In 2021, just two years after leaving her job in advertising, Tori Penso became Major League Soccer’s first full-time female referee.
She followed that by becoming the first referee to officiate a Women’s World Cup semifinal and final last month. The St. Petersburg resident has already set her sights on the next milestone – refereeing the 2026 Men’s World Cup.
To quote the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., “It was all a dream” just four years ago. Penso, a mother to three young girls, watched the 2019 Women’s World Cup at home in St. Pete while holding her eight-month-old daughter.
“It was a super inspiring moment for me because of the coverage of the officials,” Penso told the Catalyst. “For the first time, I actually got to see a lot of the stories from the women in the middle, and many of them are moms. It was really remarkable to see women who had overcome tremendous obstacles in their countries to be at that level.
“And I was like, ‘If they can do that, I could do it.'”
FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), world soccer’s governing body, chose Penso to referee the Aug. 20 Women’s World Cup in Sydney, Australia. The organization launched in 1904, and she was also the first U.S. referee to officiate any World Cup final.
Penso said her daughters – now 9, 7 and 5 and Northshore Elementary School students – were there to play in the gold confetti as it rained down onto Stadium Australia’s pitch. Getting to that point took a leap of faith and extraordinary commitment.
Penso, 37, began refereeing at 14. That continued through college and adulthood as a “side gig.”
She said that in 2019, “there really wasn’t a professional pathway, particularly for women.” Penso, a Florida native, also “loved” her job at a Tampa-based advertising agency.
She called her husband, Chris, a “visionary” who always believed she could become the first female referee contracted by MLS. However, Penso noted that she would have to “take a huge risk.”
“And we have a family,” she added. “We kind of made a family decision to take a stab at it and give it a couple years.”
Penso said referees must train like the athletes they officiate. She said the additional time to perfect her craft accelerated her career.
While there were naysayers, even from those closest to her, Penso called that part of the fun. “The idea of doing something nobody had done before was really exciting for me,” she said.
Penso said the doubt persisted after she became the first full-time female referee in Major League Soccer (MLS). People said she was too new to make it to the World Cup.
“That was motivation just as much as the people who were supporting me,” Penso said. “Just because someone else can’t see the vision you see for yourself doesn’t mean that can’t be a possibility. And I kind of lived and breathed that every day.”
Despite that belief – Penso said she tattooed “anything is possible” on her body at 18 – her selection was a complete shock. Penso said she never thought she would see any American referee a World Cup final.
“And that’s hard for me to say because I do dream big,” she added. “But it was remarkable. I think I said, ‘Holy shit,’ out loud.”
The moment you find out you’ve been selected to referee the #FIFAWWC final.
— FIFA (@FIFAcom) August 18, 2023
Penso credited her mental and physical training regimen for her success. Tuesday was her “slow rest day” following high-intensity strength training, and she had just completed a four-and-a-half-mile endurance run before the interview for this story.
Penso said Wednesday would consist of 200-meter sprints and weightlifting sessions. She also drinks a gallon of water daily.
Her husband is a longtime MLS official, and Penso noted that nutrition is a family focus. “We certainly don’t just show up on a Saturday to referee,” she said. “We train five to six days a week.”
Penso said she must study players and teams more than established officials. As a mother, she approaches the game with more empathy and understanding, Penzo added.
Preparing for the pressure is another challenge. Stadium Australia holds over 83,000 people.
In addition, nearly two billion people watched from home as Spain defeated England 1-0 at the Women’s World Cup. “Every one of your decisions, whether right or wrong, are scrutinized,” Penso said.
“It’s the same thing at home. At best, only half of the viewers agree with what you’re doing.”
She said fans must realize officials are human. Players do not make every shot, and referees occasionally miss calls.
Penso said the World Cup featured “beautiful, technical football.” She expressed joy that fans remain focused on the games and sportsmanship rather than the officials and their decisions.
Despite realizing several dreams in the past few years, Penzo is not about to rest on her laurels. She will return to MLS officiating this weekend and wants to finish the season “strong.”
Penzo noted that the Men’s World Cup returns to the U.S. in 2026. She said it would take another “three years of grinding” but hopes FIFA will consider her for an officiating spot.
She said paving a path for her three daughters remains her motivation. “For them to see that there can be a ponytail out on that field – that we belong in sports,” Penso added.
She wants them, and other girls growing up in St. Petersburg, to realize their possibilities are endless with hard work and determination. During the week, they can find her training at Puryear Park and running through Coffee Pot Bayou before flying out to stadiums and arenas for matches.
“Athletes can come from all over, and they come from here in St. Pete,” she said. “So, anything is possible for all those little girls out there. Dream big. Dream bigger than anybody thinks you can, and the possibilities are endless.”