As the referee for the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, Jon Freemon realizes he will have his hands full with one of the most important domestic soccer games of the year.
Throw in the best-known player in the world vying for his second major championship on American soil within 39 days and the stakes get even higher.
On Wednesday, Sept. 27, Lionel Messi and Inter Miami will take to the DRV PNK Stadium pitch against the Houston Dynamo to battle for the oldest trophy in all of competitive U.S. sports (8:30 p.m. ET on Telemundo, Universo, CBS Sports Network, Paramount+, Peacock).
The 34-year-old native of Olathe, Kan. was humbled when he learned that he would work the middle in what will be the biggest game of his burgeoning officiating career.
"Anytime you get considered to be a part of a tournament, it's a big honor," he told ussoccer.com. "Then multiply that times 100 when you get considered for the final and then multiply that times 1,000 when you actually are selected for the final.
"We don't have very many professional finals in our country. Being part of the oldest tournament in our country from a soccer standpoint is just an absurd honor. As you may know, this final might look a little different than past finals, with the amount of attention that it's going to pull. So, we're going to do our best to take that pressure and just manifest it into a really strong performance from the referee crew."
Like many game officials, Freemon wants to be part of the background.
"Referees don't want the storyline to be about us," he added. "We want it to be about the players, the game itself, how exciting it was for the fans to be a part of it. That's going to be our goal, to just provide a really strong performance and then none of the attention will be on us. That's usually the goal for us. I’m super excited to be part of it."
Messi's presence puts the confrontation into another orbit. After all, he is the captain of Argentina, the defending FIFA World Cup champions, and since arriving in the States this summer he has been attracting huge crowds and interest every time Miami has played.
Freemon understood that there would be pressure on the officiating crew.
"As officials we definitely feel pressure, with all the media outlets, and all the attention that our league is getting now," he said. "We've got so many more eyeballs than we did even a year ago. So, to say that I don't feel the pressure at all, would be a fib. But I've done this now a few times where I've gotten pretty good at turning that pressure and just focusing it on the performance itself. At the end of the day, it's another match. The job is about the same. There's just going to be more people watching. We just try and keep it in that perspective."
Freemon was introduced to refereeing because of his involvement with another sport. When he played for a baseball team as a 13-year-old, one of the players' fathers suggested the team try officiating another sport. Freemon, who also played soccer, decided to become certified as a referee.
"After the announcement came out about this assignment, my mom sent me a text, 'This is the best $40 that I've ever spent,' " Freemon said. "She refuses to take the $40 back and she doesn't let me live it down. I just live with it."
Freemon started with recreational games.
"Every game blue versus red," he said. "I only had to have one yellow shirt and a whistle. It was great. It was probably 15 bucks a game, less than an hour of work. That was heaven at that time.
"You feel like you're on top of the world. You feel like you can afford all of the dollar hamburgers that you and your friends want to get. There wasn't a lot of pressure at that time. Everyone was there to have fun. Parents didn't really yell."
Slowly, but surely, Freemon moved up the officiating ladder, working youth travel games in such leagues as the Heartland Soccer Association. Then came amateur matches and the Premier Development League (now USL League Two). In 2019, he was in the middle of the 2019 USL League One final before working the 2021 MLS Eastern Conference final as a Video Assistant Referee."You have to be seen doing the right thing at the right time," said Freemon, who was the fourth official of the Chicago Fire's 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution on Saturday night. "There's a lot of hard work but there's a little bit of luck involved in getting to the level we are now talking about. You do games at your local level. Someone sees you doing a good job and they recommend you for higher level games. It works that way all the way to the top."
There must be something in the water in Olathe, Kan. because two U.S. match officials were raised there. Kyle Atkins, who worked as the Offside Video Assistant Referee at the 2022 FIFA World Cup Final in Qatar, also hails from the Kansas City suburb.
"Would you believe it if I told you we grew up a mile away from each other and didn't know it at the time?" Freemon said.
While climbing the U.S. Soccer officiating ladder back in the day, they worked together on many occasions, Freemon in the middle and Atkins as an assistant referee.
"Throughout our referee journey, he's basically like my brother,” Freemon said. “To see his journey from where it started to, literally all the way to the World Cup Final. It's been a treat to be a small part of that."On Wednesday night, it will be Jon Freemon's turn to take center stage while taking another step in his officiating journey.