PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Crystal Dunn was often the only black girl on the youth soccer team, and even when she made the national team, she did her hair and makeup for photo shoots because “there was no . someone installed it for me”.
While the U.S. national team has steadily become more representative, Dunn says there is still work to be done. It starts with young women of color feeling included on a youth level.
“I had very supportive parents who told me, ‘OK, you’re still going to be involved in this sport.’ It’s still your game because there aren’t many people like you,” Dunn said. That support has been key to her success because “to be honest, it’s very lonely to feel like you’re alone in this space and not 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 top level. 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, were left behind.
Even US Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone lamented that American soccer is viewed as a “rich, white boy’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 job also included off-field duties such as participating in professional photo shoots and public appearances.
Such events often included hair and makeup assistance for white players, but there was no guarantee that stylists would know how to work with Black skin or Black hair.
“These are things that a lot of people never think about because there aren’t that many of us,” Dunn said.
He was among five players of color on the 23-man squad that won the World Cup. And there were 12 in France.
There were 10 women of color on the USA’s most recent roster, 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 a 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 won the US Soccer Women’s Player of the Year award.. “I think it’s great when young girls can 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 featured less than a dozen total black players throughout its history until 2012.
America’s highest level, the national team and the National Women’s Soccer League, already has a small pool of talented players. The unique nature of youth football makes it even smaller.
The pay-to-play structure “leaves many marginalized minority communities in the lurch” because of the high costs, Dunn said. “If I didn’t have three, four or five thousand dollars a year from my parents, I don’t know if I could be sitting here and saying that I would be playing this sport.”
Parlow Cone told a youth sports conference last year that the U.S. federation was exploring the possibility of joining the game.
“A lot of it comes down to how we view our sport, how we market it, and how do we translate this idea of it being a white kid’s sport into a sport that’s literally played in every country around the world?” he said. “And in the United States, as the most diverse country in the world, how do we change that focus so that every child is welcome in our games?”
Ed Foster-Simeon, CEO of the USA Soccer Foundation, is among those trying to make soccer accessible to communities that have not traditionally participated.
The Foundation’s Soccer for Success program has worked with more than 400,000 children since 2008, 90% of whom are from communities of color. The program is expected to serve more than 100,000 children this year.
The foundation says more than 121,000 girls from underprivileged communities have benefited from its programs over the past three years, part of its United for Girls initiative launched after the 2019 World Cup. Additionally, the foundation recruited 5,475 coaches who identify as women or non-binary during that time.
The foundation’s goal is not to develop elite talent, but to bring the game to more kids, especially in under-resourced communities, he said.
In the past few years, there have been “cleaner and clearer pathways” for talented young people, Foster-Simeon said. “But I think our biggest challenge today is that we’re only scratching the surface in terms of participation. We’re not getting enough kids.”
Indeed, most of the work with girls is done locally.
Shannon Box, who was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame last year, played for the national team from 2003 to 2015. She’s on the board of Bridge City Soccer in Portland—a game aimed at getting girls involved.
He recalls moments when he noticed he was the only person of color on the national team.
“For me, it’s just a matter of wanting to gain more weight, but I think to myself, OK, when we’re signing autographs, I’m looking for kids of color because I want them to know that. they can do it,” he said. “I may be alone now, but I won’t be in the future.”
Shabna Gordon, a former professional who played for Sky Blue (now Gotham FC) in the National Women’s Soccer League, started Football For Her, a nonprofit organization in Southern California to mentor young players regardless of socioeconomic status. Football For Her requires a whole-person approach that addresses nutrition and mental health issues in addition to playing skills.
“It’s difficult to play with difficult players because they are all talented in their own way. And for me, it helps me find my why,” said Amber Ramirez, 13, who participated in Friday Night Soccer For Her last fall.
There is evidence that these efforts work. A decade ago, only 24% of Division I women’s soccer players were nonwhite. This figure increased by 34% last season.
But many believe that stopgap measures are not the answer. They want to rethink the payment model.
The payment model is “totally endemic to the problems we have, so how do we try to fix it?” said American Women’s General Manager Kate Markgraf. “I think we’re more open now than we’ve ever been, not just as US Soccer, but as a society.”
Dunn hopes. When she first joined the national team, there were fewer women of color in the sport, and fewer at the highest level.
It’s important to celebrate progress, she said, “but it’s also important to continue to push and push more women of color to access sports.”
AP Sports writer Joe Reedy in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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