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

Kathryn Nesbitt will be on the field at the World Cup in Qatar.  (The Carolinian for The Washington Post)
Kathryn Nesbitt will be on the field at the World Cup in Qatar. (The Carolinian for The Washington Post)


Kathryn Nesbitt has spent a decade balancing parallel careers in analytical chemistry and football officiating in 2019 when she puts her scientific brain to work and synthesizes a solution to the most practical route.

Nesbitt resigned as an assistant professor at Towson University two weeks before leaving for France to serve as an assistant referee at the Women’s World Cup. What factors inform that decision? She reached her peak as a women’s soccer referee that summer, breaking into top men’s soccer with several MLS games under her belt. The 2026 Men’s World Cup will be hosted by the United States. It is known that it will be held in Canada and Mexico. Nesbitt mapped out a plan that would put her next to the sport’s top spectacles.

“I didn’t know if they were going to let women take over at the World Cup, but I wanted to see if I could do it,” Nesbitt, 34, said. “I realized at that moment; I need to devote all my time and effort to one job.”

As Nesbitt turned her attention to the officer; Her step quickened. In 2020, she won the MLS Assistant Referee of the Year honor and became the first woman to appear in an MLS Cup final. After a few months, North America, Concacaf, which oversees the Central and Caribbean football confederation, has given her responsibility for national World Cup qualifiers. When FIFA, the world soccer governing body, announced the list of referees for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the Philadelphia-based official thought the shooting was possible.

On May 19, Nesbitt woke up to FIFA’s revelation via Twitter. FIFA announced that the tournament will feature female referees for the first time 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 said, “NESBITT Kathryn. USA.”

“My jaw dropped. Staring at it, I couldn’t even believe this was happening,” Nesbitt recalled. “So I’m probably jumping around the room for another 20 minutes.”

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Nesbitt prided himself on processing information and coming to the right conclusion as a referee or chemist. But in calculating her path to a man’s World Cup role, she actually changed herself over the course of four years.

“She definitely holds the highest standards in everything she does,” MLS. said Mark Geiger, a former Olympic and World Cup referee who now serves as director of senior match officials at the US-based Professional Referee Association. “Because he doesn’t solve anything. She sets goals for herself and does everything she can to achieve those goals, whether it’s in science or on the soccer field.”

A soccer player in her youth, Nesbitt watched her younger brother’s games in New York at the age of 14 in turbulent Rochester, New York. He was a volunteer assistant referee (commonly known as a linesman) in NY. The role typically involves throwing; goal kicking corner kicks There were often fouls and offside calls involved, but as a teenage volunteer with family interests, Nesbitt was only asked to wave the flag when the ball went out of bounds. Leave it to the paid referee.

“Then one of the guys asked, ‘Hey, do you want to make money?’ “Well, that sounds good,” Nesbitt said.

St. in Rochester. Nesbitt, a senior figure skater and volleyball player who competed for John Fisher University, divides her time between athletic pursuits. Around the end of her collegiate career, she began serving as a fourth official — a key position between the two benches — for games involving Rochester’s minor league national team. Soon after, Nesbitt reached a spot in the now-defunct U.S. Soccer program to fast-track prospects to top officials. In 2013, she became an assistant referee for the NWSL. Felisha Mariscal crossed the line a year later as the first female official in MLS, and Nesbitt made her MLS debut in 2015.

GRAPHIC: A closer look at the USMNT.

But even with the rise in positions, the ball still remains at full speed. After studying chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, he completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Michigan. Nesbitt joined the faculty at Towson, a public university in Maryland, in 2017. For the better part of two years, she worked about 50 hours. laboratory research per week. On most Friday nights, Nesbitt flew to the airport through Baltimore’s rush-hour traffic, then flew to Los Angeles. Get on the plane that takes her MLS duties to Minnesota. After an event over the weekend, she flew back on Sunday night and did it all over again.

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Professor John Sivey, who worked with Nesbitt in Towson’s chemistry department, said, “She managed competing responsibilities exceptionally well. “Honestly, I don’t know how she did it. Because the demands of both those careers can be quite substantial.”

After several days of laboratory research, Nesbitt would flip MLS games or devour film of the teams he was in charge of that week. A deep understanding of each club’s players and tactics allows her to better predict the flow of the game, reason, and transfer her strengths in the academic field to the soccer field.

“One of the strong similarities between a great sports official and a great analytical chemist is accuracy,” said Sivey, a former high school baseball and softball umpire and basketball umpire. “For Precision in Analytical Chemistry; What we basically mean is: how repeatable or reproducible a particular experiment is. In the world of sports, I think it seems to be consistent.”

For Geiger, who worked with Nesbitt before retiring as an umpire in 2019, that accuracy is just one of Nesbitt’s strengths. As a 6-foot-tall former college athlete, she has no problem meeting the referees’ fitness standards drawn up for men. And even in games that threatened to get out of the refereeing crew’s control, Geiger can’t remember her shaking.

“She’s not only able to analyze what the right decision should be, but also know from an emotional standpoint what the best decision is for the game,” Geiger said. “They’re not always the same. Sometimes you really need to get a feel for the game and know what the best decision is at that moment and what will help the umpires maintain control of the game. She understands this.”

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Although MLS recently completed its eighth season using female referees. Last year, Nesbitt became the first woman to compete in a Concacaf men’s World Cup qualifier. She remembers getting a lot of stares from the players, especially in the first two games. Nesbitt said match coordinators are often mistaken for a fourth official, who is there to help with substitutions and timing, but doesn’t walk around the field.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my career – and it’s also been in chemistry. Even in male-heavy places — the best way to impress is to do your job well,” Nesbitt said. “But the first time I raced to the corner flag and ran into a player, it would be funny,” he said. He looked back and kept up with him. I think just getting some respect has had a really big impact.”

Within months of her first national qualifier, Nesbitt earned enough respect to book a ticket to Qatar. When FIFA unveiled the World Cup officials on a May morning; Sivey went to the door to eagerly share the news of their former colleague’s new assignment through the Towson chemistry department.

USMNT’s Walker Zimmerman is a very good soccer player. He might be a better teammate.

Finally, Nesbitt figured she’d hang up her sleeves, throw up her flag, and go back to chemistry. But now she understands the situation as a football fan — hearing the label makes her moan in embarrassment. As she prepares to make World Cup history, Nesbitt was appropriately pleased with the right callback in 2019.

“This is an impossible dream for me. And just being able to witness women in this event is now a reality for all women,” Nesbitt said. “Whether it’s a referee or whether in any sport Either completely different. Sometimes just having that vision can make something happen. It would be cool to play a small role in this role.”


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