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Black NWSL players talk building a career in American soccer

Midge Purce, Lynn Williams, and Taylor Smith on their experiences as black soccer players in America.

SOCCER: JUN 21 NWSL - Utah Royals FC at Portland Thorns FC

In the 27th minute of Portland’s June 2 home match against Chicago, Simone Charley slipped a ball past two defenders to Midge Purce, who beat her defender and the goalkeeper to find an empty net. Charley and Purce connected again in the 31st minute. The Thorns ended up winning 3-0.

Two crafty touches from Charley. Two smart finishes from Purce. Two black women putting on a show in front of 19,000 people. It felt like a moment.

“Because it is so rare, it’s kind of hard to ignore,” Purce said in a phone interview with All For XI. “I do think it’s something that you notice. I walked to the bench and one of my teammates said, ‘Look at that black girl magic out there.’”

In 2018, Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year, Imani Dorsey the 2018 Rookie of the Year, and Lynn Williams was a finalist for MVP. With more black players succeeding professionally in a white-dominated sport, it’s a good time to check in on the state of diversity and opportunity for black players in America’s top level of pro women’s soccer. All For XI reached out to black NWSL players to discuss their careers from youth soccer to the NWSL and how race impacts black soccer players’ careers. Many black players say there’s more work necessary for the makeup of the league to reflect the makeup of America.

The money problem

There are currently 32 black players listed on NWSL rosters, making up 7.5 percent of the league. “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. “Or even more Asians, and more Hispanics, it’s not just black people.”

A common theme when discussing diversity at-large in American soccer has been how expensive it is to get involved. Reign FC defender Taylor Smith, who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, said she feels lucky that she was able to get enough exposure to get recruited to UCLA, where she played all four years and was called up to the U-23 national team.

“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 reason many black girls don’t start playing could be the same reason many black women don’t play or stay in the NWSL: money. The league’s minimum salary is $16,538 and the maximum is $46,200.

According to United States Census data, the 2017 median income for black households was $40,258. For households of all races, the median income was $61,372 and for white households that number was $68,145. Black families are financially less likely to have the disposable income put a child through youth soccer and also provide support through adulthood.

“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.”

NWSL players have second jobs or financial support. Most U.S. women’s national team players have their salaries allocated by USSF, which means the federation is paying their salaries and not the league, which provides an economic boost to the allocated players and removes financial responsibility for them from club teams’ salary caps. Currently, five of the 22 USWNT allocated players are black.

Getting funneled out of the pipeline

It’s possible to make more money money playing for Lyon in the French league, for example, but some of the world’s top players have done stints in the States and cited the competitiveness of the NWSL as one of their top reasons for joining. NWSL is certainly in the discussion for most competitive league in the world.

So being able to succeed in the NWSL means you can succeed playing the best of the best in competitive games, against current, emerging, and future stars of the USWNT. Each black player All For XI spoke with for this story was called up to the national team because of their successful play within the league.

But to get drafted into the NWSL, you likely have to play at a Division I institution. Each player selected in the 2019 NWSL draft played Division I soccer. In 2018, according to NCAA.org, there were 660 Black female Division I soccer players, which make up 7.1 percent of the sport, which isn’t far off from the 7.5 percent in the NWSL. But to make it into Division I soccer, there are lengthy scouting and recruitment processes that involve getting noticed at the club and high school level.

For a player to reach higher levels in soccer, they must possess technical skills in the game and often cannot rely solely on their physical gifts as they move up through the age groups. But some black players don’t receive technical training when they are younger due to coaching biases based on a long-held stereotype that black athletes are fast and strong and nothing else in whatever game they are playing.

“I had to catch up to a lot of people when they hit high school,” Purce said. “The first couple 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.”

Just look at announcers during matches commenting often on the “pace” and “strength” of black players while referencing the “craft” and “skill” of white players for the ways these biases are simply embedded in the way we talk and think about the game. The lack of training can have lasting effects on the potential longevity of a player’s career and limit opportunities to make it professionally.

When club coaches enforce that stereotype by failing to train black soccer players technically, they affirm the stereotype that black athletes aren’t smart. And because of this, many of the NWSL’s current top black players have spent years working to overcome a problem they didn’t create.

When Purce switched club teams during her sophomore year in high school, her coach would say, “You’re just running past people. Do something else.” That coach helped her with finishing and improving her soccer IQ, but Purce spent hours of her free time correcting what she hadn’t learned.

“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.”

Williams, who also was a track athlete, has been working on timing and shaping runs, 1v1 attacks, shot efficiency and being better in the air. The best compliment Williams received from her head coach Paul Riley came in 2018, when he told her that he’s seen her improve from an “athlete playing soccer” to a “soccer player who is an athlete.”

