USWNT tries to overcome past lack of diversity
BY ANNE M. PETERSON AP sports writer
PORTLAND, Ore. – Crystal Dunn was often the only black girl at her youth soccer clubs, and even when she eventually made the national team, she did her own hair and makeup for photoshoots because “there was nobody for me.”
Although the US national team has become increasingly representative, Dunn says there is still work to be done. It starts with making young women of color feel included, down to the youth level.
“I had very supportive parents who told me, ‘That’s fine, you’re still welcome in this sport. And just because there aren’t many people who look like you, that’s still your game,” Dunn said. That support was key to their success, “because honestly, at the end of the day, it’s pretty lonely to feel like you’re the only one in this room and you don’t belong.”
Women’s soccer in the United States has long had a diversity problem: The sport’s pay-to-play model makes it expensive, especially at higher levels. Club teams and traveling teams can cost thousands of dollars in some cases. Almost from the start, players without financial resources – including many from marginalized communities – have been left behind.
Even US Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone has complained that American soccer is seen as a “rich white kid’s sport.”
Dunn made his international debut in 2013 and was part of the squad that won the 2019 World Cup in France. The job also included off-field duties such as attending professional photo shoots and public appearances.
Such events often included hair and makeup help for white players, but with no guarantee that the stylists would know how to work with black skin or black hair.
“Those are things that a lot of people never had to think about because there weren’t that many of us,” Dunn said.
She was one of just five of 23 black players in the World Cup squad. In contrast, France had 12.
The youngest US roster featured 10 women of color – including young stars Trinity Rodman (JSerra High), Naomi Girma and Mallory (Pugh) Swanson – as the team prepares for this summer’s World Cup. The United States meets New Zealand on Tuesday (7:00 p.m. PT, HBO Max) in the first of two game weeks as the teams prepare for the tournament co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
“Representation is important,” said Sophia Smith, who scored 11 goals for the United States last year and was named US Soccer Player of the Year. “And I think it’s great when young girls can look at the screen or come to a game and see a lot of people who look different.”
The growing representation has helped diversify a team that included fewer than a dozen black players in its entire history prior to 2012.
The pool of players talented enough to reach the highest level in America – the national team and the National Women’s Soccer League – is already small. The exclusive nature of youth football makes it even smaller.
The pay-to-play structure “leaves many marginalized minority communities in trouble because of the high cost,” Dunn said. “And if I didn’t have parents who could spend three, four, five grand a year, I don’t know that I could be sitting here and saying that I would have continued in this sport.”
Parlow Cone said at a youth sports panel last year that the US federation is reviewing access to the game.
“A lot depends on how our sport is viewed, how we market it and how we shift that thinking from a sport for rich white kids to a sport that’s played in literally every country around the world?” she said. “And as the most diverse country in the world here in the US, how can we change that focus to make sure every kid feels welcome in our game?”
Ed Foster-Simeon, CEO of the US Soccer Foundation, is among those trying to make soccer more accessible to communities that have traditionally not been involved.
The foundation’s Soccer for Success program has worked with more than 400,000 children since 2008 – 90% of them from communities of color. The program is expected to help 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, which started after the 2019 World Cup. Additionally, during this period, the foundation has hired 5,475 coaches who identify as women or non-binary.
The foundation’s goal isn’t to develop elite talent, but to make the game accessible to more children, particularly those in communities with fewer resources, he said.
In recent years, “ever clearer paths” have emerged for talented young people, Foster-Simeon said. “But I think our biggest challenge, even today, is that we’re only scratching the surface in terms of attendance. We are not reaching enough children.”
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. Boxx, from Torrance, is on the board of directors of Bridge City Soccer in Portland – which aims to get girls into soccer.
She recalls moments in the national team when she realized she was the only person of color.
“For me, it was just a big weight that I was willing to have, but I remember feeling like, OK, when we’re going to be signing autographs, I’m looking for kids of color because I want them to know that they are.” can do that,” she said. “And maybe I’m the only one right now, but that won’t be the case in the future.”
Shawna Gordon, a former professional player who played for Sky Blue (now Gotham FC) in the NWSL, founded the non-profit organization Football For Her in Southern California to mentor young players on and off the field – regardless of their socioeconomic status. Football For Her takes a holistic approach, looking at nutrition and mental health in addition to playing skills.
“It’s a challenge to play with tough players like they’re all talented in their own way. And for me, that helps me find my why,” said Amber Ramirez, 13, who attended a Friday night Soccer for Her program last fall.
There is evidence that these efforts may work. Ten years ago, only 24% of NCAA Division I women soccer players were non-white. The number rose to 34% last season.
However, many believe that stopgap solutions are not the answer. They want to rethink the pay-to-play model.
The pay-to-play model “is totally endemic to the issues we’re having, so how are we trying to accommodate it?” said Kate Markgraf, US women’s general manager. “I think we’re finally at a point where we’re willing — not as US football, but as a society — to keep our eyes open like they’ve never been.”
Dunn is confident. When she first joined the national team, there were far fewer women of color in sports and even fewer playing at the highest level.
It’s important to celebrate progress, she said, “but it’s also important to keep pushing, pushing for more and pushing for more women of color to have access to sports.”
Los Angeles-based AP sportswriter Joe Reedy contributed to this report.