Black women are balling out, making their impact on the U.S. national soccer team
The USWNT looks set to have historic levels of representation in next year’s World Cup, a sign of optimism for Black soccer legends like Briana Scurry
In the fifth minute of the U.S. women’s national team’s match against Jamaica in the CONCACAF W Championship, Naomi Girma received a pass from the midfield with a first touch that’s become her signature. Her alert, panoramic vision seems to free up mental space for precise decision-making by the time she gets the ball.
It’s a crucial skill for any central defender in soccer, where the job description is to ease and eliminate pressure and initiate ball recovery, but even the best takes years to cultivate it. Girma is 22 years old, though, making her third appearance on the senior national team that night.
She lifted her head and delivered a low, driven ball to Sophia Smith, who had taken off down the right flank to pick it up. Smith controlled the ball away from a defender, popped it back up to remove them from the equation, and struck it into the goal’s side netting with the outside of her right foot on a supernatural half volley. Jamaica entered the game having just given Mexico the business on its own soil — the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football tournament is in Monterrey — but Smith’s fast goal punctured any confidence it may have carried in.
It ended 5-0, which, combined with a stunning defeat of Mexico by Haiti, served as the U.S. ticket to next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The score line and early qualification were unsurprising. It’s impossible to separate the women’s national team’s legacy of winning (four World Cup championships and four Olympic gold medals, plus several other awards) from the expectation that winning is all they do.
But what distinguished the play that led to that first goal wasn’t simply Girma’s composure or Smith’s creativity — it was that they’re both Black.
So was the other forward, Mallory Pugh, who trailed Smith’s shot right into the net in case it went wide and needed extra guidance. And Girma, Smith and Pugh weren’t even the only Black players on the field for the U.S. There was also Alana Cook, another ahead-of-her-time center back who worked alongside Girma with cohesion throughout the game. (They both attended Stanford, overlapping for a year, to be fair, and Girma and Smith played there together for two years.)
Still, there are more Black players on the U.S. CONCACAF roster. On the sideline were forwards Margaret “Midge” Purce and Trinity Rodman. Both maximized their minutes in the second half. Purce drew a foul in the box that led to a converted penalty kick, and Rodman scored off a first-time cross from Pugh for the final goal of the match.
This is the Blackest U.S. women’s team ever to qualify for the World Cup. After years of fighting for inclusion, there are now enough Black players in the women’s national team roster pool to form a thriving group chat. And there are more, such as all-around positional extraordinaire Crystal Dunn, Brazilian-American midfielder Catarina Macario and forward Christen Press, who all regularly receive call-ups to the national team. (Dunn is easing back to training after giving birth to her first child, and Press and Macario are out with ACL injuries.)
It’s a monumental shift for those who want to see people who look like them reflected in the spaces they care about. The growing presence of Black female soccer players in the U.S. has inspired whole podcasts (Shea Butter FC, Diaspora United) dedicated to celebrating them in their melanated glory. But this fresh group of players is also doing wonders for anyone who simply wants the national team to uphold its legacy.
Because they don’t just play. They ball out.
Few people are more thrilled about it than the women’s national team’s first Black women’s soccer great.
“The future is bright, especially for players of color,” Briana Scurry said on a video call from Monterrey, where she’s been providing commentary throughout the tournament. The retired goalkeeper’s critical save during the 1999 Women’s World Cup final paved the way for the United States’ historic victory. She’s also a two-time Olympic gold medalist and National Soccer Hall of Famer.
For the younger members, like the 20-year-old Rodman, Scurry estimated that they could be playing for the next decade.
“I mean, Alana Cook is going to be there. Crystal Dunn will be back. Naomi Girma, fabulous. Sophia Smith, Mal Pugh. We’re talking about some fantastic players that are really breaking through right now and have a lot of longevity,” Scurry said.
But this, like all systemic changes, has been gradual. Scurry wrote about her experience of often being the only Black soccer player on the pitch in her new memoir, My Greatest Save: The Brave, Barrier-Breaking Journey of a World-Champion Goalkeeper, and said that she often yearned for another Black teammate back then.
She wasn’t the first Black player called up to the national team — that would be Kim Crabbe in 1986, and Sandi Gordon was the first to earn a cap the following year, but along with Saskia Webber, Scurry was one of just two Black women on the storied 1999 World Cup championship-winning squad. In her book, Scurry recalls former head coach April Heinrichs once referring to her in the media as “the fly in the milk” on the national team.
Scurry was eventually joined by Shannon Boxx, Angela Hucles and Danielle Slaton in the early 2000s. Their careers barely overlapped with those of Sydney Leroux, Press and Dunn when they arrived the following decade. Boxx, Leroux and Press played in and won the 2015 World Cup together.
After a lackluster bronze medal performance in the 2020 Summer Games in Japan to follow the 2019 World Cup victory, the U.S. is under pressure to maintain its status as the No. 1 team on the planet. With the concentration of Black talent in this pool and the contributions they’ve already made toward World Cup glory, though, it’s possible to see history-making numbers of players next year.
When asked about the impact of Black players during the CONCACAF tournament, U.S. national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski said, “Obviously, diversity is very important for us. Everybody coming from a different culture, different ethnicity, race, they all bring something different to the team.”
Diversity may seem obvious to Andonovski now, but Scurry’s experiences and past national team roster receipts throughout the history of U.S. soccer suggest otherwise.
Scurry said her optimism about the team’s progress has been buoyed by current players. Last month, when the team was training in Salt Lake City, she met with Cook, Girma and Purce. They discussed the various barriers marginalized communities face accessing competitive soccer in the U.S., mainly its middle-class suburban focus and the exorbitant cost of the pay-to-play model.
“I think the most refreshing thing about those three women in particular — and I’m sure Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman and Mal Pugh and all these other great players are similar — is the head on their shoulders that they have,” Scurry said. “I mean, these women are fantastic people and their thought process about who they are, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how they’re doing it, how and why representation matters to them, [is] way ahead of where I was at their age.”
All of that is, of course, besides maintaining three clean sheets (Cook and Girma), scoring (Purce, Smith and Rodman) and assisting (Pugh and Girma) in the national team’s first three games of the CONCACAF Championship.
Meanwhile, their predecessors are taking on more powerful positions in women’s soccer across the country. Scurry and her wife invested in the National Women’s Soccer League’s Washington Spirit, where Rodman plays; and Boxx, who was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame earlier this year, invested in the NWSL’s expansion team Angel City FC, along with Hucles. Meanwhile, Slaton has joined with three former teammates to found another expansion team in the Bay Area.
Whichever players end up competing in Australia and New Zealand for the World Cup will be in good company. Jamaica and Canada have qualified for the World Cup with rosters of prominent Black representation. The number of Black players has been rising in Europe, too, especially France, a team Scurry called “fabulous” in its recent 5-1 routing of Italy in the women’s European Championship. The next World Cup will also feature at least four and as many as six African teams, more than ever before.
“I’m having a great time talking about these new players and new teams that are coming up,” Scurry said. “It’s really an exciting time to be in the game.”