Image: Chris Penso, who will referee the MLS All-Star game against Arsenal at the end of July.
On July 29 2016, the MLS All-Star game takes place at Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.
A selection of the league’s star players will come up against English Premier League giants Arsenal for the annual match-up, a spectacle which in turn requires a crew of the league’s top officials.
So it’s no wonder that PRO’s Chris Penso was pleased when he got the call confirming that he would be the man heading to California as center referee. Maybe even too pleased…
“I was in Greenville, South Carolina, mentoring referees at Region 3 Youth Championships when I got the call,” Penso remembered. “My first reaction was pure elation. I certainly wasn’t expecting the call and was both surprised and delighted that the Organization had chosen me for the assignment.
“In full disclosure, I may have set the phone down and briefly ran around jumping up and down in celebration before, or perhaps during, calling my wife Tori and relaying the news.”
It’s been a long and eventful journey to this stage for Penso, who first took a whistle at the tender age of 14. His early career after college led him away from refereeing, but the center of a soccer pitch was where he wanted to be – and, in 2006, Penso began working in the USL.
Almost two decades on from that first whistle, the official is embarking upon an eighth year in Major League Soccer. In 2015, the 34-year-old was assigned fourth official duties in both the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup Final.
If that was a mark of his progression, then this year is looking even brighter. No referee in 2016 has been assigned to more games than Penso, a man clearly leaving his mark on the PRO management. Quite lucky that he followed his instincts and returned to refereeing then?
“While working for the Ohio State Highway Patrol, I refereed just three games over the span of 19 months, and in my gut I knew I was missing my calling.
“I left the Patrol in late 2006, spent the next two years working in the USL, and was invited to the MLS Preseason Camp in 2009. It really is hard to believe I’m in my eighth year in the league.
“I’d like to think that I’ve had a strong start to this season. I am especially motivated this year and I think my success is a result of the motivation and hard work I put in over the offseason and my consistent focus.
“Obviously, we all strive for the big games and are hopeful we’ve put in performances good enough to earn them, but all we can do is work hard, keep our heads down, and let the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
“It’s always a great feeling to receive appointments to the biggest games and also a reminder that hard work and dedication to your craft don’t go unnoticed by the management team at PRO.”
Unnoticed he is not and, in his approach to the All-Star Game, Penso can lean on a not too dissimilar scenario from 2010, when he refereed Thierry Henry’s New York Red Bulls debut against Arsenal’s London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur.
Six years on, and with PRO colleagues Frank Anderson, Matthew Nelson, Juan Guzman and Chris Strickland in his corner, Penso believes he and his crew can deliver on the big stage once again.
“To date, it was arguably the biggest assignment of my career [Henry’s NYRB debut]. The match was being shown in some 70-plus countries worldwide and there was quite a bit of fanfare about it, but after the whistle blew to start the match, we all settled in and it was just another game.
“I’ve been blessed with a strong crew – all of them equally deserving of the appointment – and I truly look forward to sharing the experience with them.
“There will be an extraordinary amount of talent on the field from both sides and it will be an honor to suit up and join them. Our approach will be the same as it is for every game – provide a safe environment for the players to showcase their skills, allow the game to flow, and ensure fans go home with a memorable experience.”