When the Portland Timbers play Orlando City in the MLS is Back tournament championship on Tuesday night, assistant referee Kathryn Nesbitt will become the first woman to work a Major League Soccer title game.
Nesbitt and Felisha Mariscal are the only two women among more than 40 officials that have been sequestered — just like the teams — in Florida for the monthlong tournament.
“We all came into this tournament under really unusual circumstances,” Nesbitt said. “I think that the entire referee group here worked incredibly hard to have strong performances and to be named to the final means that you’ve had a strong performance and really shown what you’re worth here. So it’s honestly a huge honor to have made it this far and to be on the field for that final game.”
The title match is certainly no chance assignment for Nesbitt. She's earned her way there having officiated in some 60 MLS matches since her first in 2015. And it's not just MLS, she was also a referee for the Women's World Cup last year in France.
Nesbitt counts her World Cup debut, in a group-stage match between the Norway and Nigeria in Reims, as one of her favorite career moments.
“Just kind of lining up there with the teams and preparing to walk out on the field: For me, that was my greatest accomplishment and basically a dream come true,” she said.
Nesbitt was a chemistry professor at Towson University before she decided last year to focus on refereeing in advance of the World Cup. She was one of three U.S. women chosen for the coveted job, joining Mariscal and NWSL referee Katja Koroleva. It was the first senior international event for all three.
She said the so-called bubble for the MLS is Back tournament, at the ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World, is similar to working at a World Cup or other big tournament. Days are spent with her colleagues, at on-field training as well as watching film, all in preparation for game time.
“It’s been really interesting. I think that we’re all pretty used to it and in a pretty good rhythm at this point," she said. "It’s been actually comfortable here. We’ve all felt incredibly safe. I’ve been so grateful to have opportunities to train, to have this whole time to work with my colleagues.”
MLS has had women officiating in its games since 1998, when Nancy Lay and Sandra Hunt worked their first games. Lay was an elementary school teacher.
But for the most part women in Nesbitt's position are still rare.
Probably the best known female official is Bibiana Steinhaus, who became the first woman to referee in a top-flight European men's league in 2017 when she worked a German Bundesliga match. Stephanie Frappart of France worked the UEFA Super Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea last year.
Nesbitt, who was also the first woman to officiate in an MLS postseason match, understands the responsibility she has as an example for women currently in her field and those who aspire to become referees.
“I like to think that there are some referees out there that look up to me,” she said. “And I’m I’m really hopeful that I’m putting out a good example and emanating qualities that other officials hope to achieve someday.”
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