When Katy Nesbitt decided to take a break from her role as a chemistry professor last year to channel all her energy on soccer, she did so with two summer tournaments as her focus.
First up was the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, then this year was intended to be geared towards the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
The 12 months that have followed since officiating five World Cup games in France have taken a significantly different course, and while her second objective remains on the horizon, she’s been able to make history via an alternative route at a tournament that was only conceived this spring.
Last month, Nesbitt became the first female to officiate an MLS title game, and as a consequence, has found herself in the limelight in a way she hadn’t anticipated.
“The reaction has been bigger than anything I have experienced before, even getting named to go to the World Cup,” she explained.
“Standing out as a female on a men’s final hit home with a lot of different people in a variety of ways.
“I’ve had a ton of people reach out and everybody who I’ve spoken to has shared their experiences with me and what it means.
“Going on The Call Up was a cool opportunity for me, and that’s highlighted the impression it has had on females outside of the referee world.”
With 65 regular-season MLS games and three playoffs matches under her belt prior to heading to Orlando, and having been named as the reserve assistant referee for the 2018 MLS Cup Final, Nesbitt has packed plenty in since her debut in 2015.
Understandably, the MLS is Back Tournament Final now tops that list as her most significant domestic assignment.
“It was such an honor to get that appointment. It was the first time I’ve been on a final so that was huge, but to be the first woman on an MLS title game means a lot to me.
“I was determined not to let it be a distraction by focusing on the preparation and making sure I had a good match. Although it was at the back of my mind, I didn’t want to be feeling the weight of what I was about to do.
“Only in the days that followed the game did I get a feel for how powerful that was. That has had a big impact on me.
“The camaraderie amongst the PRO guys was unbelievably strong. The teamwork was always there within the group and you were always rooting for the best for everyone.
“All the appointments were announced to the group in the meeting room, just like you would at an international tournament, which was really good. You got to celebrate together each time and as the tournament progressed, the group got smaller, so the environment became more intimate. When the crew for the final was announced it was a special moment for us all.”
Only in the days that followed the game did I get a feel for how powerful that was. That has had a big impact on me.
Nesbitt is no stranger to spending time away from home on assistant referee duty, having officiated at the 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, 2018 Concacaf Women’s U-20 Championships, 2018 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup as well as last summer’s Women’s World Cup, and most recently, the Concacaf Women’s Olympic Qualifiers at the start of the year.
Therefore, the 31-year-old had a better understanding of the environment they would inhabit throughout the MLS is Back Tournament than some of her peers – insight she was happy to share.
“A few officials reached out to me before traveling to get an understanding of what to expect. I was in contact with the guys in Utah [working the NWSL Challenge Cup] so that helped as well, not least with knowing what items to pack that might not be so easy to obtain!
“We did a lot of preparations as a group as well to ensure we would be ready for the situations that would be different, on and off the field. The mental side takes more of a toll than people really take into account before they go into a long stretch like this.
“Everyone has different requirements and adjusts accordingly. We had the comfort of the procedures MLS and PRO had set up for us and I was really impressed by a lot of people who brought pictures and important things from their families and completely decorated their rooms and made it a homely place.
“It took a few days for everyone to get into the rhythm of things. That is normal of any tournament; you are always a little nervous when you first get there – just this time we were also figuring out how we were going to make this work, how we could be comfortable around each other constantly wearing a mask, but we soon settled in.
“Everybody wanted the tournament to go forward and safety was the number one priority. My experience of tournaments helped me settle: the comfort level of knowing you will get used to a new atmosphere, and what day-to-day would look like in general definitely assisted with that side.”
All the wiser for an experience no-one had anticipated at the beginning of the year, Nesbitt has, by her own admission, endeavored to embrace the responsibilities that come with breaking ground as best she can.
Reflecting on her time in Orlando has only increased her hunger for her next milestone, one she is already prepping for.
“The tournament on the whole was a success; the people and the atmosphere away from the games contributed to that.
“If you are having an enjoyable time away from the field, it leads to a good experience when you are doing your job. It’s a lesson I’ve slowly learned over time, but it was proven even more to me during MLS is Back.
“We left the bubble having achieved something as a group, and that has set us up for the regular-season games, which have been good to get back to.
“On a personal level, to know working the final has impacted and inspired others has enhanced that achievement for me. It’s the first time I’ve experienced that feeling so that was really special.
“My goal for this year was the Olympics and because I’ve not reached that, it stays number one for me. I will work as hard as I can because I want to achieve that next summer.”
WATCH: The Call Up from August, 18