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Politics, pizza, patrol and PRO – Penso's been busy

July 1, 2013

The Professional Referee Organization's Chris Penso has been on quite a journey over the last 10 years.

A decade ago, as a 21-year-old undertaking an accounting degree, Penso narrowly missed out on becoming Mayor of his hometown of Dover, Ohio, falling short by just seven votes.

Since then, he has held a management role in his family's pizza shop, spent time in law enforcement and also ran again in the local election – all that whilst working his way up the ranks of American soccer officiating, which culminated in reaching MLS in 2009 and becoming a FIFA-approved international referee last year.

In fact, officiating is arguably the only thing that has remained ever-present in Penso's fast-paced life.

“When I was at the end of High School one of the requirements in my senior year for my advanced placement government class was to attend public meetings,” he reflected to

“I went to the City Council meetings and over the course of about nine months I took a dislike to the direction the City was going in. You have to keep in mind that my family has been based in Dover, a place I love, for decades, and I was passionate about it.

“The mayor thought he was running unopposed so I put out a petition, got a few signatures, and off I went. I was balancing running a campaign and going to school with refereeing, as well as working with my dad in the pizza shop. It was absolutely wild, and it drained the life out of me but I would do it again in a heartbeat.

“With policing, I got into the academy when I was 23 and I worked for about a year and a half on the road and, during that time, I only officiated about three or four games. I was losing my mind because refereeing has always been something that maintains my sanity.  Put me on a pitch for 90 minutes and everything else is forgotten.

“Being at the lower end of the totem pole in law enforcement, my requests for time off would get denied because more senior people had already asked for time off. Refereeing is a young man's dream so I left my job in 2006 and put all my eggs into the refereeing basket.”

After making that pivotal decision, Penso went onto secure his professional debut in 2008, refereeing a USL-1 match between Miami and Puerto Rico, and then he made his MLS bow in 2009.

He was chosen as the man in the middle for Thierry Henry's high-profile New York Red Bulls debut against Tottenham Hotspur in 2010 and oversaw the MLS Conference semi-final second leg between Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders last year – two games he considers as highlights in his career.

It certainly hasn't been a smooth ride to the summit of American officiating, but Penso insists the introduction of PRO is improving the standard and professionalism of the industry.

“When I entered MLS in 2009 I worked strictly as a Fourth Official and it was expected that after a year you would progress to blow the whistle the following season. 

“In 2010, the year I was supposed to start being in the middle, the league put a halt on rookie whistles. So I had to stay on the sideline strictly as a Fourth Official. If you talk to anybody about how I felt in 2010, they would have described me as a disgruntled, grumpy young man.

“Looking back on it now, after 2011, the second year as a Fourth Official was a blessing in disguise as I had more experience than the guys that had only had a handful of games as a Fourth Official, but it was still frustrating. 

“The introduction of PRO has been great. From 2007 up until last year, I only made money when the games were assigned to me. I could be at home waiting for a paycheck with a bill to pay, but that was the sacrifice I made. 

“We now have contracts with some financial stability, a cell phone allowance, a gym allowance and a company computer. It makes you realize that it's a real job - a career. Now you don't have to worry about the day job and you can focus your time on improving as a referee.”

Being recognized as an international official means that Penso is potentially capable of participating in World Cup and Olympic games and, at the back-end of May, he was on the touchline at the FirstEnergy Stadium as a Fourth Official in the United States’ match against Belgium – 16 years after working his first youth soccer game for just $22.

His career is certainly going in the right direction, and with life in Akron settled with wife Tori, a fellow referee, Penso is now focused on reaching his next targets.

“When I took the entry level referee course in 1997 at 14-years-old, I never thought for a second that I would make it to where I am today. The more games I refereed, the more my passion grew.

“I've already got my aims of whistling at a World Cup mapped out - 2018 is my goal but if I have to wait then so be it.

“Getting my FIFA badge was my short-term goal and my long-term target is getting to the tournaments; the 17s, the 20s, Olympics and eventually the World Cup.”

“I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason so whatever is written in my story will be a natural progression.”

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