Tori Penso concedes she made one concession to her gender before taking the field to officiate an MLS match in Nashville, Tenn., last month. She took her long blond hair and tucked it into a bun atop her head.
“I don’t want to do anything to stick out,” she said. “When I’m running around right next to the guys on the field, you’re not seeing a ponytail. It’s one less thing that’s a distraction.”
Other than that, the game with D.C. United unfolded much like the hundreds of other soccer games she has refereed since she first hung a whistle around her neck at 14 for her brothers’ youth-league games in Florida. But the fact she made history that day as the first woman to serve as the center referee in an MLS match in more than two decades was a distraction she couldn’t avoid.
“My phone was blowing up,” Penso recalled from Portland, Ore., where she was preparing for Wednesday’s LAFC-Vancouver Whitecaps game, her second MLS game in the center. “I received hundreds of messages, emails, texts. I ended up turning my phone off because it was overwhelming. After the game, when I came into the locker room, tears came down my cheeks.
“The crew just gave me a big hug. I think everyone realized how important and significant it was.”
Not to mention overdue. Although women have worked MLS games as assistant referees or video-replay officials the last six seasons, a woman hasn’t served as a center referee since Sandra Hunt in 2000. In the meantime, having a woman as the center referee – the official who basically controls the game and enforces the rules – in men’s top-tier games has become commonplace in countries such as Germany, Ukraine, France, Australia and Brazil.
“Twenty years is too long for the USA not to have a woman referee in our top men’s league,” said Kari Seitz, FIFA’s head of refereeing for women and a highly decorated official who worked one MLS game in the center in 1999. “It seems unbelievable that we have fallen so far behind.”
LAFC coach Bob Bradley agrees. He was coaching the Chicago Fire in August 1998 when Hunt became the first female MLS referee and he believes Penso, who has worked men’s games at two levels in the USL, should be recognized for her skills as an official and not by her gender.
“It should not be news. Talented people in any field deserve opportunities,” he said. “The ability to develop good referees is important to our game. So we welcome new referees when they are given opportunities just like we would with players getting opportunities.”
Penso, a 34-year-old mother of three daughters whose husband Chris is also an MLS referee, agrees with Bradley. Sort of.
The opportunity should definitely be there, she says, but reality tells her it is rarely granted to women in any sport. NFL down judge Sarah Thomas and NBA referees Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling, Ashley Moyer-Gleich, Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder are the only other women officiating in the top five men’s professional leagues in the U.S. And that makes them important role models, Penso said.
At a recent soccer event in Virginia “the amount of young girls that came up to me and just said how inspirational it was and how it motivated them, it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it,” she said. “So it’s a moment that needs to be celebrated. But at the same time I get on the pitch and it’s just a soccer game.”
Penso played club soccer at Florida State but wasn’t good enough to consider a pro career. She was good enough as an official to be invited to an Olympic Development Program camp at 18 although her rise through the women’s game, where she worked college matches and NWSL games, was slowed by her graduate studies and a day job as an advertising executive.
Her career got fast-tracked after she was invited to work an MLS-affiliated youth tournament last year. She was impressive enough to be invited to a development program run by the Professional Referee Organization, which supplies officials to various leagues including MLS and USL.
Penso had to pass the same fitness test as male referees, which consists of timed sprints and a 2½-mile interval run, before PRO could assign her to games. But working three matches in the second-tier USL Championship last year was enough to convince her to leave her corporate job in Tampa, Fla., and devote herself to officiating full time.
Now there are 13 other female officials working their way through the same PRO pipeline.
“If we can do the job — we’re physical able to and have the technical knowledge — then there should be no doubt that we belong,” she said.