by Ilene Denton
"I’m attracted to the overall team struggle. I like the passion, the teamwork."
A SOCCER PLAYER since age 5, Christina Unkel was captain of her college soccer team until she tore her ACL twice. Now 27 and a Sarasota-based business law, civil litigation, and sports, arts and entertainment attorney with the firm of Maglio Christopher & Toale, Unkel turned to refereeing—an avocation that took her to China in August for the Nanjing Youth Olympics Games as a FIFA referee. She’s also one of just three female referees who represent the United States Soccer Federation domestically and internationally.
Why soccer? “It’s hard to explain to people who don’t understand the sport,” says Unkel. “I’m attracted to the overall team struggle. I like the passion, the teamwork. And it crosses all cultures.”
Unkel started refereeing at age 10. “It was an easy way to earn money and get free concession stand food,” she says.
She never aspired to play professionally simply because “there wasn’t a professional league when I was growing up. Now there’s the National Women’s Soccer League. I referee college soccer, too, for the NCAA, and it’s cool to see the students have ambitions to play professionally.”
Unkel must pass quarterly fitness tests to remain a referee, so she devotes a couple of early-morning hours daily before work to weight and interval training. “As a referee you have to be where the ball is, so you’re running for all 90 minutes of the game,” she says.
And she brings her passion for the sport back home. She’s past president of the Sarasota Area Sports Alliance, and she organizes an annual kickball event through the Sarasota County Bar Association Young Lawyers Division.
“The judges, state attorney and public defender come out for it; it’s a fun, social thing,” she says.
Unkel’s husband, Ted, travels the country as a Major League Soccer referee, something she’s aspiring to. “We don’t travel together,” she says, “although we’ll see each other sometimes in the Atlanta airport.” Another aspiration: refereeing the Women’s World Cup in Canada in June. “Fingers crossed that I’m selected,” she says. “If not, I’ll make another run for it in four years.” ■