With time in her schedule becoming tight, there was a moment when Kali Smith was contemplating a break from refereeing.
She had been on her officiating journey for the best part of a decade, having signed up to her first course with her dad at the age of 12. She had also played all through high school, before moving away from home, thriving at college while taking up the heptathlon to improve her speed and fitness to gain an edge on the soccer field.
Balancing a rigorous heptathlon training program and college commitments meant time was stretched and officiating was occasionally squeezed out of her week. Then a conversation with former MLS referee and ex-PRO development group coach JP Spicer-Escalante set her on a new path.
“He’s from the same area and he asked me why I’m not a Grade Seven and a lot of these other things,” Smith said. “I had no idea what he was talking about.
“He helped me through the upgrade process, and after that the officiating opportunities started coming.
“I was then at a point where I had to decide between the referee and assistant referee track. I went to regionals and nationals in 2017 as a referee. In 2018 at regionals, Jeremy Hanson [PRO AR] watched me when I was in the center; the game did not go well.
“I had a lot of personal things going on outside of refereeing, so my mindset was not there. He was super nice and we talked about staying focused and ready for the game when things aren’t going your way in life.
“For my next game Ian Anderson [Manager of PRO2 Assistant Referees but a FIFA and MLS AR at the time] was watching. I was on the line this time and he pulled me aside and we had a really good conversation; he said I had an opportunity with this if I wanted it.
“So, I went to nationals as a returnee and then I had my first NWSL assistant referee assignment. I had been doing fourth officials already, did the game as an AR, and I thought, ‘Yep, my decision’s been made’.”
Smith’s first year in PRO2 was in 2018. That coincided with relocating to Idaho Falls with her husband and establishing herself in the group with regular USL Championship and NWSL assignments, culminating in being selected for the NWSL Championship title game at the end of 2021.
Her target for 2022 was to take the next step: to earn a trial game in MLS. But the next 12 months surpassed her expectations.
After working the NWSL Challenge Cup semifinal between Kansas City Current and North Carolina Courage, Smith was then appointed reserve assistant referee for the final at WakeMed Soccer Park three days later.
Then came her MLS debut, in the state where her officiating journey began.
“Salt Lake was the perfect place. I flew there with a one-way ticket and my family drove there, so I was able to come back with them.
“It was awesome to have my family there because we do a lot of sacrificing. My husband and I haven’t had a Valentine’s Day together apart from during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I missed seeing my daughter’s first dance performance for fitness testing. Luckily, I have an amazing support system and it’s fun that they can be there with you when you have those big opportunities.
“When I got the initial call, it was like every emotion came at once – the butterflies, nerves, excitement. I had enough time to process those emotions and really get my head focused on what I needed to do to make that game successful.
“I did a little more research around the delayed flag because this was something I didn’t have any experience with. I went back and watched a lot of Greg Barkey’s Inside Video Reviews, re-read all of Joe Fletcher’s manager reports, and all of Mark Geiger’s manager reports, looked at the law book, and reached out to other officials. I brought the computer to breakfast with Corey Rockwell and I was like, ‘Hey, I have a couple of questions: is this a time I would delay? Is this a time that I wouldn’t?’
“I then did the same thing that I do for every gameday. I woke up, had breakfast, hopped on the bike for five minutes and did a little bit of stretching to try and get my body moving. Then some more VAR research, perception testing, and tried to nap.
“When you get to the locker room, usually the referee chooses the pregame music that sets the mood, and fortunately, Armando [Villarreal] made it a very comfortable atmosphere. I felt like I had known the crew for a long time. The game went fast but I remember every part of it – it was super exciting. I ended the match feeling confident and pleased with my performance.”
With her 2022 target completed, Smith’s next goal was simply to make the most of every opportunity she was given, and more MLS games came her way in Dallas, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles.
She then became the first woman to not only work a USL Championship Final, but also to win the USL’s Assistant Referee of the Year award. Her successful season concluded with a consecutive NWSL Championship game.
“I don’t think I fully took on the year that I had; I was talking to Eric Boria [former PRO2 AR coach] and he said I had accomplished everything I could in PRO2, and he was right. I could not have asked for anything else.
“It was then a complete surprise when I got the email.”
It was a message from FIFA promoting her to the international panel for the 2023 season, enabling Smith to make a new set of goals beyond domestic borders.
“I talked to Katja Koroleva quite a lot when I was in Florida for the Concacaf Girls U15 Championship. I talked a lot with Tori Penso, and Katy Nesbitt reached out and said, ‘Hey, if you have any questions, I’m always here for you.’
“I want to keep performing after such a high year because I don’t want anyone to be disappointed or have any regrets putting me in as an employee, and also – a lot of referees feel this – when we make mistakes or we are not performing to our best, it hurts. I want to keep moving in an upward direction.”
Looking back, Smith has come a long way since her college days. Where once heptathlon was prioritized over officiating, it has since supported her quick rise to the international scene.
“The track side of it helped me understand my body and the training John Westbrooks [Head Sports Performance Coach] does is similar to the training I did, so it was good.
“I taught school for six years and when my husband finished his MBA, we moved up to Idaho Falls for his job. We didn’t know where we would live so I didn’t know where to apply to teach, so we decided that I should focus on refereeing.
“I have a part-time job teaching at The Little Gym, it’s a non-competitive gymnastics program for children from four months to 12 years old and my girls come with me. It’s the perfect setup and they are super flexible. My husband is very supportive of my refereeing career; even if I’m like, ‘Is this too much?’ He says, ‘No, keep going, we’ve got this.’
“I love where I am at now, so I don’t know if I would go back and change. I started a little later than some people, but I was able to graduate college, have the experience with refereeing, and have two kids; I don’t regret any of my journey.”