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Lisa Cole on women in coaching: there’s different standards for men and women

“We’re let go easier and it’s harder for us to get hired.”

Boston Breakers At Practice Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

This is part 2 of an interview with Antigua and Barbuda WNT head coach Lisa Cole. Part 1 can be found here.

It was the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League, and Boston Breakers head coach Lisa Cole had the team within spitting distance of a playoff spot. Given a fair shot, she might have gotten them over the line. No one can say for sure, though, because she was fired before the season was over and replaced with Cat Whitehill as interim player-coach. The Breakers did not make the playoffs.

The reason for Cole’s dismissal? A disagreement over the direction of the Breakers Academy, Cole said in a phone call. She thought the Breakers’ youth program should be handled differently, and so was dismissed from coaching the first team.

“To be fair,” Cole said, “[Boston team owner] Michael Stoller’s reached out in the past years and said that was a mistake.” But the firing left its mark on Cole; she hasn’t had a head coaching job in NWSL since, taking short assistant coach stints with the Houston Dash and the Washington Spirit while seeing underqualified men continue to get hired at both the club and national level.

“You look at some of the hires that have happened recently - instead of taking a qualified woman or a woman with experience, we have Phil Neville,” she said. “I’m not saying he’s a doing bad job, I’m not saying he’s a doing a great job, but I’m telling you he’s learning on the job. You think somebody was going to hire me and let me learn on the job? That’s the difference.”

Cole continued, “I just think there’s different standards for women. We’re let go easier and it’s harder for us to get hired.”

If you look at the women who have been hired to head coach in NWSL, their records certainly tend to show the level of experience expected. Laura Harvey was a highly successful WSL coach in England before she came to the States, Cindy Parlow Cone was a 99er and an Olympian with a USSF A license, Vera Pauw was a national team coach, and Denise Reddy had a decade of assistant and head coach experience in the US and Sweden under her belt. Lisa Cole’s successor, Tom Durkin, had never had pro head coach experience before, nor did he have extensive experience in women’s soccer. Current Spirit head coach Richie Burke had extensive youth experience but similarly no pro women’s soccer experience when he was hired; the same for the Dash’s hiring of James Clarkson.

Cole thinks there are solutions at multiple levels here; she agrees that NWSL coach hiring needs to make sure women at least get interviewed. “And not token interviews,” she said. “Actually the person hiring has to be the one doing the interview, not somebody that’s not going to hire that you goes okay, that was a token interview.” (Cole interviewed with the Spirit for the head coach position but not with the person who ultimately had hiring power.)

And the head coaches assembling their staffs need to give greater consideration to female assistant coaches as well. She cited Tony DiCicco and Jim Gabarra as men who were willing to help develop female coaches as well, bringing up people like UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell, Penn State HC Erica Walsh (now Dambach), and Oregon HC Kat Mertz, all of whom got coaching experience in the national team system at some level. Cole told a story about the year between the end of WPS and the start of NWSL, when a mix of formerly pro, semi-pro, and amateur teams cobbled together a season to form WPSL Elite. “[Jim Gabarra and I] were laughing because we’re moving from a game, we’re going to the laundromat to do laundry, then coaching the game. We were doing it all,” Cole recounted.

“The men in the game, a couple years ago when I was coming through as a coach, were invested in the women’s game,” she said. “The men in the game now are invested in I think themselves being good in the women’s game, do you know what I mean? They’re up and coming, they’re not seeing it the same way because there’s more money involved I think, there’s more opportunities involved, it’s more prestigious.”

Cole is right that there’s certainly more money and prestige in the women’s game, and it’s not a bad thing for men to want these jobs. In fact, it’s a good sign that more and more people want women’s soccer jobs - but not at the expense of shouldering qualified women out of the game, or of treating these jobs like a stepping stone into men’s coaching jobs. Cole praised the Reign for investing in Laura Harvey even though her 2013 season ended 5-14-3 with a -14 goal differential. “Laura Harvey was not having a good season, but they sign her to a two-year contract at the end of the season because they believed in her path, they believed in her philosophy, that if they invested in her, it was going to pan out,” Cole said, and indeed Harvey took the Reign to playoffs the next two years, narrowly missing out to champions FC Kansas City both years (RIP FCKC).

Cole would come back to NWSL if the time and the team were right. The Reign might be looking to fill a vacancy soon, if theories about Vlatko Andonovski coaching himself into a USWNT job pan out. Cole hails from Kent, Washington, so it would be an agreeable location for her, but of course geography isn’t the only factor to consider. Philosophy is everything to Cole, who parted ways with the Dash due to clashing with Pauw over their different management styles - player-centered vs. stats-centered respectively, according to Cole, along with a certain rigidity in Pauw’s opinions not allowing room for other perspectives.

“I don’t think the game is black and white,” said Cole. “I think the game is very grey. I think you can win a 4-4-2, you can win in a 5-[back], you can win, but it’s about the relationships, everybody being on the same page.”

For now, Antigua and Barbuda, where Cole is trying to assemble a senior team and give them some momentum so that they can build not just for this Olympics, but for the next World Cup.

For the future, perhaps a return to NWSL. Cole said not being in the league feels a little bit like “business undone” as she was there at the very beginning and put a lot of time and effort into getting the ball rolling. It’s too late for Cole to return to the Breakers (RIP again) but with her track record, it would certainly be interesting to see her get to take on a full season with a team, emphasis on full. And if she gets fired for lack of results, so be it, but at least it will be for things that happened on the field under her control, and that’s all any coach can ask for.