Katja Koroleva reflects on the NWSL Challenge Cup Final and her continued efforts on the frontline

In has been a relentless few months for Katja Koroleva.

Within 27 hours of whistling for fulltime in the NWSL Challenge Cup Final at the Rio Tinto Stadium, the 33-year-old FIFA official was back at work in the Regional Medical Centre in San Jose, California, returning to the fight against COVID-19 that had engulfed her time prior to the tournament.

Little over a year ago, she had been in France for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup – a goal Koroleva had been working to achieve for four years, and a tournament experience she hadn’t anticipated having to call on so soon afterward.

Read more [from 2015]: Katja Koroleva looks ahead to international honors after domestic success

“Having the Concacaf and FIFA background helped settle my nerves,” she said. “Daily routines and having a reality check with family and friends outside the tournament are two key concepts I honed in on.

“Life in the bubble was simple for me; we had training every day, everything was within walking distance, and it was a very safe, structured process.

“We also had a fair bit of downtime on our hands, so we played board games, video games and had competitions, in addition to watching our own and our colleagues’ matches, and MLS is Back when that tournament kicked off.

“Like with any new experience, we were apprehensive initially beforehand, especially when everyone has a million questions. NWSL and PRO did a great job of trying to answer as many as possible, communicating while we were there and providing a very healthy and safe environment for us to referee and enjoy soccer.

“There was no guidebook for what we were doing – some of it had to be attended to on the fly and some of it could be pre-planned – so seeing the environment, the testing capabilities, and the results coming back as negative helped ease us in.”

Koroleva set off from the hospital 10 days before the competition began to reduce her risk of exposure of COVID-19, but there was no such time to re-acclimatize on her trip back home.

Just seven hours after landing, she returned to hospital for the first of five successive nights on the frontline, 5PM until 3AM, and has only just had the opportunity to reflect on her time in Utah properly.

“It was a brutal shock back to reality, but as with anything, once you put on a uniform and step in the front door, I know what’s at hand and what is required of me as a PA [physician assistant] in the ER, so my focus is there.

“I watched the game back on Monday [07/28] before my shift to put a wrap on the experience, and we finally had a debrief on Wednesday [08/05] because of my busy schedule. I’m thankful that Michael [Kennedy] from PRO was able to adjust the time frame for that

“After being at Zions Bank Stadium for five rounds of games, it was a welcome environment to go to a new venue that added a new meaning to the semifinals and final.

“It’s a year, and a final, that I will never forget.”

There was no guidebook for what we were doing… so seeing the environment, the testing capabilities, and the results coming back as negative helped ease us in.

Throughout the tournament, it was business as usual for Koroleva and her PRO colleagues – at least, ‘usual’ for soccer during a global pandemic. The showpiece was a stark contrast to her NWSL Final assignment five years ago.

“They were two very different events,” she explained. “One was played in Portland with a massive crowd and the other was in this new bubble environment during a pandemic, which we were fortunate enough to referee.

“After goals are scored, there is usually a huge celebration, but everything was scaled down and it was a little less emotional for everybody involved, although you could tell what the goals meant for the players and teams. Listening to a national anthem with an empty stadium was also a very new feeling.

“The [lack of] crowd noise allowed for conversations to be heard and eased the communication between us as a team of referees – we were always able to hear each other perfectly.

“The heat had an impact as well, so we broke up the game into four quarters and knew that players would have lots of energy going out of those hydration breaks, and we did as well, so we stayed focussed and upped our concentration levels.”

NWSL Challenge Cup Final crew: Tiffini Turpin (AR2), Tori Penso (4TH), Katja Koroleva (REF) and Jennifer Garner (AR1).
NWSL Challenge Cup Final crew: Tiffini Turpin (AR2), Tori Penso (4TH), Katja Koroleva (REF) and Jennifer Garner (AR1).

With her date for the final all but confirmed, Koroleva watched the semifinals from the stands and revealed how informative it was, from a referee standpoint, to hear the player dynamics and coaching tactics conveyed across the field.

Similarly, extra insight is always welcome when analyzing medical histories and diagnosing patients in her full-time job – just two of her many responsibilities away from the center circle.

Her healthcare role can be challenging at the best of times, but this year, it has been far from straightforward.

“It has been a volatile, emotional roller coaster; a lot of anxiety, nerves and apprehension about the future, and questions about the unknown like we all have.

“Having had the background of working in a hospital, I see the complete deterioration of people when COVID-19 is contracted and the real, terrible health impacts that can play out.

“Unfortunately, in the ER [emergency room], we are still busy and seeing a lot of COVID-19 exposure and patients, some asymptomatic and some that are critically ill. It is a scary virus.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint when I will be able to step away from the hospital, so this year, there may be more time dedicated to be on the frontlines of healthcare in the hope of a safer return to soccer in the late fall or next year.”

However, if this summer’s Utah tournament was anything to go by, the future of women’s soccer in the US is one positive in an extremely testing time for the country and the world.

“I will welcome it [NWSL Challenge Cup] back at any time; it gives players exposure to international-style tournaments with a platform to play group stage matches, with extra meaning for each game in the knockout stages.

“Off the field, it brought a lot of attention from family, friends and the public that usually do not follow soccer, paying attention to matches as well as the news of new teams coming into the league, so hopefully it has captured their attention to continue in following NWSL in the future.

“Any talk of NWSL in 2020 has been positive. More sponsors, more communication, more publicity is all welcome to help grow the league and generate funding for teams and players.

“It would really help the league continue to be one of the best in the world.”