By the time she laces up her boots before a soccer game, Alyssa Nichols has studied each of the players on the pitch with a rigor that can only be described as academic. The 27-year-old newly minted FIFA referee has trained extensively leading up to match day and is prepared to run as many as 7 miles in the next 90 minutes plus stoppage time.
Nichols wouldn’t have it any other way.
For years, referees have kept a notoriously low-profile to maintain their neutrality and keep from being easily identified and influenced by players, coaches and fans of the game. But as modernity creeps in, the culture around the sport has been shifting. Vital members of the soccer community are unwavering in their efforts to keep issues of equity and diversity at the forefront of conversations about how to improve the game. As a result, referees are more visible than they’ve ever been — especially those from underrepresented groups.
Women, unsurprisingly, have broken many of those barriers: On Sept. 23, 2020, Tori Penso became the first woman in 20 years to referee an MLS game. In January 2022, Natalie Simon became the first Black American woman to earn a FIFA badge. The 2022 World Cup had its first all-female referee group to officiate a game on Dec. 1, 2022, led by French referee Stephanie Frappart. And when Nichols obtained her FIFA badge in January, she became the first woman from Mississippi, a state not conventionally known for being a powerhouse for soccer or soccer referees, to do so.
The Jackson State alumna and member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, now lives in Tampa, Florida. She spoke to Andscape shortly after earning her FIFA appointment to talk about her entry into refereeing, the moment she decided to leave her job to pursue it full time, her solidarity with other Black referees and allyship with non-Black mentors, and what she’s doing to be a more effective referee in the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Before we get into refereeing, what’s your soccer origin story? And what was the soccer culture where you grew up in Jackson, Mississippi?
The soccer culture in Jackson wasn’t huge, but we had the Central Jackson Soccer Organization, a competitive soccer club founded by African Americans. It was really competitive and successful and has produced MLS and USL players.
I didn’t start playing soccer until I was in high school, but I played volleyball and tennis and ran track growing up. I had a lot of friends who played soccer when I was younger, and I always wanted to play, but my mom thought it was too dangerous. It didn’t help that when I was in middle school, I had a friend break her collarbone and another friend break her leg. My mom was like, ‘Yeah, you’re definitely not doing that.’
I had two friends who played for our high school team, and my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, also played, so I wanted to figure out a way to get involved. I asked my mom if I could be one of the team trainers my freshman year, and she agreed. But the coach already knew I was already an athlete and eventually asked if I’d ever tried playing. I told him I wasn’t allowed to, but he was like, ‘Give it a try and let’s see what happens,’ so I started practicing with them. The following year, I formally tried out for the team and I made it, and somehow my mom agreed to it after talking to multiple friends’ parents first.
I played soccer throughout high school and actually got an opportunity to play NCAA Division II soccer, but I decided not to. By that time, I was already getting serious about refereeing and I knew that there was a window of opportunity that I needed to catch.
So you started refereeing while you were playing in high school?
I wanted a job, and I had a friend who was a youth soccer referee. She told me I could do it on the weekends when we didn’t have our own games, that the schedule was superflexible, and that I already knew what was happening in the game since I played myself. My parents said I could do it as long as it didn’t conflict with my grades, so I got certified as a grassroots referee when I was 17.
I started with 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old kids’ games, and that age really helps you learn as a referee because you’re basically teaching the kids how to play: how to kick the ball, throw it in, not to touch it with their hands. You’re coaching-slash-refereeing, so it was a really good introduction.
Fortunately, I had a really good game assigner, Lewis Williams, who was part of the Southwest Jackson Soccer League, another predominantly Black club. He was passionate about making sure we did things right as referees: showing up on time, dressing properly, looking neat. He taught us that those things helped because when you step on the field like that, people respect you. He instilled a really strong foundation for me.
Back then, the referee structure was organized by grades. The lowest was grade nine, where I started, and over the next two years I upgraded.
Right around the time I was graduating high school, I went to a tournament where professional referees were there scouting and giving feedback. One of them, Rubiel Vazquez, pulled me aside after we did a drill and asked me my name. I was one of maybe 15 female referees there out of a group of almost 100. He told me he wanted to see me referee an actual game.
We ran into each other again a couple of months later at a youth regional tournament, and he came to watch me officiate a game. After the game, he told me I had the potential to become a FIFA referee. I didn’t even know that was a thing! Then he went and told his colleagues, other professional referees at the national and FIFA levels, to come watch my next game.
