Originally published June 10, 2019 – Sharing again on eve of 2023 National Women’s Soccer League Championship Match
IOWA REFEREE (AND FORMER YOUTH PLAYER) SELECTED TO REFEREE AT 2019 FIFA WOMEN’S WORLD CUP!
By Jenny Wood
Iowa City West High, Iowa Soccer Club, Heartland Soccer Club and Coe College alumnae Katja Koroleva is proudly representing the United States, and Iowa, as a Referee at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Her journey from emigrating from Russia to blowing the whistle in France this summer starts in Iowa City. We are extremely proud to have Katja representing our country and our state, and for exemplifying just how far pursuing a passion can take a person.
Koroleva was born in Novosibirsk Russia and moved to Iowa City in 1998 as her mom pursued her career path as a research scientist in genetics. Katja was 12 at the time and enrolled in an ESL program as a sixth grader in Iowa City. She went on to graduate from Iowa City West High and took her soccer career up Interstate-380 to Coe College (Cedar Rapids). After finishing her undergraduate studies, she earned a master’s degree in Medical Science and is a practicing Physician’s Assistant in a Seattle area emergency room.
Iowa Youth Player…and Eventual Youth Referee
As a youth player, she first joined the Iowa Soccer Club in Iowa City, where she played on a boys’ team through the U14 age group before moving on to the Heartland Soccer Club in Cedar Rapids where she finished her youth playing days. Katja credits coaches Jon Cook, Dave Rosenthal, Homer Screws, Colin Crichton and Alen Kudumovic for sharing their love for soccer with her.
She recalls that at age 15 or 16, players were invited to join a referee course in Cedar Rapids. But refereeing wasn’t something she saw as a career path at first, explaining “Being raised by a single mom and traveling most weekends for MRL, as well as having club fees, uniforms and equipment, brought the cost of playing high. Refereeing gave me the opportunity to pay for the sport I loved and allowed me the opportunity to continue being active as an athlete.”
During her time as an Iowa youth referee, she officiated at Iowa competitions like the Heartland Summer Showcase, the College Search Kickoff, indoor leagues at the former SportsZone in Cedar Rapids and the Iowa State Cup, as well as Midwest Regional League (MRL) matches and the Region II Championships.
“The friendships created through the Iowa delegation via traveling to events such as Youth Regionals, CSK, and State Cups helped foster great memories and friendships. Influences such as Terry Vaughn, Jim Albertson, Phil Sinnwell and Chip Walaska were always there to take care of us and promote Iowa referees and increase the level of officiating in the state.”
Refereeing As a Job?
Katja credits her local assigner Mo Jahemi (Cedar Rapids) for seeing and nurturing her potential as a high-level referee. “The greatest influence of my early stage was Mo. His love for soccer shined and his attention to detail and support to push my limits was evident.”
By age 18, her potential was also being recognized by others statewide. In late fall of 2004, Katja was honored by the Iowa Referee Committee and the Iowa Soccer Association as Iowa’s Female Youth Referee of the Year.
As her time at college wound down, Katja was also inspired by teammates who wanted to pursue higher levels of competition after graduating. “I wanted to reach higher also and be on the field amongst the greatest athletes at a World Cup stage” she said. After getting her degree at Coe, she continued to pursue her development as a referee as she took on her graduate studies in preparation for a career in the medical field.
Development as a Referee…and the World Cup: A Journey
With her passion for the game burning and with her goal to reach the World Cup set, earning her FIFA badge became an intentional journey. In 2014 she earned the FIFA badge. In December 2018, she was selected as one of three Americans and one of only 27 Referees for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup (48 Assistant Referees were also selected, including Katja’s colleagues Felisha Mariscal and Kathryn Nesbitt).
Alongside her own drive and aspirations, in 2015 FIFA embarked on a project to cultivate and prepare a pool of referees and assistant referees for the 2019 Women’s World Cup and Katja was selected to participate as a Referee.
