Tori Penso watched the 2019 Women’s World Cup at home with her eight-month-old daughter in her arms. A mother to three young girls, Penso was dreaming that she would be on the field the next time the tournament came around in 2023.
She wouldn’t be the leading goalscorer, or assistant manager, or team captain. She would be in the middle of it all – as the lead referee.
Four years and countless professional matches later, Penso will proudly walk onto the pitch with Australia and England to referee the semifinal match of the Women’s World Cup at Sydney’s Stadium Australia on Wednesday.
Penso had been refereeing since she was 14 years old but never considered it her full-
time career. She asked herself: “What if I gave it a shot? What if I tried making that stage in four years? Is it even possible?”
She took a risk and left a steady job in advertising, a job that she loved, and two years later became the first and only full-time female referee in Major League Soccer (MLS), the top professional men’s soccer league in the US.
Two years after that, Penso was selected by soccer’s world governing boy FIFA as one of six American referees to go to Australia and New Zealand for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
“If you told me six years ago that I would be here talking to you about to head to New Zealand and Australia for the Women’s World Cup I would have said no way,” she said.
“To be here today is just an amazing experience and one I certainly don’t take for granted.”
Referees put in work, just like players
“No success happens overnight,” reflected Penso, and like every journey hers had its ups and downs.
“I’m a female referee in a men’s top division. There’s a lot of challenges that come with that,” she said. “We don’t just show up on a Saturday night at the fields with the lights shining. It takes a lot to get there. A lot of experience coming up through the ranks.” The job is physically demanding.
As the players get faster, Penso has had to get faster too.
“Our training is very much like a player,” Penso said, “I do everything from sprint training to high intensity strength training two to three times a week … you’re looking at an hour and a half to two hours of training, six days a week.”
Along with the physical aspect of officiating soccer games, professional refereeing takes a toll mentally due to the amount of travel involved, according to Penso.
“Just like players, we’re doing sometimes three games in a 10-day span, and there’s travel that goes with that,” the Florida native said. “That could mean a six-hour flight for me from Florida to Portland for a game and back, and then maybe to New York for a midweek game.”
Penso compared referees and players again, saying “behind every referee there’s a person that has worked incredible hard to get there … just like the players they’re competing for that next opportunity.”
All soccer all the time
Time away from her husband and daughters isn’t easy, Penso said, especially on holidays and weekends.
“They’re my why. I know that even they don’t want to pick up a whistle and be a referee, there will be something … to see females in different capacities I think inspires girls to think of themselves in that role,” the mother of three said.
“They love watching me. They really enjoy the games, they scream ‘mommy’ and point.”
Her husband is also a referee, so Penso described their lives as “all soccer all the time,” though that mantra began when she was 10 years old and first started playing.
“I grew up in a soccer family. All of my bridesmaids I met in college on the soccer field. I live and breathe soccer, and I love the game.”
This game is unforgiving
In 2020, Penso became the first full-time female referee in MLS. Women had refereed MLS games before, but none of them had done so on a full-time basis.
Refereeing for both MLS and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), Penso noted major differences between the way the male and female players interact with the referees.
“I can tell you many times I had what felt like a stadium of 60,000 booing me for what was the correct decision on the field,” she said.
“We have a saying in refereeing: you’re only as good as your last game,” she said with a cautious smile, “this game is not forgiving.”
Penso said she’s relishing the challenge. Her selection for the Women’s World Cup, once her main goal, is now a stepping stone along her journey to the top of the women’s and men’s game.
Ideally, Penso says there will come a day when women refereeing men’s games wouldn’t draw any attention. She wants to pave the way for that normalization to take place.
“It’s the stereotypes that stop us from getting opportunities,” she said, “across the globe when we get opportunities we’re more than ready for them, and we deliver.”
Benefits of motherhood
Penso says she drew inspiration from watching the coverage of the women referees at the 2019 tournament.
“That was the first time I really got to see behind the scenes … many of them were mothers like me,” she said, “and to see them at that stage in that capacity as professionals and mothers was really inspiring for me.”
Women bring a unique set of skills to refereeing that their male counterparts cannot, according to Penso, in the form of motherhood. “I think being a mother has made me frankly a better referee,” she said, adding that “empathy and understanding is something that is just nature and nurture for females.”
“When we perform at the highest level, I think that helps people accept that we can have a role in this capacity on these fields and be a force to be reckoned with.”
Paying it forward
Penso’s goal is to motivate and inspire people to take risks that challenge the status quo. She wants to be a role model so young girls can see females on the field and know that anything is possible for them.
She said her success has come largely thanks to the support of many, including mentors, to get where she is today and on to the next level.
“While sometimes I may feel like I’m alone charging the path, I’m certainly not,” said Penso.
“I’m ar-in-arm not just with the women that are taking the pitch in soccer and across the globe, but also with the women who came before me and helped pave the way so that my path was maybe a little easier,” she said.
“And that’s what I hope to do for the next generation.”