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MLS understands need for more Black US soccer players

League’s chief diversity officer says youth soccer in the United States has to ‘figure out a way to be able to have systemic change’

Over the last 20 days I’ve attended the all-star games of two major North American pro sports leagues. Earlier this month, the MLB held its All-Star Game in Seattle and the MLS held its All-Star Game last week in Washington.

The underlying theme of each league is diversity, specifically, how to bring more Black U.S. players into their respective sports.

Baseball, which has established a number of diversity initiatives, hosted an All-Star Game made up of players from historically Black colleges and universities. While diversity was not the overt theme of the MLS All-Star Game, the league has aggressively designed initiatives to attract young Black U.S. athletes.

Which sport will Black youth embrace? I’m betting on soccer. The sport has a higher ceiling in the United States and does not have the same contentious history with African Americans.

Soccer also has Sola Winley.

Sola Winley (left) and Dushyanthi Nabeendra (right) attend 12th Annual Night of Opportunity Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on April 8, 2019, in New York City.

Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Two years ago, the MLS hired Winley for a newly created position: executive vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. His mission is to build on the league’s multiple diversity initiatives:

  • Hiring more Black coaches and executives
  • Widening access to youth participation
  • Removing barriers to participation

The average Black U.S. youngster has had a distant relationship with soccer. Winley grew up in New York playing basketball, football and baseball. He was never introduced to soccer. His goal is to change that dynamic by making soccer a regular part of the sports and recreation diet.

“A kid from an under-resourced Latino community does not have to be convinced to play soccer, it’s part of their cultural conditioning,” he said. “They’ve already been exposed to soccer.

“An African immigrant here doesn’t need to be convinced to play soccer. A kid from a poor Black community has not yet been exposed to soccer in any sort of substantive or intentional way. It’s the last group on the globe that hasn’t been exposed to this sport. We have to figure out a better way of intentionally including that group.”

One of the most persistent barriers to participation is soccer’s pay-for-play model, a standard practice that can cost families thousands of dollars per year. “That’s a great barrier,” Winley said. “It can cost $3,000 on average to play travel soccer, and that’s not including the cost of travel.”

Outside of the United States, soccer is the sport of the working class. In the United States, youth soccer is a middle- and upper middle-class sport. While there are instances of families helping to defray the costs for those who cannot afford the high fees, charity is not a sustainable strategy for inclusion.

“There is a tremendous amount of generosity out there but part of what happens is, ‘Yeah, I’ll pay for Bill to come, but if Bill is going to take my son’s spot, I may not want to continue to pay for him.’

“We have to figure out a way to be able to have systemic change. The answer to that? I don’t know what that is yet.”

Even the young Black athlete who comes from a middle- and upper middle-class family gravitates to football and basketball. How will soccer bring these athletes into its universe? How will MLS make soccer matter?

“We have to be intentional about making sure that everybody feels that soccer is the place for them,” Winley said.

Team USA players before their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 game against Netherlands on Dec. 3, 2022, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar. Top row, from left to right: Matt Turner, Walker Zimmerman, Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson. Bottom row, from left to right: Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest and Jesus Ferreira.

Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Soccer is one of the world’s oldest sports, but basketball and football have a substantial head start, not only in the U.S. marketplace, but in the national psyche as well.

Pro baseball was established in the 19th century. Pro football was established at the beginning of the 20th century. Pro basketball has been established here for more than 70 years. On the other hand, each of those sports has had a strained relationship with African Americans. Baseball and football banned Black athletes and basketball moderated their participation by implementing quotas.

Basketball and football have made peace with African Americans — with full college scholarship and lavish compensation at the pro level. The MLB is still paying the price for excluding Black U.S. players.

Pro soccer, on the other hand, is relatively new to the U.S. scene.

For women, the Women’s United Soccer Association was formed in 2001 and lasted until 2003. Women’s Professional Soccer lasted from 2007 to 2012. The National Women’s Soccer League was formed in 2012. The women’s national team has been the dominant force in international soccer.

For men, the North American Soccer League was formed in 1968 and lasted until 1984. The MLS was founded in December 1993 and began play in 1996. Like pro football and baseball, the league has had issues with the lack of Black U.S. head coaches. This is a blind spot that Winley was hired to fix.

If MLS is serious about attracting young Black athletes, the league must bring in more Black U.S. coaches at the team and academy level. Currently there are two Black head coaches in the 29-team league. “Black American kids need to be able to see people they can look up to,” Winley said. “We have to have coaches kids can identify with.”

Ed Foster-Simeon, president and CEO of the U.S. Soccer Foundation, said the sport must also continue to proactively bring the game to underserved communities. Foster-Simeon said the foundation has been responsible for building mini-pitches around the country. “They’re like the size of a tennis court,” he said. “We’re putting those right in school yards. We did 50 in New York City with New York FC. And so to date, we’ve done over 600 of those around the country with a goal of installing a thousand by 2026.”

Like Winley, Foster-Simeon grew up in New York. Also like Winley, soccer never became part of his sports diet.

“I went with my friends to a basketball court, and we played all day on a Saturday,” he said. “We’d be out there all day. Nobody ever introduced me to soccer and that’s still the case today in many, many communities. Soccer, particularly for African American athletes, it’s not even presented as something to consider.

“So in a nutshell, it’s really bringing the game to where those kids are and providing them access, easy and affordable access. Three times as many kids play basketball for free as any other sport. And you know why? Because there’s basketball courts everywhere that they can play.”

New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams (right) dribbles past Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio (left) during a game at Red Bull Arena on Sept. 22, 2018, in Harrison, New Jersey.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

The MLS has another challenge: Keeping its greatest athletes in the United States.

The goal of every young Black basketball and football player is to play professionally in the United States, either in the NBA or NFL. In baseball, the most talented players aspire to play in MLB.

MLS is based in the United States, but the best young soccer players aspire to leave the country to play in soccer leagues outside of the United States, where the pay is higher and the competition better. MLS wants to be become a respected force in international soccer, a league on par with the Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain, Bundesliga in Germany, Serie A in Italy, or the Eredivisie in the Netherlands.

To achieve that goal, MLS must eventually find a way to keep its greatest athletes at home with compensation, level of play and exposure.

“That might be a story that has elements of truth today,” Winley said. “But as we continue to evolve as a league, more and more players are going to be staying here as an ultimate destination.

“We are a young league compared to other American sports leagues that have been here 75, 100, 150 years. We are competing against leagues that have been established around the world in soccer. As we continue to evolve, we continue to invest in player development, we are continuing to develop better and better American players, our talent level continues to get better, better, and better. As we continue to evolve as a league, more and more players are going to be staying here as an ultimate destination.”

Time is on soccer’s side. Civilizations do not last forever; the same is true in sports. There was a time in the United States when cycling was the premier sport, then horse racing and boxing were king. Baseball was truly the American pastime for decades while football was played in muddy fields in front of sparse crowds and basketball was only an afterthought.

Today, football and basketball reign supreme, in large part because of an inexhaustible supply of talented young African American football and basketball talent.

“The NFL, NBA, they’re all culturally relevant,” Foster-Simeon said. “They are part of the American culture.”

The MLS is 30 years old. During the MLS All-Star Game, I asked Winley and Foster-Simeon where they’d like MLS and soccer to be 30 years from now:

“I would like for MLS to be considered as one of the best leagues in the world,” Winley said. “The league of choice.”

“I’d like it to be the preeminent sport in the United States,” Foster-Simeon said. “There’s no part of anything that I’m saying that’s dismissing the NFL as going anywhere anytime soon. They are the dominant sport in the country. But I think when you’re talking about 28 years, a lot can happen.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.