If there was anything positive to come from the U.S. team’s early exit from this summer’s Women’s World Cup, it may have arrived Friday when four American officials, headed by center referee Tori Penso, were chosen to work Sunday’s tournament final between England and Spain.
This marks the first time U.S. Soccer referees will lead the officiating crew in a senior FIFA World Cup final. In addition to Penso, who will be in control of the match, Brooke Mayo and Kathryn Nesbitt will be on the field as assistant referees while Armando Villarreal will serve as a video assistant referee. None of that would have been possible had the U.S. made the final, as it had in the last three women’s World Cups, since FIFA prohibits referees from working a game if they come from the same country as one of the teams.
“There’s nothing better than this moment that I’ve living right now,” said Penso, who didn’t get her FIFA badge, making her eligible to work international matches, until 2021. “For me, for the entire crew, what we’re about to embark on, it’s groundbreaking and it’s I moment I will never forget.”
2023 Women’s World Cup coverage
Penso learned of her selection when Pierluigi Collina, head of the FIFA referees committee, stood before a meeting of World Cup officials and said he wanted to apologize for committing to have the center referee wear black Sunday.
“Sorry, Tori,” he said, handing her a shirt with her name on the back. Penso immediately burst into tears.
“To be in a room with many of my mentors, peers, colleagues, who have had an amazing tournament, it really was a very special moment for me,” she said. “All of us were salivating at the opportunity and the chance and when he flipped that over to showcase my name, I melted.”
Added Collina: “She is the best possible choice. She deserved to be in the middle. She did very well the entire competition, in particular the [England-Australia] semifinal. We are fully convinced that the best has to be the referee for the final and she was the best.”
One of the first to congratulate her was Kari Seitz, FIFA head of women’s refereeing and the most accomplished U.S. soccer official in history. One of the first women to officiate an MLS match, Seitz also worked four World Cups but never a final because the U.S. team made it to at least the semifinals in all four tournaments.
Penso, 37, was in grade school when she started following her brothers to the soccer fields near their home in Florida. When her brothers started officiating games to earn a little pocket change, Penso decided to do that too, using that money to buy her first car.
But the turning point in her career came during the last Women’s World Cup in France, which Penso watched on television while cradling her infant daughter, Brinley. If she wanted to break through as an official, she decided, she would have to quit her day job at an advertising agency and dedicate herself to soccer, just as her husband, Chris Penso, a former Ohio highway patrolman and an MLS referee since 2011, had done.
Sunday’s final won’t be the first time she and Mayo have made history together. Earlier this season the two joined Felisha Mariscal in refereeing an MLS match, marking the first time three women were on the officiating crew for a first-division match in the U.S.
Mayo, who grew up Tennessee, also started refereeing as a girl to earn extra money but dreamt of going to the World Cup as a player when she was on the team at Tennessee Technological University. Now the former high school and college teacher is in the final as an official.
“I started thinking immediately about my mom and my dad,” she said Friday. “They’ve watched every single game since I’ve started on livestream. They’ve been my biggest supporters.”
For Nesbitt, who worked the men’s final last year in Qatar and was part of the first all-female officiating crew for a men’s World Cup game, Sunday’s match will make her the only American referee to have two FIFA medals from a World Cup final.
“I’m a little bit shocked and speechless,” said Nesbitt, an analytical chemist who taught at Towson State in Maryland before leaving in 2019 to become a full-time official. “This is a dream come true. It’s what everybody works for in football, to be in a World Cup final.”