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Black coaches an untapped talent in MLS

Wilfried Nancy of the Columbus Crew is only Black head coach out of 29 teams

Growing up the son of a proud and successful Army man, I wanted to always be first. In everything. My earliest career ambition was to be the first Black man in space. Fueled by trips with my mom to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, I thought I was destined to be the first. As a 7-year-old, you think drawing rockets, eating freeze-dried ice cream and drinking Tang best prepares you for a career at NASA.

I remember three years later in 1983 when I learned that Guy Bluford, who while I was sending away for space shuttle patches, had flown some 140-plus combat missions in Vietnam and became the first Black man in space. I was both elated and dejected: amazed to see someone who looked like me and had hair like me in a NASA space suit, helmet in hand, and at the same time bummed I would have to settle for second.

That memory reminds me there are still frontiers to pioneer.

Only two generations removed from being a niche sport in the United States, soccer has undergone a remarkable transformation. While the soccer pitch showcases — and demands — a diversity of players, the underrepresentation of Black coaches on teams remains a stark reality. Black coaches, despite their wealth of knowledge and experience, find limited access to head coaching roles.

As the global soccer community blends and evolves, it’s vital to address the disparities in Black coaches in leadership roles, particularly in the MLS.

Columbus Crew coach Wilfried Nancy (center) watches the start of the MLS Cup playoff match between Columbus Crew and Atlanta United FC on Nov. 6 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There was a time when MLS had only 12 teams, so to think there were 11 head coaching vacancies in 2023 is astounding. So far, there have been three hires (four if you count the unofficial reports coming out of Red Bull New York) and thus far, none have been Black coaches.

The 2023 MLS season started with a three Black head coaches: Wilfried Nancy (Columbus), Ezra Hendrickson (Chicago) and Robin Fraser (Colorado). Only Nancy remains. Nancy, hired by Thierry Henry in 2019 as the top assistant at CF Montreal and appointed head coach in 2021, will coach his 125th game as an MLS head coach on Saturday in the MLS Cup.

With Columbus Crew beating FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference final, Nancy is the first Black head coach to advance to an MLS Cup. (Yes, Allen Jr., there are still pioneers.) Nancy could join Tony Dungy (NFL), Bill Russell (NBA), and Cito Gaston (MLB), as the first Black head coaches/managers to win major pro championships in America.

There are 36 clubs combined in the United Soccer League Championship and USL One, and there are just three Black coaches. Seb Hines of the Orlando Pride is the National Women’s Soccer League’s only Black head coach out of 12.

The low number of Black coaches bleeds all over the lines and into all levels of the game.

The case for diversity in MLS coaching ranks

As we delve into why these statistics matter, it becomes evident that diversity is needed for soccer’s long-term growth and success in the United States.

There is a compelling business case for diversity. Soccer is not just a game, it’s a thriving billion-dollar industry. Organizations that champion diversity stand to gain goodwill and in the bottom line. In an era where soccer is not just a sport but a global business, tapping into a diverse array of talent is a competitive edge.

First, representation matters. Full stop.

In a sport that draws its strength from communities with different ethnicities and backgrounds, having leaders who reflect this diversity fosters a deeper connection. It sends a powerful message that anyone, regardless of their background, can aspire to lead on and off the field.

Moreover, diversity and representation bring a wealth of perspectives and strategies to the table. Different backgrounds and experiences contribute to a richer bank of ideas.

Colorado Rapids coach Robin Fraser (right) in the first half of an MLS match July 8 in Commerce City, Colorado.

David Zalubowski/AP Photo

A catalyst for the evolution of soccer in America

The lack of Black coaches is a missed opportunity for promoting equality and inclusivity.

One of the key aspects of American soccer’s evolution is the cultivation of a distinct American soccer identity. The sport thrives on the unique mixture of different skill sets and playing styles. The absence of Black coaches at the helm hinders the development of a coaching landscape that truly reflects the diversity in America. American soccer can access untapped talent and expertise.

The representation of Black coaches isn’t just about diversity for diversity’s sake, it’s about unlocking the full potential of American soccer. The evolution of soccer in America goes hand in hand with the evolution of its coaching landscape. A more inclusive coaching environment can attract a broader talent pool of players and coaches. It encourages collaboration and a commitment to excellence that is essential for American soccer to compete at the highest levels.

To address the underrepresentation of Black coaches in soccer, stakeholders must commit to change. Soccer organizations, leagues, and governing bodies must work together toward a more equitable playing field, recognizing that true excellence in coaching knows no color.

McKinsey’s Lighthouses 2023 report identified five success factors that yield the most significant, scalable, quantifiable, and sustained impact for underrepresented groups. The success factors are: a nuanced understanding of the root causes, a meaningful definition of success, accountable and invested business leaders, a solution designed for its specific context, and rigorous tracking and course correction.

The issue of underrepresented Black coaches demands attention and translating awareness into tangible action. It’s a critical step toward realizing soccer’s full potential as a sport that celebrates equality, diversity and inclusion. It’s time to rewrite the coaching narrative and create a soccer culture that truly embraces the strength found in diversity.