Main character energy: Referee Tori Penso ensures American pitch presence at World Cup semifinal

Australia and England's monumental semifinal will be marshaled by the high-achieving mother of three from Florida.

An astonishingly narrow penalty shootout defeat to Sweden sent the U.S. women’s national team back home.

It has been 10 days since the four-time World Cup winners were sent packing. But, in some ways, the Americans’ tournament is not over.

The USA will be represented in Wednesday's absolutely massive World Cup semifinal between Australia and England. FIFA has handed Floridian Tori Penso, as well as linesperson Brooke Mayo, the opportunity to referee the occasion.

Tori Penso talking to in 2023 | FIFA

Penso is a trailblazer in her home country. After first dipping her toe into refereeing as a teenager, it wasn’t until 2013 that she became a semi-professional refereeing.

At that point, Penso picked up the whistle while she was still working as a highly successful marketing executive who was also getting a master’s degree in business marketing. In 2015, Penso took charge of her first NWSL game while also frequently stepping into the NCAA officiating circuit.

In 2019, the 37-year-old turned professional and joined the Professional Refereeing Organization and a year later she made history by becoming the first woman to referee a MLS since Sandra Hunt in 2000.

In that historic match, between Nashville SC and DC United, Penso wasn’t given an incident-free ride. Just before halftime, she had to give Russell Canouse a controversial second yellow card and reduce the away side to 10 players. A bold call.

The two fouls came just 10 minutes apart. Arising from a seemingly 50/50 coming together between Canouse and Nashville’s Derrick Jones. Canouse pleaded his case that he had in fact been the victim of the foul, but Penso, undeterred, sent him to the locker room.

Before that, Penso was a member of the refereeing crew that traveled to Utah, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for the inaugural NWSL Challenge Cup. Out there, she took charge of five matches while also serving as the fourth official in the final between the Chicago Red Stars and the Houston Dash.

It was a chaotic time for the world and for sport. Penso was given little time to get prepare for getting back to work as an elite ref. The NWSL was the first professional league in the USA to return to action after the COVID-19 outbreak. A high pressure and emotional situation.

“While the leagues have been trying to determine the right method to get back and the timing, for us it’s kind of last minute. Like, are you ready next week? Let’s go. So, I was training six days a week and still doing video clips and video analysis,” Penso told The Equalizer in 2020.

At that historic tournament, families were considered in the safety protocols. Therefore, Penso’s family remained at their home in Florida. At the time, the weeks she spent at the 2020 Challenge Cup were the longest the referee had been away from her three children.

“To be full as a mom or a dad, we gotta have passions and things we’re excited about, and be doing things that we are valued at and can be successful at. I think when we can be successful at some aspect of our work or passions, that energy is filtered down to our kids and we end up with better kids at the end of the day. Because mom or dad are doing something really cool that they love,” Penso told The Equalizer in 2020.

That experience in 2020 would have given Penso practice for her work at the 2023 World Cup. Once again, she has been away from her children while working her first senior international tournament. Her husband - and fellow referee Chris - will be back home with her three children in Florida, making sure to facetime and send photos to keep Penso connected.

Being a Mum isn’t that different from being a referee. And the skills she has learned at home are something Penso looks to bring onto the pitch.

“My patience, my understanding, my ability to multitask,” Penso told prior to the start of the World Cup. “Mums always say: ‘We have eyes in the back of our heads.’ This is true, we certainly do.

“Those skills translate onto the field. I’m able to sense when things are happening over my shoulder. My patience, understanding, and empathy with the players in a game, I think they translate really well. And I think being a mother has made me a better referee.”

So will Penso benefit England or Australia?

After the announcement was made that the Floridan would be taking the World Cup semifinal, people started flooding my mentions to wonder if that would benefit either nation.

Look, I am a firm believer that the answer is neither. Penso is an experienced professional official, and there are no language or cultural barriers that would otherwise give her more empathy or understanding with one of the teams.

There’s an argument to be made that with a home crowd of 75,000 fans in Stadium Australia, the Matildas will have more of an ability to influence Penso and her assistants into making a call. But that’s home advantage. It happens in all walks of football and is not exclusive to the American ref. It’s not a cut-and-dry advantage that speaks to anything in Penso’s refereeing style.

Penso has taken charge of three matches so far at the 2023 World Cup and has only shown two yellow cards, below the average for the tournament of 1.7 per match. However, two of those matches were very one-sided (France 4-0 Morocco, Germany 6-0 Morocco). In those matches, it’s less likely teams would be making dangerous fouls to gain an advantage with the early leads reducing the contest.

While Penso has never refereed either nation before, curiously, England was officiated by a fellow NWSL referee and American Katja Koroleva in the Quarterfinal match against Colombia. She didn’t show a single yellow card, and blew up for a lowly total of 13 fouls during the match. The average number of fouls per match at the tournament is 20.6.

One could make an argument that based on that experience, England would be more used to a referee who came through the American PRO and USSF systems.

It will also be the second time in a row that an American has refereed this match-up. In April, Australia beat England 2-0 in Brentford with Natalie Simon taking charge of the friendly.

With a good number of Americans expected to be in Sydney for Wednesday night’s match; I wonder if their support will go towards not the team in gold, nor the team in blue, but instead to Penso. The referee, in the middle of it all.