Union goalkeeper Matt Freese and U.S. women’s national team top prospect Brianna Pinto are leading a caucus of five young American players in a campaign for seats on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s powerful Athletes' Council.

The council, which represents all athletes in the national team program, holds 20% of voting power on U.S. Soccer’s board of directors. A new federal law will soon raise the number to 33%.

Freese is a Wayne native who grew up in the Union’s academy, then went to Harvard and left after two years to turn pro. Pinto, a junior at the University of North Carolina, is one of the top midfielders in the U.S. women’s pipeline.

They are joined by Smith Hunter, a Harvard freshman who played for the U.S. at the 2018 under-17 women’s World Cup; Mikey Lopez, a former MLS player now at second-tier USL Championship club Birmingham Legion; and Nick Mayhugh, a member of the U.S. men’s Paralympic 7-a-side national team.

All five players are younger than any of the council’s current 23 members. Kevin Hensley, a Paralympian, is the youngest current member at age 28. López is the oldest of the five candidates at 27.

“We believe that if the council is making decisions that will impact all athletes, they can’t really make those fully informed decisions without having someone speak from the perspective of the next generation of players,” Hunter said.

Freese was inspired in part by the activism of his Union teammates on matters ranging from racism to immigration to gun violence. The club’s leading voices are also among its most prominent on the field: manager Jim Curtin, captain Alejandro Bedoya, veteran Black players Ray Gaddis and Warren Creavalle, and young Black star Mark McKenzie.

“People like Jim, Ale, Mark, Ray, and Warren, they’re very inspirational in the way they try to make changes in their communities,” Freese said. “I think something like that lays the groundwork and lays the foundation for someone like me, who then also wants to take part in a similar manner.”

Curtin saluted Freese’s effort.

“At this club, we encourage our players to do more than just be great players on the field,” Curtin said. “It’s a sign of maturity for a young kid to take a role like that.”

Pinto and Hunter are Black, and Hunter, a Seattle native, is also Asian-American. Lopez was born in Dallas to Mexican immigrant parents and raised by them in a small Texas town near the Mexico border. Mayhugh, from northern Virginia, would be the fourth Paralympian on the council, though one of the four is running for reelection this year. Ten seats are up for grabs.

None of the current council members is Black or Asian-American, a point the players emphasized when they announced their campaign on social media.

“We just want to provide more perspectives that currently aren’t in the room,” Pinto said. “It’s more about us being a resource and offering our personal perspectives that might resonate with a lot of other players in the federation.”

Brianna Pinto, right, playing for North Carolina in the 2018 NCAA championship game.
Ben McKeown / AP
Brianna Pinto, right, playing for North Carolina in the 2018 NCAA championship game.

One of the players' specific calls is for greater investment in mental health programs for national team players. There’s enough pressure in simply trying to make a national team roster, before adding the impact of life off the field — and that impact is greater for Black, Latino, and other minority players.

“We’re carrying this extra baggage that sometimes we’re representing a country that doesn’t see our full humanity,” Pinto said.

Hunter linked those real-world concerns with increasing youth activism in politics.

“In the same way that we’re part of the U.S. Soccer community, we hope that other young people outside of the soccer world see this and get inspired to take power in the communities that they’re a part of,” she said.

Most of the council members are well-known names, including Landon Donovan, Alex Morgan, Heather O’Reilly, and Carlos Bocanegra. But the council’s work often takes place out of the spotlight, even though it has far-reaching consequences.

A prominent recent example is U.S. Soccer’s infamous mandate that players stand during the national anthem. The Athletes' Council played a key role in its adoption in early 2017, and played key a role in ending it this past June.

“It should be a public-figure position because it’s certainly very influential,” Freese said. “There’s so much room to use the platform of the federation and the athletes specifically within social justice and social activism.”

When the Union wore the names of police shooting victims on their jerseys during their MLS Is Back tournament opener against New York City FC on July 9, Matt Freese (far left in the front row) wore the name of Sandra Bland.
ANDREW ZWARYCH / Philadelphia Union
When the Union wore the names of police shooting victims on their jerseys during their MLS Is Back tournament opener against New York City FC on July 9, Matt Freese (far left in the front row) wore the name of Sandra Bland.

Mayhugh hopes to increase the profile of the Paralympic team and squads in beach and indoor soccer that fall under the program known as “extended national teams.” He’s close with longtime Athletes' Council chair Chris Ahrens, a former Paralympian, and has often sought Ahrens' counsel.

“In the position that I am in now, as a focal point to the Para 7-a-side national team now, and have been for the last couple of years, what can I do from my position to better the generations to come with the extended national teams — our representation, the support we get from the federation or from the fans?” Mayhugh said.

Freese said Ahrens “was definitely very supportive” of the young players when they spoke with him.

Freese also emphasized that “100%, we’re not running against anyone,” but are running for ideas and to encourage wider participation.

“We want to get elected, obviously, but we also want to inspire others throughout the whole entire player pool to run and to campaign,” he said.