Portland, OR. – Crystal Dunn was often the only black girl in youth soccer clubs, and even when she finally made it to the national team, she did her hair and makeup for a photo shoot because “there was no one set up for me.”
While the US National Team has become steadily more representative, Dunn says there is still work to be done. It 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’s fine, you’re still welcome in the sport,'” Dan said. And because there aren’t a lot of people who look like you, it’s still your game.” This support was key to its success “because honestly at the end of the day, it’s lonely to feel like you’re the only one in this place and not to 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 is very expensive, especially at higher levels. Club teams and mobile teams can cost thousands of dollars in some cases. Almost from the very beginning, players without financial resources – including many from marginalized communities – are being left behind.
Even NFL president Cindy Barlow Cone lamented that American football is considered a “rich white kids’ sport.”
Dan made his national team debut 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 making public appearances.
Such events often included assistance with hair and make-up for white players, but without a guarantee that stylists would know how to handle black skin or black hair.
“These are things that a lot of people didn’t have to think about because there weren’t many of us,” Dan said.
She was among only five players out of 23 on the World Cup winning squad list. In contrast, France had 12.
The latest US roster features 10 women of color — including young stars Trinity Rodman, Naomi Girma, and Mallory (Pugh) Swanson — as the team prepares for the World Cup this summer. The United States will meet New Zealand twice next week as the teams prepare for the tournament hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
“Representation matters,” said Sophia Smith, who scored 11 goals for the United States last year and won the US Player of the Year award. “And I think 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, that’s cool.”
The increased representation helped diversify a team that featured fewer than ten black players in its entire history prior to 2012.
The pool of players talented enough for both of America’s highest levels – the national team and the National Women’s Soccer League – is already small. The exclusionary nature of youth football makes it even smaller.
Dunn said the pay-to-play structure “leaves a lot of marginalized minorities on the hook” because of the high costs. “And if I didn’t have dads who could have three, four, five dads a year, I don’t know that I could sit here and say I would have continued to play the sport.”
Barlow Kuhn said on a youth sports committee last year that the USAF is considering access to the game.
“A lot of it has to do with how do we look at our sport, the marketing, and how do we shift this thinking from it’s a rich white kids’ sport to this sport that’s played in virtually every country around the world?” She said. “As the most diverse country in the world right here in the United States, how do we change that focus to make sure every child feels welcome in our game?”
Ed Foster Simeon, CEO of the Soccer Foundation of America, is among those trying to make soccer more accessible to communities that haven’t traditionally been involved.
The Foundation’s Football for Success program has worked with more than 400,000 children – 90% of whom are from communities of color – since 2008. The program expects to serve more than 100,000 children this year.
The foundation says more than 121,000 girls from disadvantaged communities have benefited from its programs over the past three years – part of the United for Girls initiative launched after the 2019 World Cup. In addition, the foundation has engaged 5,475 coaches identified as women or non- duo during that period.
He said the foundation’s goal is not to develop elite talent but to introduce the game to more children, especially those who live in communities with fewer resources.
Foster Simeon said that in the past few years, “clearer, clearer paths” have emerged for talented young people. “But I think our biggest challenge today is that we’re only scratching the surface in terms of participation. We’re not reaching enough kids.”
In fact, much of the work with girls is done at the grassroots level.
Shannon Books, who was enshrined last year in the National Soccer Hall of Fame, played on the national team from 2003 to 2015. She sits on the board of directors for Portland’s Bridge City Soccer – which aims to get girls into the game.
She remembers moments on the national team when she noticed she was the only person of color.
“For me, it was just a lot of weight that I was willing to take on, but I remember feeling like, well, when we’re signing autographs, I’m looking for these kids of color because I want them to know that they can do it,” she said. This will not be the same in the future.”
Shauna Gordon, a former pro who played for Sky Blue (now Gotham FC) in the National Women’s Soccer League, started her soccer nonprofit in Southern California mentoring young players on and off the field – regardless of socioeconomic status. Football for It takes a whole person approach, addressing nutrition and mental health, as well as playing skills.
“It’s a challenge to play with such strong players, because they’re all talented in their own way. And for me, it will help me see why,” said Amber Ramirez, 13, who attended Friday night Soccer For Her. program last fall.
There is evidence that these efforts may be successful. Ten years ago, only 24% of Division I football players were non-white. The number grew to 34% last season.
But many believe temporary measures are not the answer. They want to reconsider the pay-to-play model.
The pay-to-play model is “quite endemic to the issues we’re having, so how do we try to modify it?” said Kate Markgraf, general manager of American Women. “I think we’re finally at a point now where we’re ready — not like in American football, but I think as a society — our eyes are open in a way that they’ve never been before.”
Dan is optimistic. When she first joined the national team, there were far fewer women of color in the sport and fewer who were playing at the highest levels.
It’s important to celebrate the progress, she said, “but it’s also important to keep pushing and pushing for more and pushing for more women of color to have access to this sport.”