How Kathryn Nesbitt became one of the World Cup’s first female refs
Kathryn Nesbitt had spent a decade balancing parallel careers in analytical chemistry and soccer officiating when, in 2019, she put her scientific brain to work and synthesized a solution for the most pragmatic path forward.
Two weeks before Nesbitt left for France to serve as an assistant referee at the Women’s World Cup, she stepped down from her assistant professor position at Towson University to focus on officiating full time. What data points informed that decision? She reached the pinnacle of women’s soccer refereeing that summer and had broken into top-flight men’s soccer as well, with dozens of MLS games under her belt. Knowing the 2026 men’s World Cup would be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Nesbitt mapped out a plan that would culminate in her being on the sideline of the sport’s premier spectacle.
“I had no idea if they’d ever let women officiate at that World Cup, but I wanted to see if I could do that,” said Nesbitt, 34. “I realized at the time that in order to even attempt that, I would need to dedicate all of my time and effort into one job.”
Once Nesbitt shifted her focus to officiating, her ascent accelerated. In 2020, she claimed MLS assistant referee of the year honors and became the first woman to officiate an MLS Cup final. A few months later, Concacaf — the confederation that oversees soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean — tasked her with men’s World Cup qualifying assignments. By the time FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, announced its pool of referees for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the Philadelphia-based official thought she might have a shot.
On May 19, Nesbitt woke up, scrolled through Twitter and saw FIFA’s unveiling. The tournament, FIFA stated in its announcement, would feature the first female referees in the 92-year history of the men’s World Cup, with six women among the 129 officials.