As a soccer nation, we have a diversity problem, on and off the field. And in more ways, than you might think.
Although we generally seem to be aware that a diversity problem exists, we don’t appear to have a good grasp of the root causes, which is likely why we have not made significant progress in solving anything.
As Gary Kleiban, 3four3’s Founder stated on Twitter:
“Soluble problems will continue to persist unless the root is both identified and undone.”
If we’re talking about racism and diversity being a systemic thing, which more and more people seem to be coming around to, then the change itself must be a systemic one.
People often think the problem is solving the diversity of players, or coaches, or GM’s. People think that changes in these areas is going to enable the systemic change we so badly need in our country. The reality is that you can fill MLS with Black and Latino GM’s and franchise presidents – and nothing would change.
Because the problem is bigger than that. Much bigger than that.
It’s about opportunity, and ownership.
In turn, these things would have a greater impact on those positions that I just mentioned.
So, today, we’re going to examine the disenfranchisement, discrimination, and lack of diversity throughout soccer in America throughout the ranks. More importantly, we’re going to expose the root of the problem American soccer suffers from.
You might have seen some people telling us, “Now is not the time to be talking about this stuff.”
Okay, but if we don’t educate now, then when?
When we’ve brought up discrimination over the past ten years, it went ignored.
Now, with the recent events, it’s imperative we continue discussing it.
And we’re going to discuss it again, and again, and again.
This isn’t taking advantage of current tragedies, on the contrary, we’ve been beating this drum in public for a decade. It’s the ones who haven’t been highlighting this over the past ten years that we should all be suspect of. People and organizations that are pandering by riding the wave of public perception.
The inequality and injustices we fight in other facets of society run rampant and unchecked in American soccer, partly because of the “it’s just a game” narrative that is conveniently pushed during times like these.
It’s not just a game, though. It’s so much more than just a game. You know that. That’s why you’re listening to this podcast.
Sports, and soccer specifically, have social, political, and economic implications attached to them, all of which affect the livelihoods of millions of individuals, communities, and entire nations.
So, when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we cannot brush aside the fact that, like any other sector, sport is a battleground for equality and opportunity.
The Obvious, and Measurable Problems
To illustrate one of the most obvious examples of the diversity problem we suffer from in American soccer, we can take a look at the history of head coaches in Major League Soccer:
MLS has only hired 5 full-time black head coaches in its 25-year history.
Put differently, only 3.2% of the league’s full-time head coaches have been black. Additionally, none of those black coaches have been born in America.
On several occasions, MLS has hired black head coaches on an interim basis, like Cobe Jones for LA Galaxy, but the fact remains that just 5 out of their 156 full-time head coaching hires have been a black coach.
In 2018, I interviewed Justin Reid regarding the lack of diversity amongst NCAA soccer head coaches and administrators.
According to Reid, out of 528 NCAA first division soccer programs, both men’s and women’s, only 43 coaches were identified as Black or Latino.
It should be noted that the lack of minority coaches also has an impact on players.
Referencing a statement from Mark McKenzie made about having a black coach, former MLS player Amobi Okugo pointed out in a blog post, “it’s just different when you have a coach that can understand you and has gone through some of the same things you went through.”
Justin Reid also noted that out of 326 Division 1 NCAA Athletic Directors – only 20 were Black. The problems only got worse in regard to the breakdown of men and women in those same roles. And even worse again when it came to minority women. This has a major impact on the hiring process when it comes to head coaches, assistants, and beyond.
Patrice Parris, a coach that Justin Reid spoke with while gathering his data, said, “A majority of the hires that take place at the NCAA level are based on networking, rather than one’s body of work.”
Society in general relies heavily on personal networks when hiring.
For example, if a college student is looking to intern for a tech firm over summer, he might increase his chances by reaching out to a founder that is in his fraternity network. Fraternities and sororities tend to offer job support to past and present members.
American soccer at the professional level is frequently referred to as a fraternity. Its members are part of a fortunate group of people who happened to have been around when pro soccer got another jumpstart with MLS 25 years ago. So, if that fraternity is not diverse, it should be no surprise that hiring based principally on that network would continue to produce a lack of diversity. This is what’s known as a “vicious cycle”.
