The Changing Culture of American Women's Soccer

There is a distinct difference between the youth and veterans of women’s soccer in America. Orlando Pride’s recent announcement of their pulling out from the NWSL Challenge Cup due to the COVID-19 outbreak that occurred within their team is a glaring example. The impetus for the team voluntarily withdrawing themselves was due to some players deciding to go to a bar since they were now open in Florida. If that sounds absolutely absurd, it’s probably because it is. However, it is not the actions that are the glaring issue. Rather, it is the culture and attitude of our young players that the flawed system in the United States is producing. There is much discussion of the impact on on-field performance that the pay-to-play system in America has caused, however, it may just be the changing culture than may damage American soccer far more. In essence, the pay-to-play system opens soccer opportunities to affluent, privileged children, which is also compounded with the general shutting out of communities of color in the sport. This results in an extremely homogenous environment foreign to that which our current U.S. WNT veterans grew up in.

There is one major thread that many women’s footballers allude to, both domestically and abroad: they grew up playing, at least in part, with boys. Many of them did not have the opportunities that our current players have at their fingertips. These experiences in soccer at a young age have been evidenced to be vital to their development, on and off the pitch. The U.S. WNT, and NWSL at large, is notable for their unapologetic rally for equality for women in sports and understanding of the intersectionality that they are fighting for. They are incredibly strong-willed in their fight and this unyielding confidence and independence likely stems from a youth that was rooted in constantly having to work harder to earn even a semblance of respect that their male counterparts enjoyed. They were thrust into an intense environment where they were likely taunted, berated, or belittled for being a girl in a male-dominated environment just because they wanted to play the sport they loved. Experiences such as those build resilience and resolve to inherently not allow themselves to be constricted by societal standards for women, especially women in sports. These players who have reached the top level of their sport did not achieve it because of their situation that structurally set them up to be successful. No, they pushed themselves, not only in their sport, but also in their mentality to not be limited by a socially acceptable idea of what women can be. Now, girls in soccer can grow up knowing that they will not be looked down upon for being athletic and strong, however, this simultaneously creates an environment where girls who do break the norm are ostracized from a community they once felt welcomed in. Soccer as a form of expression for girls who find themselves more in athletics than traditional gendered expectations is being stifled. They are being gradually pushed out of an environment where they once felt comfortable as those who refused girls in athletics have now come to realize it is now socially acceptable to be a woman in athletics and, therefore, join the sport and push others out.

While saying this, many of these players that have reached the professional level of this sport absolutely deserve to be there. To be a professional, they have still put in hours of extra time and practice into raising themselves to an elite caliber of athletes. However, they did not have the systematic and cultural barriers built against them that many of the older players did. As such, you see young Pride players going to a bar during a pandemic in mere weeks before their season is set to kick off. Any fan of women’s soccer could look at a Pride roster of legends that consists of Marta, Ali Krieger, Sydney Leroux, Ashlyn Harris, among others and know that any of those players are not ones to get on the bad side of, especially when they are your teammates. The fact that there are players who would willingly risk both their careers and the careers of those players that have dedicated their lives to this sport and paved the way for opportunities that these rookies have been able to relish in speaks to the respect, or lack thereof, that many of our young players have for their seniors. These rookies show what is simply a lack of understanding for the tenacity and commitment that the veterans have dedicated to the women’s game.

Ultimately, this is tied back to the pay-to-play system that plagues our American youth soccer system. The fact remains: youth soccer is ridiculously expensive. Even to have a chance to be recruited by a Division III college, team fees can cost upwards of $2,000 per year, not to mention the time that parents have to take for traveling to practice, games, and tournaments that some parents do not have the flexibility to do. As a result, the players from these elite youth teams are girls who have had the luxury of comfort and monetary abundance. Women’s soccer is getting drastically less socioeconomically diverse at the same time it expands opportunities for women in sports at large. Women’s soccer is now treated as an investment from parents which creates players who may not hold the game in the same respect that professionals before them may have.

It should be simple for women’s soccer to grow while still allowing it to maintain its identity as a space dominated by independent change-makers. Unfortunately, this has been undercut by the pay-to-play system and the influx of players who do not understand the struggles it has taken to allow them to be comfortable in their sport and acknowledge how much farther we have to go. The issue is deeper than a team culture or some rookies who decided to risk their team’s health. This is rooted in the pure heart of women’s soccer in America that has been corrupted from ignorance. If we want to see the proliferation of the current culture of both the players and the fans of women’s soccer that can be competitive and cutthroat while remaining accepting, open, and revolutionary, then we must see change in the systems that caused the decay of this in the first place.