How Kathryn Nesbitt became one of the World Cup’s first female refs

Kathryn Nesbitt will be on the pitch at the World Cup in Qatar.  (Caroline Yang for The Washington Post)
Kathryn Nesbitt will be on the pitch at the World Cup in Qatar. (Caroline Yang for The Washington Post)

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Kathryn Nesbitt had spent a decade balancing parallel careers in analytical chemistry and football refereeing when, in 2019, she put her scientific brain to work and synthesized a solution for the more pragmatic route.

Two weeks before Nesbitt left for France to serve as an assistant referee at the Women’s World Cup, she quit her position as an assistant professor at Towson University to focus on refereeing full-time. What data points informed this decision? She rose to the pinnacle of women’s soccer refereeing that summer and also branched out into top-flight men’s soccer, with dozens of MLS games under her belt. Knowing that the 2026 Men’s World Cup would be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Nesbitt hatched a plan that would result in his presence on the sidelines of the sport’s premier spectacle.

“I had no idea if they would ever let women officiate at this World Cup, but I wanted to see if I could do it,” said Nesbitt, 34. “I realized at the time that even to attempt this, I would need to devote all my time and effort to one job.

Once Nesbitt focused on officiating, her rise accelerated. In 2020, she won MLS Assistant Referee of the Year honors and became the first woman to referee an MLS Cup Final. A few months later, Concacaf – the confederation that oversees North American, Central American and Caribbean football – tasked her with men’s World Cup qualifying assignments. When soccer’s world governing body FIFA announced its roster of referees for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the Philadelphia-based official thought she might have a chance.

On May 19, Nesbitt woke up, scrolled through Twitter, and saw the unveiling of FIFA. The tournament, FIFA said in its announcement, would feature the first female referees in the 92-year history of the men’s World Cup, with six women among the 129 officials.

Zooming in on the 69 assistant referees, she saw the list: “NESBITT Kathryn. UNITED STATES.”

“I just gaped, stared at it, couldn’t even believe it was happening,” Nesbitt recalled. “Then I probably jumped around the room for the next 20 minutes.”

Nesbitt takes pride, as an arbiter or chemist, in processing the information at her disposal and arriving at the correct conclusion. But in calculating her path to a Men’s World Cup assignment, she missed herself – by four years, in fact.

“She certainly reaches the highest level in everything she does,” said former MLS, Olympics and World Cup referee Mark Geiger, who is now director of senior match officials at the Professional. Referee Organization based in the United States. “Because she is not satisfied with anything. She sets goals and she does whatever she can to achieve those goals, whether in science or on the soccer field.

A football player in her youth, Nesbitt was a restless 14-year-old attending her little brother’s games in Rochester, New York, when she first volunteered as a assistant referee (commonly known as line judge). The role typically involves making throw-in, goal kick, corner, foul and offside calls, but as a teenage volunteer with a family conflict of interest, Nesbitt was simply asked to wave the flag when the ball went out of bounds and leave the field. remains up to the referee paid.

“Then one of the guys asked me, ‘Hey, would you like to make some money doing this?’ “, Nesbitt said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’ ”

A top figure skater and volleyball player who competed for St. John Fisher University in Rochester, Nesbitt divided her time between many sporting achievements. About the time she was finishing her college career, she began serving as the fourth umpire — a largely administrative role between the two benches — for games involving Rochester’s minor league men’s team. Before long, Nesbitt landed a spot on a now-defunct American football program to fast-track top officiating prospects. In 2013, she became an assistant referee for the NWSL. Felisha Mariscal became MLS’s first female official a year later, and Nesbitt made her MLS debut in 2015.

Chart: A closer look at the USMNT

But even though she rose through the ranks, football remained a secondary activity. After studying chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh and completing a postdoctoral fellowship in Michigan, Nesbitt joined the faculty at Towson, a public university in Maryland, in 2017. For nearly two years, she did about 50 hours of laboratory research per week. Most Friday nights, Nesbitt would then crawl to the airport through Baltimore’s rush hour traffic and hop on a plane — to Los Angeles, Minnesota or wherever his MLS assignments took him. After refereeing a match on the weekend, she would come back on Sunday evening and start again.

“She handled these competing responsibilities exceptionally well,” said John Sivey, a professor who worked with Nesbitt in Towson’s chemistry department. “I don’t know how she did it, to be very honest, because the demands of both of those careers can be quite significant.”

After those long days of lab research, Nesbitt would look back on MLS games or devour the films of the teams she would be leading this weekend. A deep understanding of each club’s players and tactics allows him to better anticipate how the game will unfold, she reasoned, and helps him put his strengths in academia on the football pitch.

“One of the characteristics that I think strongly overlaps between a really good sports official and a really good analytical chemist is accuracy,” said Sivey, himself a former high school baseball and softball umpire and umpire. of basketball. “By precision in analytical chemistry, we basically mean: how repeatable or reproducible is a particular experiment? In the sports officiating world, I think that sounds a lot like consistency.

For Geiger, who officiated alongside Nesbitt before retiring as a referee in 2019, that precision is just one of Nesbitt’s strengths. As a 6-foot-tall former college athlete, she has no problem meeting umpiring fitness standards designed for men. And Geiger doesn’t recall seeing her shaken, even in matches that threatened to get out of the control of the refereeing team.

“She can not only analyze what the right decision should be, but she also knows, from an emotional point of view, what would be the best decision for the game,” Geiger said. “And they are not always the same. Sometimes you have to really feel the game and know what the best decision is at that moment and what will help the group of referees to keep control of the game. She understands that.

Although MLS recently completed its eighth season with female referees, Nesbitt last year became the first woman to referee a Concacaf men’s World Cup qualifier. She remembered getting a lot of stares from the players, especially in those first two games. Nesbitt said match coordinators also tended to mistakenly assume that she was only the fourth official, there to help with substitutions and timing, but not to roam the pitch.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned in my career – and it’s also been in chemistry, both being very masculine fields – is that the best way to impress is to do your job well,” Nesbitt said. “But it would still be funny the first time I sprinted one of the players to the corner flag, and he would look over and I would follow him. I think it had a very big effect in just gaining a little respect.

A few months after his first men’s qualifier, Nesbitt had earned enough respect to book his ticket to Qatar. That May morning, when FIFA unveiled the officials for the World Cup, Sivey went door-to-door in Towson’s chemistry department to enthusiastically share the news of his former colleague’s new assignment.

Eventually, Nesbitt thinks she’ll hang up her cleats, put away her flag, and get back to chemistry. For now, however, she understands her status as a football trailblazer – even if hearing that label makes her let out an embarrassed groan. As she prepares to make World Cup history, Nesbitt is rightly reveling in the satisfaction of having made the right recall in 2019.

“It was an impossible dream for me, and just being able to see women at this event now makes it realistic for all women,” Nesbitt said. “Whether it’s in refereeing, whether it’s in a different sport, whether it’s something completely different – sometimes just having a visual like that can make something real. If I can to play even a small part in that is really cool.

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