Women in Officiating Earn Their Stripes

All of the NWSL’s matches in the 2021 Challenge Cup have featured a lead female referee. 

By Alex Holmes

The 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup is in full swing, and one of its highlights so far has been the presence of female head referees on the pitch. While the increased number of female officials is not new to the league, it is an example of the steady rise of women holding referee positions that has continued across sports.

All 16 games on the slate for the first week of the NWSL’s 2021 Challenge Cup featured a woman leading the officiating crew. These women bring years of officiating experience; many of them started at the youth club level and have risen through the ranks to leagues like the USL, MLS, NWSL, and even international matches with FIFA.

One of these NWSL referees is Katja Koroleva. The 34-year-old made her professional debut in 2013 and has officiated under the U.S. Soccer Federation since 2000.

Referee Katja Koroleva is also a physician assistant. (Source: Concacaf)

Her résumé boasts her officiating NWSL championship matches in 2015 and 2020. Koroleva has made appearances at several FIFA competitions, such as Concacaf women’s Olympic qualifiers, the U17 Women’s World Cup in 2016 and 2018, as well as the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

Koroleva has certainly made her mark as a referee, but it is only her side job. She is a full-time emergency medicine physician assistant. If you can’t find Koroleva on the soccer pitch, you can probably find her in the ER helping patients. In the past year, Koroleva has been on the frontlines battling COVID-19.

Koroleva is just one example of how much hard work it takes to officiate at the highest level of soccer. Her colleague, Tori Penso, also rose through the officiating ranks after making her professional debut with the NWSL in 2015. Penso made headlines last year when she became the first woman since 2000 to take the lead referee role in a MLS match.

Last year, Tori Penso was the first woman to take the lead referee role in a MLS game since 2000. (Source: PRO Media)

Koroleva and Penso are two main characters in the narrative of female officiating, which contains success stories across sports. Recently, Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate an NFL playoff game. These women join female officiating icons like Violet Palmer, Natalie Sago, and Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling, who broke barriers refereeing NBA games.

The question surrounding any component of women’s sports seems to always come back to investment and the amount of opportunities targeted at girls who aspire to play professionally—and it’s no different when it comes to women officiating.

The industry has largely been dominated by males, but people like Koroleva, Penso, and Thomas give little girls someone to look up to. Who knows? Maybe 15 years from now the presence of female officials, whether in the NWSL or MLS, WNBA or NBA, will become the norm. It will just take a few more superwomen in referee stripes to continue paving the way.

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