After the NWSL Challenge Cup Final last weekend, match officials Natalie Simon, Brooke Mayo, Deleana Quan, Karen Callado, and Rachel Smith stayed in their locker room at Providence Park for well over an hour.
It had been an eventful afternoon. The first trophy game of the new North American soccer season went to extra time and penalties after Portland Thorns and NJ/NY Gotham finished the game with one goal apiece – the Thorns eventually winning 6-5 on penalty kicks.
While the ceremonial stage was cleared off the field and fans, players, and staff slowly dispersed from the stadium, the refereeing crew had two priorities.
Number one was to make sure the match report was filed correctly, followed by number two: to soak it all in.
So when the group eventually turned off the music, packed their bags, and made for the exit, a once exuberant Providence Park now seemed like a ghost town.
“One person had stayed behind because they knew where the referees were coming out,” Mayo recalled. “She came over and said, ‘I want to say how cool it was to see four women on the game and especially people of color.’
“It was great; she said she had a referee friend as well. She was just a stranger, but you never know who you could be inspiring or who you are opening the door for.”
Mayo is from Tennessee and first started refereeing aged 13 to earn extra money to buy video games, a decade before a high school state tournament opened her eyes to a potential career path.
Now 32, having progressed along the officiating pathway the assistant referee has already had a 2021 to remember. She was one of the first women to referee men’s Concacaf World Cup qualifiers and was also a part of an all-female crew assigned to a USL Championship game by PRO at the start of May.
“When I saw the [USL Championship] appointment, I thought ‘sweet, I get to work with my friends’ – I didn’t connect all of the dots. Especially now that Tori [Penso] is on the FIFA panel, I would like to work with her more so we are prepared to do international assignments together.
“As a referee I like to stay out of the limelight – if people don’t know I’m there then I’ve done a good job. But I want to be a leader and I want young referees to look up and say ‘hey, I can do that’, so taking that on is important as well.
“There is a magnifying glass when that happens and you don’t want to let yourself down, but more importantly, girls, women, and other referees. It was a bit of pressure, but I also felt confident in the group because we had worked very hard to get that appointment.
“The fans were clapping for us and different families were coming over and waving with their daughters, pointing and saying, ‘look how cool this is.’
“At random times throughout the game, a player would come up and I would be ready to listen to whatever they had to say, normally it is about something that didn’t go their way but this time it was to say congratulations instead. It was cool to have the players respect us on that level.”
This assignment came after a year where the voices of players amplified against social injustice, which saw Mayo’s Major League Soccer debut – Inter Miami’s game against Atlanta United on August 26 – join an emotional and poignant movement across the continent.
“When I got the call, I just started crying – I was super excited.
“I got to the game and Natalie was fourth official on it, and we did our warm-up, my heart rate was elevated more than normal – it was finally going to happen.
“We checked in the players in the tunnel and we were about to walk out when the players decided they weren’t going to play that game, and they protested that night.
“I remember feeling so torn because I had worked so hard for this one opportunity and I didn’t know if it was going to come again, but I understood why they were protesting and I naturally support my friend Natalie who has been an outspoken voice for the BAME community for a very long time.
“I was also on the first game of the  Challenge Cup and it was a heavy tournament emotionally, talking about these social issues and how we could play our part as referees.
“Normally we do not share opinions in public, we are just there to referee a game, but this past year has forced everyone to have a stance and show up; it’s not okay to be quiet anymore on these issues.
“I did a lot of soul-searching. As a teacher and a coach in the community, I have a lot of kids who look up to me and players in my soccer team who are of different colors and cultures, so I want to make sure that I’m doing them justice, and they see Coach Mayo having their back and taking a stance for the right thing.”
Four other games on August 26 were postponed in protest, with Mayo making her debut when her fixture in Miami was rescheduled in September. She then officiated a further five MLS games during the remaining regular season.
Mayo, who played four years of NCAA Division One soccer at Tennessee Technological University, has now set her sights on officiating at the Women’s World Cup in 2023.
“For all soccer players it is their dream to go to the World Cup, but I wasn’t going further than college. Then I found out I could go to the World Cup in a different way.
“You are still an athlete and it feels good to train and chase something again; I fit right in. I like being coached, and I like the team comradery of doing a game with the group.
“You wake up super early to do your training, you get through your workday, and you have to do another training or a Zoom call, or watch game film, or travel – six or seven days out of the week for a long portion of the year.
“It’s definitely a lot of responsibilities to make sure you are prepared to work those games. They rightfully expect a lot of us, and it is difficult for those of us that have full-time jobs.
“But there are those moments that we chase, every time you walk onto the field, especially now that the fans are back. It reminds you of why you do it.”
The fans were clapping for us and different families were coming over and waving with their daughters, pointing and saying, ‘look how cool this is.’
As well as the high moments, Mayo – being a teacher of wellness – also appreciates the importance of down time. For her, that ranges from hiking, to weightlifting, and to organizing gaming tournaments with the PRO2 crew.
“Unfortunately, I had a bad controller and Walt Heatherly beat me in the [Mario Kart] championship round. He did win the tournament, so I’ll give credit where credit is due, but there will definitely be a rematch.”
Bragging rights aside, her efforts to strengthen relationships with likeminded people on and off the field encapsulates a motto that Mayo has carried into every milestone of her career so far, and every milestone to come.
“You don’t want to do it by yourself because you’ll get to the top and who’s there to celebrate it with?
“In the PRO2 group we are always kicking messages back and forth about clips, trying to get better, and they are people you lean on when you wonder how you could have done something better. It is a family in that respect.
“Natalie and I started working together in 2014 so we have known each other a long time, and some of the guys that are in MLS now we went to regionals together and became really good friends – so when you get assignments with people you’ve known for so long, it’s exciting to take the game.
“It’s always good when you feel you have done the game a good service; you can walk off feeling happier, and getting to work with my friends is a cherry on the top.
“The biggest thing is surrounding yourself around people who believe in you and believe in your dreams.”