US women’s soccer tries to overcome past lack of diversity

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Crystal Dunn was often the only black girl at her youth soccer clubs, and even though she eventually made the national team, she did her own hair and makeup for photo shoots because “there was no one to set me up.”

While the U.S. national team has become steadily more representative, Dunn says there is still work to be done. That starts with making sure young women of color feel included all the way down to the youth level.

“I had very supportive parents who explained to me that, ‘It’s okay, you’re still welcome in this sport.’ And just because there aren’t a lot of people who look like you, it’s still your game,” Dunn said. That support was key to her success, “because honestly, at the end of the day, it’s pretty lonely to feel like you’re the only one in this space and not feel like you belong.”

Women’s soccer in the U.S. has long had a diversity problem: the sport’s pay-to-play model means it’s expensive, especially at the higher levels. Club teams and travel teams can cost thousands of dollars in some cases. Almost from the start, players without financial resources – including many from marginalized communities – are left behind.

Even U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone has complained that American soccer is viewed as a “rich, white kid’s sport.”

Dunn first played for the national team in 2013 and was part of the team that won the 2019 World Cup in France. The work also included tasks outside the field, such as participating in professional photo shoots and public appearances.

Such events often included hair and makeup assistance for white players, but with no guarantee that the stylists knew how to work with black skin or black hair.

“These are things that a lot of people never had to think about because there weren’t that many of us,” Dunn said.

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He was among only five players of color out of 23 on the roster of the World Cup winning team. Instead, France had 12.

The latest U.S. roster featured 10 women of color — including young stars Trinity Rodman, Naomi Girma and Mallory (Pugh) Swanson — as the team prepares for this summer’s World Cup. The United States will face New Zealand twice next week as the teams advance to the tournament hosted by Australia and New Zealand.

“Representation matters,” said Sophia Smith, who scored 11 goals for the U.S. last year and won U.S. Soccer’s Women’s Player of the Year award.. “And I think it’s great that young girls can watch a screen or come to a game and see a lot of different people.”

The increased representation has helped diversify a team that featured fewer than a dozen black players throughout its history prior to 2012.

The pool of players talented enough to make it to America’s highest level—the national team and the National Women’s Soccer League—is already small. The exclusionary nature of youth football makes it even smaller.

The pay-to-play structure “leaves many marginalized minority communities in a pickle” because of high costs, Dunn said. “And if I didn’t have parents who could have handed out three, four, five thousand a year, I don’t know if I can sit here and say that I would have continued to play this sport.”

Parlow Cone said at a youth sports panel last year that the U.S. federation is investigating access to the game.

“A lot depends on how our sport is perceived, the marketing, and how do we change the mindset of it being a rich white kid’s sport to a sport played in literally every country around the world?” he said. “And since we’re the most diverse country in the world here in the United States, how can we change that focus to make sure every kid feels welcome in our game?”

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Ed Foster-Simeon, CEO of the US Soccer Foundation, is among those trying to make soccer more accessible to communities that have not traditionally participated.

The foundation’s Soccer for Success program has worked with more than 400,000 kids – 90% of them from communities of color – since 2008. The program is expected to serve more than 100,000 children this year.

The foundation says more than 121,000 girls from underserved communities have benefited from its programs over the past three years — part of its United For Girls initiative launched after the 2019 World Cup. In addition, the foundation has hired 5,475 coaches who identify as women or non-binary during this time.

The foundation’s goal is not to develop elite talent, but to bring the game to more kids, especially those in communities with fewer resources, he said.

In recent years, “clearer and clearer pathways” have emerged for talented young people, Foster-Simeon said. “But I think our biggest challenge even today is that we are only scratching the surface when it comes to participation. We’re not reaching enough kids.”

In fact, much of the work with girls is done at the grassroots level.

Shannon Boxx, who was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame last year, played for the national team from 2003 to 2015. She is on the board of Bridge City Soccer in Portland, which aims to get girls into the game.

He remembers moments in the national team when he noticed that he was the only person of color there.

“For me, it was just a lot of weight that I was willing to put on, but I remember feeling like, okay, when we’re signing autographs, I’m going to look for those kids who are of color because I want them to know that. they can do this,” he said. “And I may be the only one right now, but that won’t be the case in the future.”

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Shawna Gordon, a former professional who played for Sky Blue (now Gotham FC) in the National Women’s Soccer League, founded the nonprofit Football For Her in Southern California to mentor young players on and off the field — regardless of socioeconomic status. Football For Her is a holistic approach that deals not only with playing skills, but also with nutrition and mental health.

“It is challenging to play with tough players because they are all talented in their own way. And for me, it helps me find my why,” said Amber Ramirez, 13, who attended Friday night Soccer For Her last fall.

There is evidence that those efforts can work. Ten years ago, only 24% of Division I women’s soccer players were non-white. The number increased to 34 percent last season.

But many believe stopgap measures are not the answer. They want to rethink the pay-to-play model.

The pay-to-play model “is completely endemic to the problems we face, so how do we try to adapt it?” said Kate Markgraf, US Women’s Director. “I think we’re finally at a point now where we’re ready — not as US Soccer, but I think as a society — our eyes are open in a way that they’ve never been.”

Dunn is hopeful. When she first joined the national team, there were far fewer women of color in the sport, and even fewer who were playing at the highest level.

It’s important to celebrate progress, she said, “but it’s also important to keep pushing, to push for more, to push for more women of color to enter the sport.”


AP Sports Writer Joe Reedy in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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