Chris Penso on FIFA badges, rehab, and a return to the field
Everyone will have a unique story to share when reflecting on the impact the last 18 months has had on their career, and few in the soccer world will compare to the roller coaster Chris Penso has experienced.
The referee recalls lying flat across the back of his friend’s car with his leg up in the air, making an eight-hour journey home after a successful Achilles clean up and repair operation.
The prospect of surgery on a five-year Achilles problem that was progressively worsening had a degree of inevitably, but the milestones that swiftly followed came very much by surprise.
While undergoing rehabilitation, Penso completed 19 regular-season games as a Video Assistant Referee, which saw him become one of the first from the US to be selected for FIFA’s new Video Match Official panel.
It was not the first time the former State Trooper had been recognized by FIFA, having been part of their roster of referees from 2013 to 2015 after making his international debut in Scottsdale, Arizona, when Denmark played Mexico in a friendly.
“I had some really good experiences and game assignments with FIFA,” he said. “In that time, I was never selected for a tournament, so I thought my possibilities of going to one had passed.
“I also had no expectations about the VMO badge, it was a new deal. So, when Mark Geiger [Director of Senior Match Officials] called to congratulate me, Tori [Penso] and I were visiting family for Christmas, and for Tori to get the call at the same time about her being added to the FIFA referee list was a surreal moment.
“While I was recovering, having virtual camps last year was a big help in keeping my mind straight. Having extra time at home, watching all the games on TV and still focusing on rehab worked really well.
“Being married to a referee helps, too; she’s out doing games and all of the post-match discussion keeps my mind sharp because there is somebody else in the house that I can bounce things off of.
“When the call came again it brought back a lot of good memories from my previous time on the panel.”
The news came after positive progress on the rehabilitation front – two months ahead of schedule and with permission to start straight-line sprinting, having spent the previous seven months building strength in the ankle through sit-down exercises and gentle jogging.
“During that time, I was sitting on the couch while the guys were at MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando. I missed being on the field of course, but there was a bigger picture – I did the surgery so that I could referee for 10 more years. It was also a blessing in disguise with Tori out at the NWSL Challenge Cup because I was able to stay home and spend some time with our girls.
“But there were moments in rehab where you think you will never be able to do it again at the level you were doing it.
“I had some of those moments early on and again after starting to lightly jog. Some days I would come home from physical therapy completely beat up. Rehab was a long, enduring process. It taught me the importance of following the plan, listening to your body, and trusting your physical therapist.
“The doctor told me it would be at least a year before you could forget you had surgery, and he was spot on. My Achilles was completely back to normal, something which I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager.”
You come out of the locker room, you get lined up right before the music starts and you enter the field – that’s one of the best feelings as a referee.
Doctor Ben Jackson officiated college matches with Penso, who was part of Jackson’s crew during his final game before retirement.
The fact that Jackson was the man who conducted Penso’s surgery and, along with the PRO’s medical and sports science staff, helped him back onto the field ahead of the 2021 season provided a layer of reassurance on the 39-year-old’s road to recovery.
“I had kept him abreast of all my injuries along the way. The Achilles affected how hard I could go in training, but I felt good once I got into a game; the problem was afterward.
“Even if I cooled down, stretched, and did all the right things, just getting out of bed was a bugbear for the next few days. My window of comfort at the start of each season was getting shorter, and about a week into lockdown, I suffered my third partial tear.
“Fast forward to April 18, 2021 and I was in Miami for opening weekend [Inter Miami vs LA Galaxy], which was really exciting for me having not refereed a game outside of preseason in over a year. It also speaks highly of the trust that everyone at PRO has in my ability, which is humbling.
“You come out of the locker room, get lined up right before the music starts and enter the field – that’s one of the best feelings as a referee.
“Especially then, as on that day we were getting back to normal procession and Miami had a crowd, which is a big element for officials. I find it more difficult to referee in an empty stadium than it is refereeing in front of thousands of fans.”
Almost 12 months on from that long car ride following his operation, Penso had a much more pleasurable journey home, spending the four hours on the road making phone calls and catching up with friends and family.
But the high emotions did not end there because Penso received an email from FIFA on the following Tuesday.
“The Olympics was not on my bingo card this year, and when FIFA announced the officials for Tokyo my phone started blowing up.
“I was speechless; there aren’t words to describe how overcome with emotion I was. The whirlwind of Sunday to Tuesday, riding the high of getting back on the field, and next thing I know, I’m going to Japan for the Olympics.
“This is a stepping stone for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, so I certainly want to go and perform well in Tokyo.
“It’s funny how life works. If I had not made the decision to have surgery, I wouldn’t have had all the Video Review work that I had in 2020, as a result of which I was nominated for the Video Match Officials badge with FIFA and then Olympic selection.
“It’s amazing how some of the decisions we make in life open so many other doors. If you told me a year ago that you knew everything that was going to happen, and the way it would, I would have said you were crazy.”