Here’s another example of network hiring.
As of June 2020, the Major League Soccer Players Association Executive Board featured six white men and just one minority. Historically, the Executive Board has been made up of predominantly white guys. Many of these Executive Board members have moved on to serve as coaches or executives within the league, and many others have been hired to work in media positions for MLS and USSF’s partners.
- Ben Olsen has been the coach of D.C. United for a number of years
- Alexi Lalas has served as GM of LA Galaxy and NY Red Bull, as well as multiple media roles with ESPN and Fox
- Chris Klein was President of LA Galaxy
- Landon Donovan has served as an analyst for multiple networks, including ESPN and FOX
- Tim Howard has served as an analyst for TNT
Why is this important to point out?
Well, the MLS PA Executive Board is charged with representing all MLS players at the bargaining table when it comes to negotiating things like the CBA. But the Executive Board also represents the collective voice of the players when speaking to the public, whether its in celebration of an achievement, or in times of peril, such as a pandemic, or mass protests.
And, like Mark McKenzie pointed out, the message hits differently when you feel like you’re connected to the messenger.
It comes down to minorities having the opportunity, and the platform, to express themselves, deliver a message, and ultimately represent their communities.
But it is those opportunities that are denied in this country, and the vicious cycle of network hiring which we just discussed is but one aspect that contributes to the ongoing problem we face.
What do I see
For quite some time, I’ve questioned whether or not the MLS, and by extension, the U.S. Men’s National Team, properly represents the people that make up American soccer.
It’s hard to say what’s coming next without putting it into some sort of context.
So, here it goes.
I view American soccer through my lens. I grew up playing competitively and ended my career after just one season of collegiate soccer. I’ve coached for more than fifteen years, both boys and girls. I’ve also refereed just about every level, from youth recreational games to NCAA to Men’s semi-professional.
Throughout all of my experiences playing and coaching, I’ve found it to be very rare that a Hispanic player has not been the best player on the field. Yet, growing up, and into my adult years as a fan of the U.S. Men’s National Team, I’ve always found it strange that there were so few Hispanic players on the team. Especially ones with the attacking skillsets that I was so accustomed to playing and coaching against in Central and Southern California.
According to Census estimates from 2019, Los Angeles is a county comprised of nearly 50% Hispanics and Latinos. That culture is traditionally a soccer-first culture, but that isn’t what I remember seeing on TV when I was growing up watching the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The star players were Landon Donovan and David Beckham.
Don’t get me wrong, those guys were great players, but what happened to all of those Hispanic guys I played against?
And the guys I coached?
And the guys I coached against?
Did they just… disappear?
And I don’t buy into the “fall through the cracks” narrative.
I don’t even buy into the “the system is broken” narrative.
Because I honestly believe that the system is working perfectly because it’s built upon a foundation of disenfranchisement.
MLS, with permission granted by US Soccer, is purposefully designed to keep certain people in, and certain people out.
Yes, you heard me correctly. A closed league like MLS is all about exclusion. Community outreach programs or diversity task forces only serve as PR stunts due to the fact they never actually hit the essence of what inclusion, and equal opportunity actually means.
This is why we continually fight for a system designed around inclusion.
Now, with all of that said, are you able to start seeing how the lack of diversity ties into promotion and relegation?
Who Represents Who?
In 2020, how is it that just two MLS franchises are supposed to accurately represent the soccer-rich culture of Los Angeles?
The real answer is: They can’t.
Sure, there are USL teams and whatnot, but the real soccer culture in Los Angeles exists at the fringe, in Men’s Leagues, pick up games, and other unaffiliated organizations that are effectively and purposefully excluded by US Soccer and MLS.
This so-called fringe soccer culture is made up of primarily immigrant communities.
I remember growing up watching my dad play with a group of Croatian’s in the men’s leagues throughout the Bay Area. Croatian’s even put together yearly tournaments that coincide with Croatian Independence Day, where Croatian communities from across the country send teams to compete against each other. Each year, we’d see teams from Phoenix, San Jose, Las Vegas, Cleveland, and more.
These were teams that were made up of immigrants, or direct descendent of immigrants, and could easily be identified as soccer-first people. And even though Croatians are white, they too were still mostly operating outside of the traditional American system because of their cultural norms and beliefs about the game.