Williams recalled, “Just [Riley] being like, I see that you’re watching the game, you’re understanding the game, your knowledge of the game, the tactical awareness and your spatial awareness is, like, so much better than when I first got there, and then just the athleticism on top of that, that’s just the bonus.”

“I feel like I’ve had to work really hard to prove that I’m able to play at this level, and that I can succeed at this level,” Williams said.

Pigeonholed into certain positions

The lack of technical training early on could be the reason why most of the black players in the NWSL are forwards and defenders; there’s notably a lack of black midfielders in the NWSL. There’s Desiree Scott in Utah, Imani Dorsey, who plays at both forward and midfielder for Sky Blue, and Crystal Dunn, who has played both the attacking midfielder and forward roles in North Carolina, though she plays at left back for the national team. Purce is listed as a midfielder on her team’s roster, but considers herself a winger, though she has played in the midfield and at outside back in Portland and when she was called up to the national team. Among black players in the league, there are 14 forwards, 12 defenders, two goalkeepers, one true midfielder and two forward/midfielder hybrids.

“It’s a bit of a stereotype to think that most of the black players that are in the league or that are gonna play soccer are just fast,” said Williams, “So you put them in the back because they can recover well, you put them in the front because they can get in behind the defense. Williams has mostly played as a forward and was given a brief stint as a sweeper when she was younger.

Williams said, “I think that if you’re stereotyped as that when you’re little, and then you kind of just are growing in that position that you’re put in. As you grow up of course you’re gonna play that position later down in your career unless you have somebody that comes along and says, ‘You know we really need you to start opening up in this pocket and (being) technically good in this pocket’.”

And even if a player begins to learn or even prefers a more technical position, if they are asked to play outside of their position, they are likely to do so, especially if their other options are miss out on a scholarship opportunity, see no time on the field, or get cut from the team. No matter what position players are exposed to or grow into, where they play comes down to coaching decisions. Think Crystal Dunn at left back for the national team.

But, whether intended or not, coaching decisions can be influenced by biases and long-held stereotypes, though that is harder to prove.

You can’t fight the problem if you can’t name it

Discussing these issues aren’t easy, either, especially when there is a problem. With her current club, Smith feels the most comfortable she’s felt in her career. After she tore her ACL in the W-League, Reign FC signed her even though she made it clear she wasn’t planning to play this season and rush back from her injury.

But she hasn’t always felt this comfortable, especially during her senior season at UCLA and early NWSL years. Smith, who started and played from freshman through junior year, said to start her senior season, the coach gave the captain spot to a younger player. Her teammates recognized the spot should have been Smith’s, but she didn’t want to come off as a complainer.

“You don’t really wanna bring it up as an issue because you don’t wanna stir the pot if you already feel like you’re on thin ice,” Smith said. “But at the same time, nothing’s going to change if you don’t speak up about it. But it’s difficult at the same time, because I don’t know if I’m in a position to kind of risk saying something.”

Many black kids get a speech from their parent or guardian, sometimes teachers, when growing up. To summarize, they are reminded that being good isn’t enough to get by in life; as a black person, you have to do much more than what your white counterparts do in order to succeed and overcome systemic racism, which affects every aspect of your life, from income to housing to health care to education.

“I grew up with my father telling me I always have to be twice as good no matter what,” Purce said. “And I definitely feel like there have been times in my career, college, club, national team where I have to be twice as good to get the same things that other people do.” Purce was echoing a speech often given by black parents to their children, one emphasized by former First Lady Michelle Obama, who in 2015 told Tuskegee University graduates, “The road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away.”

Jeremy Fontenot, head women’s soccer coach at Southern University, a historically black college in Louisiana, said that he’s heard these frustrations from his players. A recent article on Crystal Dunn, in which she shared that she feels that as a black woman, she has to go above and beyond to get noticed, was not new information to Fontenot, who said and he takes that into account when leading his team. “I coach like, you have to push a little bit more. I was just talking to one of my players. I was letting them know, ‘You have to push a little bit more for who you are and where we are.’ Southern University is not that big school,” he said. “So I coach, not just to push them in soccer, I coach to push in life itself. I’m taking them step by step so when they graduate, they understand that life isn’t about to be easy.”

The merit of the twice-as-good speech has been up for debate in recent years. But acknowledging that the sentiment exists for a reason is important in order to spur change; there’s no solution if you don’t acknowledge the problem exists first.

“The world is structured how it’s structured, and while we work to change it, we still have to be twice as good,” Purce said. “You’re going to have to do what you have to do to succeed, and it may suck and it is what it is, but you still have to do what you have to do.”