While the U.S. Women’s National Team won the World Cup with a roster that included three African-American players, America creates few black professional players – especially stars on the international stage.
Unlike football, basketball and other sports, there has been no concentrated effort to take soccer into urban areas, introduce black youths to good coaching and develop the skills needed to flourish.
This is why the $100,000 gift from MLS4TheLou, the ownership group working to land an expansion MLS team for St. Louis, to SLPS and Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club should be celebrated here and replicated throughout the U.S.
Carolyn Kindle Betz, president of Enterprise Holdings Foundation, said its “an amazing opportunity,” to demonstrate the ownership group’s commitment “to building a team that will not only excel on the field, but also within our community.”
“We want to give more young people the opportunity to learn and play soccer through physical education and athletic programs,” said Betz.
SLPS Athletic Director Teron Sharp said the donation is a first of its kind for the district.
“This is the first time we have received this type of athletic support from the community, and we are extremely grateful to MLS4TheLou,” he said.
“Every player will have what he or she needs for the season. It is a big deal to our kids.”
Sharp said the SLPS soccer program will add an elementary school league to join its high school and middle school programs.
“We want to ensure we are able to teach the basics in elementary school to help build competitive teams in upper grades,” he said.
Sharp said SLPS will use its $50,000 to support about 1,000 students in 31 district schools (includes elementary, middle and high). The district will purchase 576 pairs of cleats, 400 pairs of shin guards, jerseys, coaches’ boards, goalie gloves, mesh bags, socks and soccer goals.
Half of the $100,000 to be shared by Mathews-Dickey and SLPS comes from the Enterprise Holdings Foundation, and the other 50% was generated by the sale of MLS4TheLou scarves and hats as the ownership launched its bid last year.
Blackballed from soccer
The United States National Men’s Team failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 and there is no guarantee it will make the cut in 2022. The men advanced to the final of the Gold Cup tournament before losing to Mexico 1-0.
However, Mexico played without four of its top players in the match. A constant chorus is that America will never be a soccer power until it comes to grip with the absence of black players.
“Mentally, the kids aren’t even thinking soccer is accessible,” former MLS player Amir Lowery told The Guardian in a three-part series examining the lack of diversity in American soccer.
“To not be allowing non-white kids to develop shows why we aren’t in the World Cup.”
Lowery, executive director of Open Goal Project, a Washington D.C. nonprofit creating high level soccer opportunities said, “a kid playing basketball and American football can see a chance to play in college, they see a path through.”
“If you want to play soccer [beyond high school], there’s no path there. You don’t ever see college coaches at (urban) high school games.
Keith Tucker, a veteran Washington youth soccer coach in black neighborhoods, said the lack of diversity in the game won’t change until the U.S. Soccer Federation does more to “develop and feature African American players.”
He told The Guardian U.S. Soccer “won’t come into black neighborhoods in Washington and other big American cities to establish leagues, staffed with top-level coaches like those in the wealthy suburbs.”
If the Federation steps up, “Kids will believe they are part of a ‘family’, the way they do in established basketball leagues throughout African American neighborhoods.”
Tucker, who is black, said America will one day develop a player better than international superstar Messi – and that player will be African American. But that will take years and more support like that of ML4TheLou and its $100,000 gift in St. Louis.
“It’s hard to start a league on this side of town,” he said.
“You need professional coaches to start summer camps and bring quality coaching. You need to start kids young. And you need professionals who parents feel comfortable leaving their three-year-old with. Then you need lots of volunteers to make a league work.”
Mark Lewis, a Jamaica native who came to the U.S. as a teen, told The Guardian he never understood why soccer is not more popular in black communities.
Now a coach with DC Scores, a program that mixes soccer and art, said he convinces youths near practice and game sites to join a team. He leaves soccer balls in his backyard to get prospective young players to give the game a shot.
“I never see a kid in (the D.C. black neighborhood) Anacostia carrying a soccer ball. In the white neighborhoods you see that every day.”
The U.S. Women’s team is World Cup champion, and the National Women’s Soccer League boasts black participation of about 8 percent.
Several NWSL black players recently shared their thoughts with SB Nations “All for XI,” a webpage devoted to women’s soccer. Even though they played the game as girls, lack of skilled coaching and stereotypes that plague black athletes in all sports greeted them.
“I had to catch up to a lot of people when they hit high school,” said Midge Purce, a striker with the Chicago Thorns.
“The first couple of coaches I had didn’t really bother to teach me anything else because they were just like that’s it, (being fast is) enough. And this held me back for a bit.”
Purce was a high school sophomore when she switched club teams and found a coach that truly began her journey to pro soccer.
“‘You’re just running past people. Do something else’,” Purce said of the coach that helped her improving her soccer IQ and scoring skills.
“I was at a point where I was like, ‘I can’t do the things other people can do with the ball,’” Purce said.
“It took a ton of hours, honestly. Goodness gracious. Thinking about it makes me tired. A ton of extra work.”
Lynn Williams, a North Carolina Courage forward who was a finalist for 2018 NWSL MVP, said her coach Paul Riley recently gave her the best compliment she has ever received as a player.
He told her that she transformed from an “athlete playing soccer” to a “soccer player who is an athlete.”
“I think it’s amazing that one, we even have a league, and two, we have a league that has a lot of African-American women in it. But I definitely still think there still needs to be more,” Williams said.
Tacoma Reign defender Taylor Smith, a Fort Worth native who played four years in high school before receiving a scholarship to UCLA, said a major obstacle to black participation is financial.
“I know for me growing up, we weren’t financially stable, so going to some tournaments weren’t really an option. And I think there’s a huge reason why there’s not a lot of girls of color in the sport,” Smith said.
“Even being a professional athlete, playing for the league it’s not like you make enough to make a living, really, so it’s kind of difficult because you kinda have to really invest in yourself, and that can be pretty difficult when other opportunities can give you more opportunity to make more of a living.”
The NWSL’s minimum salary is $16,538 and the maximum is $46,200.
“I had to talk to my father a lot back when I was in college and talking about playing professionally because as a career path, it’s not stable and it’s not profitable playing in the NWSL,” Purce said.
“And that’s a really hard decision for all the women to make.”
The Reid Roundup
It’s been awhile since you’re the name of former Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. During his time as mayor he directed the recreation department to push youth soccer – and it was really catching on. Then he got arrested and ousted from office and the soccer energy faded … Ezekiel Elliott is in Mexico at a private Cabo resort during his holdout – the same place he spent part of his six-game suspension in 2017. A sure-fire way to endear himself to his teammates and coaches … A New Orleans judge has ruled that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must testify in a civil lawsuit based on lost earnings because of the missed interference call in the L.A. Rams win over the Saints in the NFC Championship game …
Alvin A. Reid was honored as the 2017 “Best Sports Columnist – Weeklies” in the Missouri Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest and is a New York Times contributor. He is a panelist on the Nine Network program, Donnybrook, a weekly contributor to “The Charlie Tuna Show” on KFNS and appears monthly on “The Dave Glover Show” on 97.1 Talk.” Find him on Twitter @aareid1.