A FULL CIRCLE MOMENT
As Kyle Atkins settled into his seat in the Video Assistant Referee booth for the 2022 World Cup final in Doha, Qatar on Dec. 18, he took in the moment.
Of course, he was proud of the fact that he and another American Ismail Elfath, were working the most important soccer game on the planet, which pit defending champion France against Argentina and soccer legend Lionel Messi. The Kansas City, Mo. native was working the match as an Offside Video Assistant Referee.
Aktins' thoughts wandered back to his early experiences as a referee, when he blew his first whistle as a 13-year-old referee in the summer of 2001.
It wasn't a pleasant experience.
His father was at a soccer field so much watching Atkins and his sister play that he decided to become a field marshal.
"He decided well if I'm going to be out here all day, why don't you be out here all day with me and make a little bit of money and take a refereeing class," Atkins said. "I took the class and absolutely hated it. I remember specifically one day I had some games at a park near our home and I was supposed to have two games, a little bit of a break and then two more in the afternoon."
Atkins said that he had a "rough go" in those games, "parents and coaches. badgering me yell at me, making me hate my job."
On his break, he picked up his gear and walked home.
"I'll never forget. My dad's in the driveway doing some work in the garage," Atkins said. "I walk up the driveway and he's like, 'What the heck are you doing home?' "
To which the younger Atkins replied: "I'm done? I don't want to do this. I got tears in my eyes like I don't like how I'm being treated. I don't like this at all.' And he says: 'You made a commitment to your assignor that you will go out there and work in these games. You need to go back out there and honor your commitments. Finish the games that you've agreed to work this weekend. And then after that we can revisit this, and you can make a decision.'
"So, he got me in the in the car drove me back out there kicking and screaming. I went back out there. I worked those games, and I haven't stopped since. I really credit staying in the game at an early age to my father and keeping me in it because without him, instilling in me that that honoring my commitments. I certainly wouldn't be where I am today."
Yes, Akins has preserved, learned to put up with nasty parents and coaches and became one of the leading game officials in the United States. He has done everything one can do, from working the middle, the line and inside the VAR booth.
And here he was at the 2022 World Cup final.
"That day was playing out in my head when I was sitting in that VOR [Video Offside Referee] and the final just knowing where I was and where it come from to that moment in my career," he said. "It was really special."
Atkins has been a Major Arena Soccer League referee for eight years, is a member of the Professional Referees Organization as he works as an assistant referee in Major League Soccer and as a linesman and n VAR for some other competitions.
That certainly has not gone unnoticed by Concacaf or FIFA as Atkins was an assistant referee at the Summer Olympics in Japan in 2021, the 2019 Under-20 World Cup, the 2019 and 2021 Concacaf Gold Cups, the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup, 2016 Copa America Centenario and the 2020 MLS is Back tournament championship game. Atkins also has worked 127 games in MLS since 2014.
TEARS AND CHEERS
Last May, the Midwest native was notified that he was among five U.S. game officials selected to work the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The others were Elfath, a FIFA referee, assistant referees Kathryn Nesbitt and Corey Parker and Video Match Official Armando Villarreal.
When he discovered the good news on Twitter - someone leaked the list of game officials - before he was notified via text, Atkins admitted it was an emotional experience.
"I had tears in my eyes, incredibly excited for the opportunity," he said. "I was at a loss for words. I immediately called my dad shared the news with him. We had an idea that we [other American game officials] were on the list. We've been working towards this goal of going to the World Cup for the past 3 1/2 years.
"It was just a lot of emotions came up all at once because we worked so hard to get that appointment, and it was finally coming to fruition. It was incredible."
Before journeying to Qatar, Atkins and his fellow referees from Concacaf and South America, attended a regional seminar in Paraguay last summer for fitness tests and what FIFA was looking for in Qatar.
"In terms of interpretation to law, making sure we're on the same page and what our interpretations were, what they were expecting of us," he said.
THE QATAR EXPERIENCE
Atkins left for Qatar on Nov. 7 - well before the Nov. 20 kickoff for more preparation and to get acclimated to the new time zone and climate.
The game officials worked a tournament involving local clubs "to give us some give us some games to shake any rust off there might have been for some referees," Atkins said.
"They hadn't refed a game in about a month, so they wanted to make sure that we were fresh and ready to go mentally and physically," he added.
