There have been four major hires to coaching and front office positions across the National Women’s Soccer League this offseason. All four are white men, and three have no previous experience working in professional women’s soccer.
It’s a cause for concern in a league that champions the growth of women in the world’s game. But at the same time, work is underway to change the landscape.
Some of that work is happening at NWSL headquarters. According to multiple sources, Amanda Duffy, the league’s managing director, is getting the title of president.
Duffy has worked for the NWSL since January of 2017. When former commissioner Jeff Plush resigned two months later, she became the league’s top executive and public voice. Now she has a title to match. Her promotion was approved last week, during a board of governors meeting at the United Soccer Coaches convention. The deal isn’t fully finalized yet, but should be soon.
The new title was kept quiet when Duffy held a press conference at last week’s NWSL draft. Duffy took some questions there on NWSL teams' lack of diversity in hiring. Her answers made news for their lack of detail.
Asked if the NWSL has an equivalent to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which mandates that minority candidates be interviewed for head coaching and general manager jobs, Duffy said: “We have requirements that require diversity to be included in the process of hiring for certain positions in place for the NWSL.”
Asked to clarify what those positions are, she said: “We have it for certain management and coaching, technical positions."
Have those rules been made public? Duffy’s answer was indirect.
“It’s a rule that the league has had, or a policy that our owners and our organizations have been working with, for some time now,” she said.
Are the penalties for not complying, and have any teams not complied?
“We would need to evaluate a situation if we felt, or understood or learned, that there was a reason that this wasn’t followed,” Duffy answered.
Has that happened?
“No,” Duffy answered.
That raised eyebrows.
When the Washington Spirit hired Richie Burke in December, they interviewed former Boston Breakers coach Lisa Cole along the way. But Equalizer Soccer reported that Burke, a longtime D.C.-area youth soccer coach, was “the only candidate seriously considered.”
As far back as October, the Washington Post reported that Burke was the preferred candidate of new Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin. It so happens that Burke coached Baldwin’s daughter when she was in high school.
The Houston Dash — run by the same organization that owns Major League Soccer’s Dynamo — hired James Clarkson, a former Dynamo academy director who was running an amateur-level PDL team affiliated with the club. (He notably hired Monica Gonzalez, a former Mexican women’s national team captain and well-known women’s soccer advocate, as an assistant.)
In Orlando, the Pride hired a new general manager and coach in the last few weeks. They’re also under an umbrella with a MLS team, Orlando City. The new GM, Eric Ustruck, is a former City player who has been in the club’s front office for a few years and worked with the Pride’s management team.
Ustruck made the last of the four big hires league-wide, and the only one with professional women’s soccer experience. Marc Skinner, the Pride’s new coach, comes from well-established English women’s team Birmingham City.
Last year, three women were hired as head coaches: Vera Pauw at Houston, Denise Reddy at Sky Blue FC and NWSL veteran Laura Harvey at the expansion Utah Royals. Pauw left at the end of the 2018 season.
“We want more women working in sports, more women working in soccer, more female coaches that are a part of NWSL specifically, and [in] the development ranks leading up to the NWSL,” Duffy said. “That’s something that we’re going to continue to work towards through various platforms and avenues that will get us there.”
Might a Rooney Rule be needed as a kickstart?
“I think all across the board, all the rules and policies for a league can be evaluated, can be reviewed — and when appropriate change is necessary, for that to happen,” she said. “But I think it’s about the opportunities — the number of opportunities, the quality of opportunities, the number and quality of candidates that are at the level that they need to be, and the certain positions that are open."
But the tide may be starting to turn. This autumn, the Utah Royals hosted a U.S. Soccer "C" license course for 21 current NWSL players, including former national team stalwarts Ali Krieger and Heather O’Reilly.
And on Monday, U.S. Soccer and Volkswagen announced a major new sponsorship deal with a promise of investing in coaching education for women.
“We need more women in coaching,” Ellis said in a statement. "I’m looking forward to seeing results of this partnership and seeing the impact it will have on providing more opportunities to develop female coaches in the near future.”
North Carolina Courage general manager Curt Johnson is ready to help. His club already hosts lower-level coaching courses, and its girls youth program is run by former national team star Cindy Parlow Cone. She’s on the verge of becoming U.S. Soccer Federation’s vice president.
There’s always more to do, and Johnson’s sleeves are rolled up.
“The challenge with those courses is, when you look at who’s in those courses, they’re heavily male,” he said. "Why is that? We all have to ask that question, and we’ve got to come up with some answers in order to change it.”
If the answers require sticks as well as carrots, he’d be on board.
“The question you’re asking is should there be something more proactive,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of merit to that."