Former high school math teacher. If you’ve heard Mark Geiger’s name, it was most likely preceded by those words, a favorite phrase of TV announcers and headline writers this summer. That’s when Geiger ’96 became the first American to officiate a match in the knockout stage of the World Cup. It was accurate—Geiger did spend 17 years teaching, mostly calculus—but probably a bit misleading, in that it implied Geiger just one day decided to drop everything and follow some far-fetched dream that led him to Brazil.
The truth? “I started refereeing when I was 13,” Geiger says. “My mom and dad wanted me to have a job, and that’s the job I chose.”
A Major League Soccer ref since 2004—he was named MLS Referee of the Year in 2011—the 39-year-old Geiger is quite possibly the most accomplished and highly regarded American referee, well, ever. That respect didn’t come easy: To earn their World Cup gigs, he and his “teammates”—a pair of assistant referees—navigated a three-year-long gantlet of high-profile tournaments, evaluations and classroom sessions, being graded on their performances at every step. Finally, on Jan. 15—“at 2:24 a.m.,” Geiger says with a laugh—he received the email from FIFA headquarters in Switzerland. He’d made the cut.
Once in Brazil, Geiger more than justified his selection. In a tournament in which officials are guaranteed only one match and evaluated after each, he worked five games, three as the referee and two more as the fourth official. By sheer coincidence, he officiated some of the tournament’s most memorable games, including the Uruguay–Italy match in which star striker Luis Suárez bit an opponent, and Germany’s historic 7–1 thrashing of host Brazil.
Since the World Cup ended, Geiger has resumed his normal stateside work: refereeing MLS games and attending clinics as part of his work with PRO, the Professional Referee Organization. It’s part of a broader effort to lift MLS—and, ultimately, American soccer—closer to the level of the elite European and South American nations. In that ambition, having world-class refs is nearly as important as having world-class players. After this summer, we know we’ve got at least one of the former.