From NPSL to MLS: The Journey of Tori Penso

By Ben Ferree/

On September 25, Tori Penso became the first woman to referee an MLS game in 20 years when she served as the center official in a match between Nashville and D.C United.  It was the culmination of years of work for Penso, but in many ways it was simply the beginning of more to come.

Serving as a youth official while also playing still in high school, Penso has been around the game of soccer her entire life. 

“I started when I was 14 years old,” Penso said. “My mom was like ‘hey it’s time to get a job.’  I said ok, why don’t I work at the mall, and she said ‘why on earth would you do that?  Why don’t you spend some time at the soccer field where you’re already at?  I took it on then, had my fair share of parents chasing me off the field, stuck with it, and it’s turned out pretty well.”

Penso realized this could become a profession when she went to Olympic Development Camp in Alabama when she was 18.  She continued to officiate as she played collegiately at Florida State University.  As she progressed through the ranks, Penso never viewed herself as the odd one out. 

“I didn’t see myself as different,” Penso said. “I learned that I was different when I started to go to regional events and people made comments about it, but I never thought of it myself.  It took others to tell me.  While I was coming up through the ranks I was never by myself.  I was always with two or three other girls, which I think helps a lot.  When I started to travel to other states, I started to realize I was one of a few.”

Being in a small minority may not have seemed strange to Penso, but it was sometimes strange to the players. 

“One time I did a game between two very testy teams,” Penso said. “I didn’t pick up on the fact they had never seen a female referee.  Both teams kind of didn’t believe I had the capabilities before I even blew the first whistle and I didn’t really pick up on that.  Now I would know how to handle that situation, but at the time I didn’t and it was kind of my first experience seeing that gender mattered to a lot of other people.  But I was physically able and had the skill set. Sometimes we need to put on a little bit of a show in the first 15-20 minutes to build confidence in the coaches, parents, and players.”

Penso worked her way through multiple leagues before reaching MLS, including the NPSL, USL, and NWSL. 

“It has been a treat watching Penso grow and develop into a top-flight referee,” NPSL Director of Officials Paul Scott said. “On her journey to the MLS, we were fortunate enough to have her work a few NPSL games.  We are a quality league that has been on the path for many of the referees in the MLS.  I look forward to having the next ‘Tori’ working our games.”

Finding “the next Tori” is something that matters to Penso.  She was appointed Managing Director of the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association this year, and doesn’t want to wait another 20 years to have a female officiate an MLS game again. 

“Seeing is believing,” Penso said. “If females don’t see themselves or people who look like them in roles, they don’t necessarily think that is a role for them.  That is an inherent aspect of gender and racial equality.  It is important that we have females that are mentors and leaders. Mentorship is really important.  Females are different than males…there are a lot of differences. For too long we tried to treat each other as the same, and at the end of the day we’re very different…finding other female officials they can gravitate to and talk about questions and challenges that they might have that maybe their male counterparts didn’t have.”

Being that role model for the next generation is pushing Penso to achieve even higher goals. 

“This is just the beginning,” Penso said. “My hope is that I can be a regular in the league working every weekend.  No female has done that.  That is number one.  I would also love the opportunity on the international scale, to take CONCACAF to the level where we have females officiating in the men’s game.”

And the ultimate dream?  The same for officials as it is for players.  “Maybe a World Cup in my future,” Penso said.

Whatever level she finally achieves, Penso’s progress will be measured not in the games she works, but in how many females work games after her.

Photos Provided by Andy Mead and Nashville SC


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