US women’s soccer struggles to overcome past lack of diversity | lifestyle

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Crystal Dunn was often the only black girl on her youth soccer teams, and when she finally made the national team, she did her own hair and makeup for photo shoots because “there was no one to do it for me.”

While the U.S. national team continues to become 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, ‘It’s okay, you’re still welcome in this sport. And just because there aren’t many 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 you don’t feel like you belong.”

Women’s soccer in the United States 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 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 U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone lamented that U.S. Soccer is considered a “rich white kid’s sport.”

Dunn was among just five players of color out of 23 on the roster of the U.S. team that won the 2019 World Cup. France, by contrast, had 12.

The most recent USA 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 play New Zealand twice next week as the teams enter a tournament co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.

“The national team matters,” said Sophia Smith, who scored 11 goals for the United States last year and won US Soccer’s Female Player of the Year award. “And I think it’s great for young girls to be able to look at a screen or come to a game and see a lot of people who look different.”

The growing representation has helped diversify a team that had featured 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 exclusionary nature of youth football makes it even smaller.

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

Parlow Cone told a youth sports panel last year that the US federation was studying access to the game.

“It depends a lot on how our sport is viewed, on marketing, and how do we shift that mindset from being a rich white kid’s sport to a sport played in literally every country around the world?” he said, “And as the most diverse country in the world here in the U.S., how do we change that focus to make sure every kid feels welcome in our game?”

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

The Soccer for Success Foundation’s 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 kids 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 launched after the 2019 World Cup. In addition, the foundation has employed 5,475 coaches over that period, who identify as female or non-binary.

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 the past few years, there have been “clearer and clearer pathways” for talented young people, Foster-Simeon said. “But I think our biggest challenge even today is that we’re just scratching the surface in terms of participation. We’re not getting enough kids.”

In fact, much of the work with girls takes place at the local level.

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

She remembers a time on the national team when she noticed she was the only person of color present.

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

Shawna Gordon, a former professional who played for Sky Blue (now Gotham FC) in the National Women’s Soccer League, founded the Southern California nonprofit Football For Her to name young players on and off the field—regardless of socioeconomic status. Football For Her takes a whole-person approach to nutrition and mental health in addition to playing skills.

“It’s a challenge to play with tough players as if they’re all talented in their own way. And it helps me find a reason,” said 13-year-old Amber Ramirez, who participated in the Friday Soccer For Her program last fall.

There is evidence that these efforts can work. A decade ago, only 24% of Division I women’s soccer players were non-white. Last season, the number increased to 34%.

However, many believe that 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 have, so how do we try to fix it?” said Kate Markgraf, general manager for US Women. “I think we’re finally at a point now where we’re willing — not as American football, but I think as a society — to have our eyes open in a way that they’ve never been.”

Dunn has hope. When she first joined the national team, there were far fewer women of color in the sport and even fewer playing at the highest levels.

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

AP sports writer Joe Reedy in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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