No doubt FIFA left few, if any stones, unturned for game officials.
"They spared no expense, making sure that we had all the creature comforts of home so all the all the little things they took care of so we didn't have to worry about it so we can focus on the task at hand," he said.
Atkins, 35, met his international colleagues, which he used as a learning experience besides a social one.
"It was amazing getting to be around officials that are the top of the top of our field and from all over the world," he said. "It was an incredible experience getting to learn from them and and get to know all these individuals that are fantastic people and that's something that people look for - not just good referees, but good people, too."
Doha had become "an incredibly modern, westernized city," Atkins said.
"It seemed over the past eight years or so whenever they got the bid," he continued. "They transformed the city into what it was for the tournament built brand new stadiums that were world class built an entire metro system so that fans could get to each stadium easily. It was amazing. It was really unique in that all the stadiums were within the city limits of Doha. It really was a centralized experience for all the fans.
"You had every single fan of every single team in the same place and that's something that you don't really get in a lot of the World Cups because they can be so spread out in big countries. But everybody was in Doha for this tournament. You didn't just see fans and city that you were going to see a game, you saw every single person from every single team which I think added to the experience quite a bit brought all these cultures together that I think provided for incredibly successful tournament."
Atkins worked the line for three matches - Portugal-Ghana in the group stage and Cameroon-Brazil and Japan-Croatia in the Round of 16. When he was a VAR or Video Offside Referee, he would be in a booth in Doha, not at a stadium. He did three matches - France-Australia, Korea-Ghana, Japan-Spain and Argentina-Brazil in the final.
SURVIVING THE CUT
Not every referee, assistant referee or VAR official worked the entire tournament.
After the Round of 16, FIFA started to cut down the number of game officials because there were fewer games.
Surviving the cut was everyone's goal.
"We felt like we did really well with our with our assignments," Atkins said. "You feel like you've done a good job, but there are a lot of qualifying very good officials in the group."
FIFA did it in a unique way, sending out emails to game officials who did not make the cut and who were going home.
"You kind of see assignments based on training and what they have you doing but you still get nervous when you go into that meeting on the day of cuts to see if your name is going get called," Atkins said. "They actually did it a little bit differently where they would send an email out to the officials at the end of our final meeting before and the email would say that you would have your exit interview with Massimo Busacca and Pierluigi Collina [head of FIFA referees] before you went home. Everybody at the end of the meeting was looking through their email inboxes to see if they gotten it. Luckily, we didn't get that email."
Of course, emails can go into a spam file.
"We got nervous because we didn't know when it was going to come through," Atkins said. "We had to ask a staff member if all of the emails had been sent out. He said yes. "You don't have to worry.' We gave him a big hug.
"Fast forward a few days. The Round of 16 is over and then we go into the quarterfinals, and they make another cut after the quarterfinals and we go through the entire process over again."
Atkins survived the entire way, although the announcement surprised the remaining game officials.
"We were expecting two days before the third-place match that we would get that get the assignments announced," he said. But they also decided to announce the final assignment that evening as well. We weren't expecting to hear names called but when they did it happened so quickly. We just kind of were looking at each other like we really just hit our names for the final. We just kind of all were in a bit of shock. And then you have all the other colleagues coming up and congratulating you and it just hadn't, hadn't really sunk in just yet.
"We feel like we had a really great game in the Round of 16, Japan and Croatia," he said. "We left it all out on the field. So, whatever happened after it was just icing on the cake. Apparently, what we did was good enough to keep us around to the end. We didn't get that email sending us home. That was amazing because we exceeded our goal. We knew that we made the final cut. It was just an incredible feeling. We all were giving each other big hugs and congratulations because we accomplished our main objective."
Atkins was elated and astonished that two American game officials were selected to work the final.
"How big of a moment this was in history to have U.S. officials on the World Cup final, something that happens only once every four years," he said. "Very few officials get the opportunity to work in history. We were going to be a part of that history is such an incredible feeling and to know them being an active role in the [game]. What ended up being quite possibly one of the greatest World Cup finals in history was honestly, a dream come true. I couldn't have scripted things any better for us."
Atkins' best memory off the field? Having his father Dan, sister Kaitlyn and girlfriend Lexi fly into Doha for the final.
