I wanted to get back from that one.” He was back on a plane across the Atlantic on the Monday morning to prepare to officiate Sunday’s NASL Championship final between New York Cosmos and Ottawa Fury, which Cosmos won 3-2.
Huge money is being pumped into the MLS and the competition is attracting big names from across the globe, such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Kaka and David Villa.
So what is it like being involved in the fastest growing league in the world? “The average attendance across MLS is something like 22,000. MLS is a huge brand and is geared towards growing the league year on year,” said Kelly. “The playing standard is very high. Obviously there are internationally recognised names but apart from that, the quality of player and the technical capabilities are really strong.” Soccer, as it is known as stateside, now has the fastest growing fan base of all the sports in the USA and the Americans are beginning to get into the sport, generating real match day atmospheres similar to Europe.“Seattle get crowds of between 40-65,000 and Portland’s stadium creates a very good atmosphere. Sporting Park in Kansas City generates the best atmosphere. My personal favourite though is Red Bull Arena in New Jersey,” said Kelly.
Of course he has also taken charge of LA Galaxy games involving Robbie Keane, and Kevin’s Doyle’s Colorado Rapids side. “I have spoken to both on a few occasions. I would have been familiar with Kevin from his time in the League of Ireland first with St Pats and later with Cork City. Both seem to have very much adjusted to their respective environments.”
Sunday’s game marked the end of the season for Kelly and he is looking forward to a few weeks off and another trip home with the family for Christmas. “We start back light training in early December with a gradual increase in our training intensity leading up to our pre-season fitness test at the end of January. Then the focus is on the 2016 season which kicks off at the beginning of March,” said Kelly, who took charge of 21 MLS games this season and the Man United v PSG pre season game.