First woman MLS ref since ’00 eyes more games

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Tori Penso is hopeful she’ll remain in the MLS refereeing rotation.

Penso, 34, was in charge of Wednesday’s encounter between D.C. United and Nashville SC, becoming the first woman since Sandra Hunt in 2000 to referee an MLS match. The match, won by Nashville 1-0, wasn’t incident free, as she issued a second caution to DCU midfielder Russell Canouse in first half stoppage time.

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“It was a solid performance as we would say,” Penso told ESPN via telephone. “Obviously, we had the red card, and no referee wants a red card in their first game, right? But you deal with what’s been dealt, and you do the best that you can, and that’s what we did out there. I think the crew did a really good job.”

Now Penso, whose husband Chris has been an MLS referee since 2009, is hoping to become a regular in MLS. She is currently in what is called PRO 2, a designation by the Professional Referees Organization — which makes assignments in various leagues throughout North America — for up and coming referees. Even during this COVID-impacted season, Penso has refereed five games in the NWSL as well as four in the USL Championship. She had also been the fourth official in three previous MLS games this season.

“My hope is that I’m here to stay that this isn’t a one and done,” she said. “I hope is that assignments come through in the next couple weeks and ‘Bing’, I’ve got another one. That’s my hope. And ultimately, I would love to be a full time referee, a bargaining unit member of the PRO group. There’s never been a female to do that. So hopefully that’s possible. You know, I’m hoping to make consistent performances. Prove that I’m the quality that they will hopefully want but I’m still trying to soak in the moment that just happened. I certainly looking up and hungry and ready for the next challenge ahead.”

Penso got her start as a referee at age 14 as a way to make some extra money, and began taking it more seriously at age 18 when she went to an Olympic Development Program refereeing camp in Alabama. She was quick to credit the likes of those female referees that paved the way before her, including Hunt, Nancy Lay, and Kari Seitz. But she also was aware of what Wednesday’s match meant in terms of increasing the chances of other female referees, of which there are currently 13 working their way through the PRO 2 pipeline.

“I think there was a little extra weight on my shoulders heading into the game,” she said. “I did my best to kind of brush that off and focus at the task at hand, and do all the due diligence I would normally do scouting the teams, preparing with my team and making sure that we were 100% focused for the game with minimal distractions as best as possible. There’s always butterflies, right? You can prepare as best as you can mentally, physically, but at the end of the day, it’s the next step up. And for me, it was a dream come true.”

Penso says she managed to keep her emotions in check beforehand, though she said she received the usual “pep talk” via text message from her husband, who was in New York serving as the VAR referee for the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC. Chris Penso told Tori, “You deserve to be there. You’ve earned this. You got this. You have all the skills it takes.”

It helped that she had been the fourth official for a previous encounter between the two teams earlier this season.

“I was relatively familiar with the technical area staff, as well as the players,” she said with regards to her preparation. “So just dove a little bit deeper, and then just kind of imagine what the matchup might look like, look into how they competed before. And then kind of visualize what do I expect based on their performances that prior weekend?”

Afterwards Penso allowed her the magnitude of her achievement to sink in.

“It was overwhelming I think, when I came off the pitch, when the duty was done and we served the game, and it wasn’t about us, and we did a good job,” she said. “I think that’s when it all kind of hit me.”

On Monday, Penso will receive her full assessment of Wednesday’s match from PRO, in which every decision will be dissected. But before then she has another game to referee, that being this weekend’s NWSL encounter between the Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC. She suspects her performance will be scrutinized closely.

She said, “PRO is always watching these things. Always.”