I’ll never forget that Friday night. It was, like, 15 of them standing at the corner flag, and they were all watching me. I was a nervous wreck. Rubiel told me, ‘Just go out there, referee like you did before, and don’t worry about them.’ Easier said than done! But the game went well, and I got invited to referee the youth national tournament after that. They told me I could become a professional if I really worked at it. At that moment, I was all-in.
I’m sure that completely altered the college experience you thought you were going to have up till that point.
I went to Jackson State University on an academic scholarship. I was studying chemistry and originally was going to go to medical school, or pursue a masters or Ph.D. and become a researcher, so I had a heavy course load. But I was also attending and refereeing games not just in Mississippi, but in Tennessee, Alabama, and Louisiana on the weekends, sometimes during the week, to get more experience and exposure. I stacked my classes early in the morning so that I was finished by noon or 1 p.m. and was free to travel and train.
Fortunately, there was another referee in Jackson, Matthew Thompson. He and I would carpool to games together, and then wake up really early in the morning the next day to drive back to Mississippi. I’d study in the car while he drove there, and on the way back, I’d drive while he slept. I was all over the place, and my friends were always wondering where I was going. I was either in class, or I was gone. I made the decision to pursue refereeing at an early age, and I was willing to make those sacrifices. My junior year, I got added to the list of SEC referees. That was surreal.
What was it like refereeing in the SEC?
The game was at Mississippi State. I’d refereed Division II and III and some NAIA games by that point, so I felt prepared, but still nervous. But I was also superexcited. One thing about the SEC referee assignor is that they’re not going to put you in an environment to be unsuccessful. For us, for her, and for the conference, it’s important that things go well, so it was a smooth transition for me and I had a lot of support. That was one of the most exciting experiences I had in college, being added to that list and refereeing SEC games. I did a couple of those that year.
By the time I graduated college, I was trying to get invited to national camp with the Professional Referee Organization. There’s an application for it now, but there wasn’t at the time I was trying to get in. You had to be identified by someone at U.S. Soccer while you were officiating and had to be invited to become a national referee, the highest level in the country. I wasn’t invited that year , and I was really disappointed, even went through the whole mindset of, should I do this. My mom and dad were on board with me being a referee by then, and when I didn’t get invited to national camp, they told me it was a short-term setback and that I just needed to refocus and try again.
The next year, I was invited. That was surreal, too.
What was it like? I know what national camp is like for players, but not referees.
You have to run a fitness test. There’s different categories based on your gender and your referee position. Women have to run 75 meters in 17 seconds, then walk 25 meters in 20 seconds. Men have to run the same distance but in 15 seconds, and walk the same distance in 18 seconds. It’s pretty strenuous, but I passed.
If you pass, then you go to classroom sessions, a full day of going over the considerations for handballs, offsides decisions, fouls, penalty area incidents, reckless play. You go through everything and talk at an elite level about how to get these calls right. What position should we be in? What should our body orientation be? What should our mindset be? What should we be expecting? You’re in a room full of referees, and you have referee coaches giving active feedback throughout the meeting. They call on you and ask questions, and tell you if you’re wrong or right.
With refereeing, there are some things that fans or players think are subjective, when in actuality they’re really not. You’re either supported or not supported in your decisions based on the rules developed by IFAB [International Football Association Board]. There’s always a set of considerations related to the decisions we make, like how much speed was there leading into the contact. Where was the point of contact? Did the player leave their feet? Answering these questions is how you come to a decision. After every game you do, you have an assessment with another referee who determines if you made the right or the wrong call. There are times when they’re like, ‘Maybe you coulda gone with a red card, but we support a yellow,’ or vice versa, but there’s always a guideline on what the decision should be.
So, after the classroom sessions, you take a written test. I passed that too, and the next day I got my national badge. I cried like a baby. A lot of people were there who’d mentored me, people who used to give me feedback as a teenager.
When did you referee your first NWSL game?