An example we’re probably more familiar with is the term “Mexican League” and it is used to describe Sunday men’s league’s across the country.
Why is this?
Well, because most men’s leagues are comprised primarily of Hispanic and Latino players which represent, quite likely, the largest soccer-first demographic in our country.
Again, I have personal experience with this as I have refereed in men’s leagues for over a decade. Almost every weekend, game after game after game, I would be the only white person on the field. Actually, I would often be the only white person in the vicinity of the two fields that were allotted to the league.
On one occasion, I was asked to referee a game between one of the top-ranked teams in our local league and the Chivas U-20 team from Mexico.
The league sold tickets to the game at a price of $25. They rented a local high school stadium. Several thousand people showed up, many wearing Chivas jerseys, singing Chivas songs, and asking for autographs of future Chivas stars.
I can say with full confidence that it was the most attended game I have ever refereed. Besides the local Cal Poly vs. UCSB college soccer rivalry, it was the most attended game in our area. MLS used to host pre-season games here, and even San Jose Earthquakes and other franchises couldn’t draw a crowd comparable to a men’s league team vs. Chivas U-20’s.
Yet, this is the type of culture that U.S. Soccer and MLS continue to exclude.
Another great example of this fringe soccer culture rearing its head was when Eric Wynalda led a group of what is best described as Men’s League players, primarily Hispanic and Latino’s, into the U.S. Open Cup. That team actually beat MLS’ Portland Timbers.
At that time, Cal FC, the Sunday league team from Southern California, captivated our soccer nation. Much like the story of Leicester City rising from obscurity and eventually winning the Premier League title. But the way that Leicester City rose through the ranks of England’s lower divisions is not allowed in American soccer. Therefore, the only chance teams not welcomed by MLS or USL have to compete in the U.S. Open Cup, which U.S. Soccer has reportedly considered canceling on a number of occasions.
According to Wynalda, nine players from that Cal FC team went on to have opportunities, whether that be camp invitations or actual caps, with their respective national teams. Most notably, Southern California native Richie Menjivar earned 41 caps for El Salvador and actually played against the United States.
We also cannot forget about the one time there was an MLS franchise owner who was Mexican, but once he assumed majority ownership and wanted to start implementing a culture for the Mexican community, he was quickly run out of town, and Chivas USA was shut down. But of course, this is not the story the establishment told the public.
This is all supporting the idea that MLS and U.S. Soccer aren’t interested in welcoming diversity, whether we’re talking about race, culture, or just opinions on how a team should be run.
In other parts of the world, clubs operate with strict policies so that it is ensured their culture is represented.
Athletic Bilbao in Spain is one example. The club requires that a certain number of Basque players be maintained thereby guaranteeing that this culture is given an opportunity.
Tell me, what MLS franchise represents Black culture? Or Latino culture? Those classifications themselves are too broad.
What MLS franchise represents The Bronx? Or South Central?
You see, operating within a closed system and a franchise-based model, as we have here with MLS, removes any sort of real identity and culture from the equation.
What we get instead is vanilla.
Can this problem be solved? Absolutely.
But here’s the thing.
The only way to accurately represent the soccer culture throughout Los Angeles is by providing opportunities for communities and their members to truly represent themselves.
The same goes for the rest of the country.
What does that mean in regard to soccer?
We need an open, merit-based system comprised of independently owned clubs, each with unique identities, in order to really embrace the idea of diversity.
Communities like Bell Gardens, Compton, and Garden Grove all deserve the opportunity to represent themselves.
Just like the small city of Eibar can represent itself in Spain.
These communities in LA are not accurately represented by franchises like LA Galaxy or LAFC. Nor do these franchises even begin to fully tap into the powerful soccer culture that exists throughout the greater Los Angeles area.
Contrast that with Manchester, England.
From 2005-2012, there were four clubs from the greater Manchester area playing in the Premier League, which is widely considered to be the most difficult league in world football. Those clubs were Manchester United, Manchester City, Wigan Athletic, and Bolton Wanderers.
Am I trying to say that I think Los Angeles needs to have four first division clubs?
No. Absolutely not.
