PORTLAND, Ore. — Crystal Dunn was often the only Black girl on her youth soccer clubs, and even when she finally made it to the national team, she did her own hair and makeup for photo shoots because “there wasn't someone set up for me."
While the U.S. national team has steadily become more representative, Dunn says there's still work to be done. That 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, 'This is OK, you are still welcome in this sport. And just because there aren’t many people that look like you, this is still your game,'" said Dunn, a native of Rockville Centre. That support was key to her success "because honestly at the end of the day, it’s pretty lonely to feel like you’re the only one in this space and to not feel as if you belong.”
Women’s soccer in the United States has long had a diversity problem: The sport's pay-to-play model means that it's expensive, especially at higher levels. Club teams and traveling teams can cost thousands of dollars in some cases. Almost from the start, players without financial resources — including many from marginalized communities — are left behind.
Even U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone has lamented that American soccer is seen as a “rich, white kids’ sport.”
Dunn was among just five players of color out of 23 on the roster for the U.S. team that won the World Cup in 2019. In contrast, France had 12.
The most recent U.S. roster had 10 women of color — including young stars Trinity Rodman, Naomi Girma and Mallory (Pugh) Swanson — as the team readies for this summer's World Cup. The United States will face New Zealand twice next week as the teams ramp up for the tournament, which will co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
“Representation matters,” said Sophia Smith, who had a team-high 11 goals for the United States last year and won U.S. Soccer's Female Player of the Year award. “And I think for young girls to be able to look on the screen or come to a game and see a lot of people that look different, it’s great.”
The growing representation has helped diversify a team that included fewer than a dozen total Black players in its entire history before 2012.
The pool of players talented enough to each the highest level in America — the national team and the National Women's Soccer League — is already small. The exclusionary nature of youth soccer makes it even smaller.
The pay-to-play structure “does leave a lot of marginalized minority communities in a pickle” because of the high costs, Dunn said. "And if I didn’t have parents who could dish out three, four or five grand a year, I don’t know that I can sit here and say that I would have continued playing this sport.”
Parlow Cone said at a youth sports panel last year that the U.S. federation is studying access to the game.
“A lot of it comes down to how our sport is viewed, marketing, and how do we shift that thinking from that it’s a rich white kids' sport to this is a sport that is literally played in every country around the world?" she said. “And as the most diverse country in the world here in the U.S., how do we change that focus to making sure that every kid feels welcomed into our game?"
Ed Foster-Simeon, CEO of the U.S. Soccer Foundation, is among those trying to make soccer more accessible to communities that haven't traditionally been involved.
The foundation’s Soccer for Success program has worked with more than 400,000 children — 90% of them from communities of color — since 2008. The program expects to serve more than 100,000 kids this year.
The foundation says that more than 121,000 girls from underserved 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 has engaged 5,475 coaches who identify as women or nonbinary over that period.
The foundation's goal is not to develop elite talent but to bring the game to more kids, particularly those in communities with fewer resources, he said.
In the last few years, “clearer and clearer pathways” have emerged for talented young people, Foster-Simeon said. “But I think our biggest challenge still today is that we’re only scratching the surface in terms of participation. We are not reaching enough kids.”
Indeed, much of the work with girls is being done at the grassroots level.
Shannon Boxx, who was enshrined last year into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, played on the national team from 2003 to 2015. She's on the board of Bridge City Soccer in Portland — which aims to bring girls into the game.
She remembers moments on the national team when she noticed she was the only person of color present.
“For me, it was just a big weight that I was willing to have, but I remember feeling like, OK, when we’re signing autographs, I’m searching for those kids that are of color because I want them to know that they can do this,” she said. “And I might be the only one right now, but that’s not going to be the way it is in the future.”
Shawna Gordon, a former pro who played for Sky Blue (now Gotham FC) in the National Women's Soccer League, started the nonprofit Football For Her in Southern California to mentor young players on and off the pitch — regardless of socioeconomic status. Football For Her takes a whole person approach, addressing nutrition and mental health, in addition to playing skills.
“It's a challenge to be playing with hard players, like they're all talented in their own ways. And for me, that gets to help me find my why,” said Amber Ramirez, 13, who attended a Friday night Soccer For Her program last fall.
There's evidence those efforts may be working. Ten years ago, just 24% of Division I women’s soccer players were nonwhite. The number grew to 34% last season. But many believe stopgap measures are not the answer. They want to reconsider the pay-to-play model.
The pay-to-play model "is completely endemic to the issues that we’re having, so how do we try to adjust it?” said Kate Markgraf, general manager of the U.S. women. "I think we’re finally at a point now where we’re willing — not as U.S. Soccer, but I think as a society — our eyes are open in a way that they never have been.”
Dunn is hopeful. When she first joined the national team, there were many fewer women of color in the sport and even fewer who were playing at the highest levels.
It’s important to celebrate progress, she said, "but it's also important to continue pushing, pushing for more and pushing for more women of color to be able to have access to the sport.”