According to a FIFA press release:
The journey to the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 began for an initial group of female referees and assistant referees from all over the world in September 2015, when FIFA officially started its Road to France 2019 women’s refereeing project.
As part of this project, preparatory seminars have taken place over the last three years for referees and assistant referees, focusing on protecting players and the image of the game, as well as on consistency in interpreting the Laws of the Game. Technical expertise, football understanding, fitness and the ability to read the game and teams’ tactical approaches to each match have been the main topics covered at these seminars.
The referees selected for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the most important competition in women’s sport, have demonstrated their skills at previous tournaments, including the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan 2016 and Uruguay 2018, as well as the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea in 2016 and this summer in Brittany, France.
Throughout her development as a professional referee and as a participant selected for FIFA’s 2019 Women’s World Cup initiative, Katja’s international assignments include the 2015 Pan Am Games, the 2016 and 2018 Concacaf U20 Qualifications, the 2018 Concacaf Women’s World Cup Qualification and the 2016 and 2018 U17 FIFA Women’s World Cups.
“Some of the biggest challenges during my climb in the ranks and into the FIFA panel have been managing my time away from the field. The demands of work, family, rest and a strong desire to breathe and live soccer must have a balance, one that is often very difficult to achieve.”
Managing those challenges as a fulltime Physician’s Assistant has been mitigated somewhat in the last year, as she received support from PRO and U.S. Soccer to referee fulltime in preparation for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. As well as her international assignments, her domestic ones include NWSL, USL (men’s), Open Cup (men’s) and a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) for Major League Soccer.
Ever mindful of the support systems and opportunities Katja says, “The last year through PRO and U.S. Soccer has granted me the opportunities to bring my preparation and training to the next level. Having the ability to focus on soccer has been a luxury.”
Asked about pivotal moments in her career as she advanced, her humility was evident. “To this day I don’t believe I have ever refereed a perfect match and from my standpoint a perfectly refereed match does not exist for me.” Rather than relying on satisfaction with past performances or her current badge status, her rise from Referee at the Iowa State Cup to Referee at the 2019 FIFA World Cup certainly makes sense!
“I get nervous before every game, this will never change. I think in part it is normal and what makes me human. As officials who have refereed with me know, the pregame coin toss has always been a bit of a hurdle for me. Soon after that, after the first whistle, it is back to a comfort level and the work at hand!”
2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup
Before leaving for France, she spent time focused on “relaxing before the big adventure” and spending time with friends and family. She arrived in France May 29 to participate in final preparations for the Cup. It included fine tuning details and sharpening any of the small adjustments as necessary.
When asked what she was most excited for, she shared “I am excited to get to France and complete the first week of seminar and for the tournament to officially start. I am excited to share the experience and the atmosphere with other referees, players and staff in what is truly the best women’s sporting event in the world. At the time we were able to communicate, her game assignments were unknown.
U.S. Soccer Director of Referee Development Rick Eddy had this to say about Katja and her colleagues Kathryn and Felisha:
Katja, Kathryn and Felisha’s selections to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup represent another major accomplishment in their careers. From their early days as U.S. Soccer match officials, all three demonstrated unlimited potential. I’ve had the privilege to watch them rise through the ranks of refereeing to the professional and international level. We wish them a successful World Cup experience.
Reflection & Gratitude
Katja was asked to share lessons learned that may help guide any Iowa youth referees who aspire to advance their officiating career. “Playing soccer to the highest level possible will help in the long term as a referee. The modern game is developing very quickly, as well as the speed of the game and understanding soccer at this level is greatly helped by having played at the highest level. Additionally, forming bonds with other referees and mentors will help carry any referee through the rollercoaster of highs and lows during a career.”
Katja also wanted others to know “the support Iowa showed me through my early career is something I never take for granted and I will always cherish the memories.”
Finally, she wanted to send a shout-out to her biggest supporter. “I want to thank my mom for being my number one fan and supporter. She has truly taken the rollercoaster journey of highs and lows alongside me and I am stronger with her support. I couldn’t do this without you mom!”