Of the roughly 100 national referees in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s (USSF) program, 11 are women. When Bibiana Steinhaus draws the whistle to her lips at the start of next season’s Bundesliga, she will be the first woman to take charge in a major league. One Minnesota woman, Amber O’Connor, is making her own inroads into the world of professional referees.
When Amber O’Connor took her place at the center of the pitch on May 17, it was the biggest game of her career. On one side of the pitch was the the New York Cosmos, by far the most famous team in the U.S. outside of MLS. On the other side, the minnows: Reading United.
It didn’t matter that this U.S. Open Cup match played out in front of just 347 fans, the game would end in David slaying Goliath and five yellow cards and a red card. It was O’Connor’s first time as the head referee in a competitive men’s professional match and, by all accounts, she acquitted herself well.
Months later, O’Connor reflects back on that match from her apartment in Philadelphia, where she is a medical student at Temple University. “The Cosmos were upset,” she says in an understated tone. The New York Cosmos lost 3-2 to an amateur squad after surrendering three goals in the first half. “I think I handled it right, but there were some conversations that didn’t go my way.”
O’Connor recounts the game a bit vaguely; it’s a bit of a referee’s habit. But as she talks about herself, her performances, and her career, she’s remarkably candid about her challenges and the need to grow in confidence.
“You can have a career in this.”
A Blaine native, 27, O’Connor got her start as a referee the way almost all referees do. “I was a player first — youth, college, WPSL — and then I started refereeing at 13 for money.” And like many referees, she says, “I quit because I didn’t like being yelled at.”
When she was home from attending Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., though, O’Connor’s mother, who was a referee assignor, started pushing work her way to get her some cash. While she was refereeing on the side, Local Area Coordinator Troy Cohrs (also the head coach of the Northfield High School girls soccer team), took her aside. Cohrs had been watching her work a game at a state tournament and told her, “You know, you can have a career in this.”
For his part, Cohrs remembers the first time he saw O’Connor referee at one of the state academies. “At that point, you can kind of tell immediately when a referee has something. She knew the game well and there was something about the way she was able to call fouls and deal with people.”
“I remember being so nervous. I wore my heart rate monitor and my heart rate was up to 195 in the first 90 seconds of the game.”
It had never really dawned on her until then, but it was that validation and encouragement that pushed her forward. From there on, O’Connor devoted more time to being a referee and fell in love with the travel. “My first trip was out to Los Angeles. I loved the travel. I loved that it forced me to be a professional. At 24- and 25-years-old I was able to carry myself differently than my peers. There are many aspects of being a referee that I can take away and use it in my career.”
O’Connor’s biggest break was when she was the assistant referee for a mid-season friendly between Minnesota United and FC Edmonton. The match was played in the middle of the USA Cup tournament and in front of a packed crowd. As she recounts it, “I remember being so nervous. I wore my heart rate monitor and my heart rate was up to 195 in the first 90 seconds of the game.”
A year later, in 2014, O’Connor was the fourth official for the Minnesota United match versus Ottawa Fury at TCF Bank stadium that followed Manchester City versus Olympiakos. She was nervous that day, too. “It took a few years for those nerves to go away. I was trying to act like I knew what I was doing.”
Growing in confidence
With more and more matches under her belt, O’Connor started to build her confidence and continued to earn positive reviews from her assessors.
“Every match you go into with nerves and self-doubt with every decision you make. If there’s one little thing and you’re only 99% confident it can screw with you a little bit.”
“Every match you go into with nerves and self-doubt with every decision you make,” she says. “If there’s one little thing and you’re only 99% confident, it can screw with you a little bit.”
What really changed for her, though, was the overwhelming support she received from other referees. Before she left for medical school in 2016, she was a Grade 6 State Referee (the grades move up from Grade 8 to Grade 1 or the “White Badges”). In the fall of 2016, though, O’Connor got the call saying that she’d been promoted to a Grade 3, National Referee.