What I am trying to say is that Los Angeles could sustain many more professional clubs than it currently does. The same goes for our country as a whole. Having more independently owned clubs would better showcase the true footballing culture that exists here.
But the incentives and opportunities must come into alignment before we would ever see Los Angeles and it’s minority communities, and America as a whole, reach its full footballing potential.
The Importance of Independent Club Ownership
Like I mentioned in the intro, if we’re talking about racism and diversity being a systemic thing, which more and more people seem to be coming around to, then the change itself must be a systemic one.
And who has the power to enact systemic change? Owners.
Ultimately, coaches, GM’s, and all of the other positions within American soccer are just employees carrying out the will and agenda of owners. Puppets, without real power.
While there absolutely must be a continued effort to improve the diversity throughout the ranks, on and off of the field, what really matters is the diversity of owners.
Because ownership is where the power resides.
Until we have diversity in ownership, both race and culture, these problems we currently suffer from will persist.
No amount of programs, or initiatives, or Commissioner rules will genuinely improve the situation we’re in.
Furthermore, having just one, two, or even a handful of minorities as owners of MLS franchises does basically nothing.
Herein lies another issue with American soccer – something we will certainly elaborate on in future episodes.
Even with minorities owning large percentages of MLS franchises, the franchises themselves are a reflection of MLS’s ideals.
- MLS franchises are not independent clubs like we see throughout the rest of the world.
- MLS franchises are not unique in how they operate or in what they represent.
- Individual MLS franchises have no true identity or culture that separates one franchise from the next.
LAFC represents the same thing as LA Galaxy. The owners of these MLS franchises are basically business partners, not competitors, like FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Unfortunately, MLS has already proven that it couldn’t even handle one franchise expressing even the slightest bit of its own unique individual identity and culture. They canceled Chivas USA, ran the owner out of town, and wiped itself clean of what they felt was a disastrous experiment. An experiment that didn’t work precisely because Chivas USA was not allowed to truly represent Mexican culture. It wasn’t real, it was plastic, it was an attempt to trick the Mexican community into thinking this was going to represent them. And the Mexican community saw right through this, and never embraced it.
Chivas USA was shut down, the status quo was restored, and has been maintained ever since.
The point remains that ownership is the key to unlocking the real potential of our minority and immigrant cultures here in the United States. But we must also recognize that franchise ownership is not a real solution.
A franchise system is a closed system.
A closed system is a gatekeeper system
A gatekeeper system is, by definition, discriminatory.
Always remember that the advocacy & struggle for pro/rel is one about inclusion.
It’s a struggle against a system that excludes the vast majority of people for the benefit of a few.
If we really want equality, and diversity, the closed system that U.S. Soccer enables, and MLS benefits from, must be undone. If we continue with the current system, we will only further entrench our nation in these same problems.
I’ll leave you with these questions:
- Why is it so hard to illuminate this?
- Why can’t we point it out, and focus our efforts there?
- Why do we pretend this isn’t the issue?
Change, real change, isn’t just about cosmetic PR moves as you’ll see from most MLS and U.S. Soccer outlets.
Meaningful change is opening the system so anyone can build and rise to power.
Because if organizations, and people, aren’t fighting for that, they aren’t fighting for change, at all.
So, do we really want to see change? Or not?
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Harry Soriano says
Gary often mentions the lack of clubs owned by minorities as a sign of discrimination and lack of inclusion in US Soccer. This is something that I completely agree with. I guess I would like to ask Gary if having fan ownership would be a viable solution to the lack of representation or if we just simply need more ethnic minorities in ownership positions?
John Pranjic says
Great question. I believe Gary is has a response in the works, but I’ll chime in with something real quick.
If we are talking about owning an MLS franchise, fan ownership would not be a viable solution. In my opinion, it could even be worse. Almost like a ruse, fooling people into believing its something that it’s not.
It’s important to remember that franchises are the antithesis of independently owned clubs. Further, MLS, with permission from US Soccer, is a monopoly – which is the antithesis of a free market.
So, even if we saw fan ownership in leagues like MLS and USL that are comprised of franchises, we shouldn’t expect similar results to fan controlled clubs such as FC Barcelona, or publicly controlled clubs such as Bayern Munich.