"We went to the fan village to watch the third-place match," he said. "Getting to spend time with them before the game, knowing that they were able to be in stadium supporting me for the biggest game of my career is something that I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life. They've been there supporting me from day one. I wouldn't be in the position I was in without their support. To know that they were there with me on the biggest game in my career was just incredible."
The final, as you probably know, was a classic, called the greatest World Cup championship ever. Messi won the last jewel of his soccer career, a World Cup, as Argentina survived a game for the ages against France and Kylian Mbappe (hat-trick), a 3-3 draw that was decided by penalty kicks.
"It was incredible watching in the booth," Atkins said, "because we could tell that as it was going and how special this game was. So back and forth. So many different things happening. Even though we were not in the stadium, we could feel how special it was. We can hear through the through the microphones that the referee was wearing the stadium atmosphere and the reaction of players on the field. We just knew we had something special in our hands."
Of course, there was pressure of working a championship, but Atkins defined it in a special way.
"There's nerves before every game for me," he said. "I think if you don't have that you don't care enough about it because you have nerves [and] want to make sure you do a good job but once the whistle blows. It's just like every other game you work regardless of what position you're in - you're on the field or in the booth. Sure, there's a lot of pressure because we're in the booth because we're there to be the ones to fix any potential errors in the game. But it's our job we've trained for it over the course of our entire careers for these moments.
"Every single person in that room is ready if anything happens and luckily for us when the referee does a does a good job it makes our job in the booth a heck of a lot easier. So having Szymon Marciniak [Poland] on the field, have the performance he put out there was awesome to see and made our lives in the booth that much easier. We could sit and enjoy and enjoy the show pretty much because he did that phenomenal job on the final."
INTO THE GREAT INDOORS
While growing up, Atkins got his first taste of indoor soccer by attending Kansas City Attack matches (National Premier Soccer League, Major Indoor Soccer League II).
After he became a referee, Atkins met Ryan Cigich, the head of MASL officials, and became friends with him. The modern version of the Kansas City Comets was born, and Cigich asked Atkins if he would be interested in being a fourth official or an assistant referee on the sidelines to see if he wanted to work the carpet.
"I was a little reluctant," he said. "I was focused on working into the MLS, starting my professional career there but I didn't really have anything going on in the fall because not a lot of soccer going on. I was like why not start doing games as they are and fourth official and really found a love for the sport and enjoyed the competition."
Eventually, Atkins worked the carpet as a referee.
A soccer ball is used in the indoor game, but it is a different world of the game than the outdoor version.
"It's a lot more fast paced than outdoor," Atkins said. "You have to be very, very quick on your toes as a referee. I enjoyed those aspects of it and how it how it speeds up your decision-making process and that it aids a lot in the outdoor game because it slows the game down the outdoor game down for me by working indoor games."
At the present time, Atkins has no plans to work MASL matches because he needs to recharge his batteries with the MLS season around the corner.
But don't worry arena or indoor soccer fans, Atkins plans to return to the MASL this fall.
"My focus right now is on the MLS season," he said. "Unfortunately, I won't be doing any indoor games for the rest of this season, but I will be working the next season. The schedule is just too busy. I needed a little time off after the World Cup and now my mental focus and preparations are for the MLS outdoor season. But you can rest assured that I'll be back for the next season in the MASL. Excited to come back next year. There's a busy season ahead for MLS and international competition. So, I want to meet wanted to make sure give myself the best opportunity to be prepared for that."
And perhaps beyond that as well.
While it is 3/2 years away, it certainly wouldn’t be out of the question if Atkins is considered for or works the 2026 World Cup.
"That would be so special to me," he said. "It is three years away, but you can't help but think about it. It's coming to our backyard literally coming to my backyard here in Kansas City. Arrowhead Stadium is going to be site for some games. So I always say it'd be a dream come true. Full circle moment.
"If I was able to have the chance to work a World Cup match it in my hometown, that would be absolutely amazing, but it's three years down the road. I'm excited that we've got the opportunity to showcase the game here in the U.S. and hopefully grow the sport even more and put it on another level here in the States, Canada and Mexico. I'm excited for it. Just for family and friends to be able to go to matches more frequently. And just to have the world's game come back to us is going to be a spectacle to behold for sure."
If he continues to officiate matches at a high level, Kyle Atkins just might have the opportunity again.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at email@example.com His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.lk