Minnesota State Director of Assessment Bob Peterson has been watching O’Connor’s career closely over the years. “What’s made Amber really move forward is that she’s worked very hard,” he says. “Sometimes when you watch games on TV, it may look easier than it is, but to get to that level, she’s put in a lot of work.”
“The very first time I put on a Grade 3 national badge, my confidence went through the roof. It was that affirmation from people that made me confident,” she says. “This year has been better for me, this year I haven’t had self doubt.”
Since then, O’Connor has been traveling around the country as an assistant referee in USL and NWSL matches. If that kind of schedule sounds crazy for a first-year medical student, O’Connor doesn’t agree, saying, “It’s actually been much easier than one would imagine.”
She describes her weekends as waking up early on a Saturday to travel, refereeing a match, and then returning home early on a Sunday. “The travel, the camaraderie, and soccer has eliminated a lot of stress that med school provides,” she says. “This is my social life. Some of my classmates will party and this keeps me occupied and healthy.”
It’s a man’s world
O’Connor is part of a small sorority of women referees in the highest ranks of U.S. Soccer. “I think there are six women with better than [Grade 3],” she says, “and we get to interact quite a bit together.”
Recently, she says, she refereed an NWSL match and the entire refereeing team was made up of women. She calls that match, “The best game I’ve been a part of. [The referees] were all on the same page our all our decisions were correct and confirmed [by the assessors].”
With so much of the refereeing community made up of men, O’Connor says most of her mentors are men. That has been fine, she says, “But I have some women I can go to and ask, ‘How is this different for us?’ Because it is so different for us. I don’t think I could be a referee if I didn’t have that communication with the other women.”
Cohrs acknowledges the real difficulties in bringing women through the referee pipeline. “The largest difficulty is that most of the instructors and national coaches are men,” he says. “Having myself explain how I would deal with a situation wouldn’t be the same as Amber dealing with that situation. I can’t possibly know what she feels like in those moments. So it becomes difficult for me to coach her through those situations.”
The Minnesota State Referee Committee, Cohrs says, is trying to fix those problems. They are trying to identify women mentors just as much as they try to identify the young women referees.
Another problem for developing referees, he says, has been being perhaps too eager to advance them. “You get really excited when you find a capable referee,” he says, and that can lead to bringing them along too quickly and not helping them develop naturally. He also says that one of his dreams is to try to hold academies that are all for women and “listening to them to see what we can do better.”
But the difference in women and men in soccer, O’Connor says, is also about the players on the pitch. Shifting between the world of men’s and women’s professional soccer also allows O’Connor a unique perspective on the styles of play. “When it comes to the professional world,” she says, “the style of play is just so different. The women are far more patient and therefore my positioning is different because I have to predict the ball movement differently. Also men will react immediately if they are upset, but women will hold on to things [incidents with another player] for quite a while. So with women you have to do a bit more research on previous incidents in the season.” Part of her preparation for women’s matches, she says, is preparing for who might retaliate for a bad tackle earlier in the season.
The big stage
This week, O’Connor will get her biggest test yet as she takes the center circle for the first time in an NWSL match. On July 8, Sky Blue FC hosts FC Kansas City and O’Connor will take the reins.
This is all part of the gradual growth and elevation for referees in the USSF system as they’re progressively given more and more responsibility. “They want to make sure that we get all the calls correct, but that I’m able to handle myself.” Eventually, that could mean working as the head referee for USL. Potentially, it could see her or another one of her colleagues taking control of a top-flight men’s match, like their German counter-part Steinhaus.
As she approaches her match this weekend, O’Connor will work with her coach as she did with the New York Cosmos versus Reading United match. “When I go into men’s games my biggest need is confidence. There are a lot of vulgar things said. And there are some things that can be said that can get in your head. And my coach got me prepared to get tremendous confidence. There was one point late in the game [between Cosmos and Reading] when my confidence faltered, but that was it.”
O’Connor says that part of the vetting and development process is working with referees and players. “I’m already at a disadvantage due to my gender,” she says. “We’re making progress, but there are still some people who will never respect a woman referee.”
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