She looks like just another mom chasing after her toddler at a youth soccer tournament. She has the juice, the snacks, the diaper bag, and of course, the watchful eye.
She also has a FIFA Referee’s Badge.
Christina Unkel is one of three American women to earn the FIFA Badge, meaning she is eligible to officiate international matches. In late-June she was at the Region III Soccer Championships in Greensboro, N.C., mentoring the next generation of referees.
Her husband, Ted Unkel, was there, too. Ted, by the way is also a FIFA Referee, one of seven American men to hold the FIFA Badge.
“She’s better than I am,” says Ted.
Referees marrying referees is not unique. Married FIFA-level refs is, though. They each have extensive travel schedules. For instance, in addition to his Major League Soccer and US Open Cup assignments, Ted goes to training camps every two weeks that are held in either Salt Lake City or Dallas. Christina came to Greensboro from Nicaragua, where she was working CONCACAF Under-20 Women qualifiers.
“It’s difficult at times,” Christina says. “Sometimes, we would meet up in Atlanta for an hour on layovers. Apple calendar has been very helpful because you can sync them.
“But it’s good because of the healthy balance we maintain,” continues Christina. “Ted was very mature when it came to his referee career. Like anything you do coming up, you get momentum and really absorbed and pigeon-holed and focused on one thing. Sometimes, it’s at the expense of family and friends. We haven’t let that happen.”
The Unkels have a lot of personal and professional history with Region III.
“We came up together in Florida and worked a lot of tournaments together,” says Christina. “No one knew we were dating for like two years. Jonathan Weiner was reefing one of my college games and Ted was sitting between my parents, and that’s how everyone found out. We were engaged at that time.”
Ted and Christina did their first game together at the Region III Championships.
“She was the AR and I was the center,” remembers Ted. “It was a big game, and I was serious about it and she’s kind of light. I was ‘Who the hell is this person?’”
Christina recalls it the same way.
“It was my first year of regionals. It was one of those games that everyone knows is a signature game,” says Christina. “Everyone knows the refs are being looked at. He knew but, of course, I was so ignorant to how those things work. He was all stern and I was goofing off.”
Goofing off, as she calls it, might just be part of her referee persona, a method of making players comfortable. She is also a litigation attorney. She specializes in plaintiff side work for defective medical device liability and business litigation. She recently started a practice for litigation for women in sports.
After a particularly nasty deposition, one of her colleagues asked how she put up it. “That was easy,” she said. “You should try reffing.”
“She’ll be the first to tell you soccer makes her a better lawyer, not the other way around,” says Ted. “She is as sweet as can be off the field, man, she means business on it.”
While their climbs up the referee career ladder mirrored one another, Christina’s start was a bit unique.
“I started when I was 10 because I liked to yell at the referees,” she says. “My coach was a referee and he told me I couldn’t yell at the refs unless I knew what I was talking about. I took the class so I could keep yelling at the refs. Then I found out I could make like $15 doing a game.
“I didn’t really know anything about advancing or moving up the ladder. When I was in college, I started yelling at the SAR in one of my games, and I was using terms from the Laws of the Game, which is how he knew I was a ref. He got me involved.”
Ironically, the Unkels weren’t the only husband and wife referees at the Region III Championships. Chris and Tori Penso were in Greensboro as well with their two young daughters. Both national-level referees, Chris works mostly MLS games, while Tori does NWSL and USL games.
They all make it a point to come to the Region III Championships each year to help the young referees. Ted says it’s one event he makes sure is on his calendar.
“I think it’s important for us to be here,” he says. “They will come up and pick our brains. They can take that information back to their local clubs and pass it along. Hopefully, that helps their home-grown soccer club a whole lot better.”