I got my national badge in February 2020. The pandemic happened, and I was like, I guess I’ll just hang on to this badge and see what happens. I refereed my first NWSL game September 2020 after the Challenge Cup that year, between Orlando Pride and Houston Dash. I’ll never forget that game. I wasn’t expecting the assignment because it was a shortened season, so there aren’t that many games, and I figured they would assign them to more experienced referees. I’d been a fourth official, but that was my first time as a referee, seeing it from that perspective and interacting with the coaches on that level. They knew it was my first game and came over to say good luck and that they hoped it went well for me.
They were trying to sweeten the pot.
Usually after your first game, you don’t get that treatment anymore. (Laughs.)
You’ve officiated some men’s games as well.
I’ve refereed in the USL Championship, USL League One, and MLS Next Pro, and I’ve been a fourth official at MLS games. In the MLS, the game is very fast and the players are still pretty physical [compared to the National Women’s Soccer League], so as far as decisions go, I’m still looking for the same things, but the challenges tend to look different.
Women use our lower center of gravity for challenges a lot of the time with hip checks, whereas with men it’s more upper body, their arms and shoulders. Men go to ground a lot in games. Women do too, but not as often.
I want to referee at the highest level, regardless of gender.
What’s been your most intense game? The one that tested the limits of everything you’d learned by point?
In 2022, I went to the Dominican Republic for the U-17 Women’s CONCACAF championships. I had Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico. That game was very difficult to manage because it was between two different cultures. Trinidad and Tobago was very physical, which frustrated Mexico, but it was hard to communicate with them because they were mad. Both teams were very upset with each other and with me. They’re teenagers, so I’m thinking, I’ve got this, but their expectation is extremely high for referees.
I learned how to recognize two different styles and physicalities and how to manage the emotional side of it. Saying things like, ‘I understand your frustration and I get what’s happening right now, but in this scenario, this isn’t a foul, and let me explain to you why.’ Sometimes with players, just seeing the human side of referees helps them understand that we’re not just blowing a whistle and walking away.
You’ve seen the stereotypes about Black athletes and assumptions made about their speed, physicality, or aggression. Do you have those things at the back of your mind as you work?
I compartmentalize that and try to be as clear and objective as possible. I’m not gonna treat you better, and I’m not going to show a bias to you because you are Black. I am going to make it an even playing field as it should be anyway. And this probably comes from me being from Mississippi. For the longest, I was kinda overlooked because there aren’t many referees from there. I always want to be treated just like everybody else regardless of my background, so with players, I don’t care if they were on the practice squad and just got on the field today, or if they played for the national team and won a World Cup. I’m gonna treat everybody the same because they deserve that. They all worked hard to get here, and they deserve the same respect.
What’s it like to be a Black woman referee?
There’s only three of us in the NWSL: Natalie Simon, Anya Voigt, and me. Natalie and I are the only two Black [American] women FIFA referees, and over the years, we’ve talked a lot. We met at a national tournament, my first, but she was a returning referee. She was like, ‘Hey, nice to meet you, let me know if you need anything: text, call, email.’ We’ve tried to keep that open space.
Younger, Black, and Black women referees are trying to move up, and we tell them to reach out if they need help. For me, it was only Natalie who I was looking at, but for her, there was nobody else.
Speaking of FIFA, what needs to happen between now and you refereeing in a World Cup?
One thing a lot of people don’t know is that the World Cup is a four-year cycle for referees, too. You have to be a FIFA referee by the time the cycle starts, and then you have to be ranked within your country and your regional federation, and then FIFA has to select you throughout this four-year cycle. They send you to tournaments, have fitness requirements, and they evaluate you. It’s a very long process, but that’s my ultimate goal: to be selected to go to a World Cup.
And I have milestones on the way to that. I want to referee more USL championship and NWSL games, and hopefully in the future get some playoff assignments, and a trial game in the MLS as a referee. These opportunities are performance-based, so it’s more about improving consistency, fitness, recognition of fouls and penalties. That way I can get better assignments and continue to move up.
I did some Instagram research and saw you in a photo that [referee] Tori Penso posted to her stories.
I’ve had some really great mentors throughout my career. She was one of my assigned mentors years ago when I had been invited to regional camp. Tori’s going to the World Cup, and she’s been with FIFA for a while. Sometimes I train with her and her husband [Chris Penso] because he’s also a referee, and we live near each other. She was working full time before she got the contract with the MLS so before I left my full-time job I talked to her, picking her brain about how she came to this decision, how it affected her family and finances. She said it wasn’t going to be easy, but I can do it if I’m disciplined.