When the MLS is Back Tournament final between Orlando City and Portland Timbers kicks off in Central Florida on Tuesday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes), veteran assistant referee Kathryn Nesbitt will become the first woman in league history to work a title match.
Nesbitt got the assignment — along with center referee Ismail Elfath and fellow assistant Kyle Atkins — based on her performance over the month-long, World Cup-style event that restarted the United States’ and Canada’s top soccer league inside a heath bubble during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
An MLS assistant referee since 2015, Nesbitt served as the reserve assistant referee for the 2018 MLS Cup but wasn’t needed in that match. Along with Felisha Mariscal, she is one of just two female officials, both of them assistants, within the USA-based Professional Referee Organization. Nesbitt was also one of three Americans chosen to work at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France last summer.
Women have played an increasing role as officials in men’s sports over the last number of years. Bibiana Steinhaus became the first to referee in Germany’s top two professional soccer leagues in 2007. Amy Elizabeth Fearn followed in England’s lower divisions three years later. Sian Louise Massey-Ellis has been a Premier League assistant ref since 2011. Last year, Stephanie Frappart was the center ref for the UEFA Super Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea.
In the U.S., Sarah Thomas was the first to officiate a college football bowl game before becoming the first full-time female referee hired by the NFL in 2015. The NBA has had six woman officials all-time; last October, Jenna Schroeder became that league’s fourth active woman referee after being promoted from the G League.
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