The Diversification of US Soccer

Foreign Policy Brief #176 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | March 15, 2023

Header photo taken from: Los Angeles Times / Jeff Zelevansky / Getty Images

Policy Summary

Football, or soccer as we Americans often refer to it, is one of the most diverse sports in the world. It is played on every continent, except for Antarctica, and is played in every country in the world by people of all ages, races, genders, abilities, etc. It is often called The Beautiful Game, and it truly is beautiful. It is remarkable to look at the composition of some professional teams and look at the different skin tones that are represented, the different countries represented, the amount of languages that can be spoken on a team, and to consider all of the complexities that those conditions may bring with them. 

The American professional soccer league, Major League Soccer (MLS) has a reputation among soccer fans as a growing league. It has even attracted some top stars from around the world, even if some were eyeing retirement shortly after arriving, such as David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gareth Bale, Steven Gerrard, and Wayne Rooney. Many of the biggest signings to come to the United States to play have been European players. However, the American soccer story begins before the MLS with the league called the North American Soccer League (NASL), which started in the 1960s and died out by the mid-80s – but, this league set the American soccer leagues up to be among the most diverse in the world.

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Photo taken from:
Yahoo / AP Photo / Kirsty Wigglesworth

Policy Analysis

The North American Soccer League was a league developed in the mid-1960s and lasted until the mid-1980s. It was a VERY poor league when it started, in every sense of the word. It did not have a lot of money, as soccer was not a major athletic interest in the United States (even though it was being played in Europe and around the world since the late 1800s). The quality of play in the sport was severely lacking, so much so that the immigrant communities in the US were not interested at all, according to an article from The Conversation. Also, European players who attempted to come and play in the United States were quickly frustrated and didn’t even consider it to be the same sport as European football. To address this lack of talent, and quality, the NASL decided to try and tempt high quality players from under-represented countries in football world to come to the United States to play. 

The NASL began to attract players from Africa, and immigrants from Africa already in the United States, to play professionally. Africans, and many other minorities, were not particularly welcome in Europe’s top leagues and had many reasons to leave their continent. This was especially true in South Africa, where the Apartheid policies were causing blacks to be excluded from local leagues.The NASL also began to attract top quality talent from South America, such as the Brazilian player Pélé (arguably the greatest player in history) who signed with the New York Cosmos. 

This new injection of quality and skill soon brought over  European players such as Beckenbauer, George Best, and Johann Cruyff; each  legends for their former clubs and their national teams. While the US, politically, was dealing with the Civil Rights Movement and attempting to address racial inequalities, it was becoming one of the most tolerant and diverse leagues in the world of soccer. Today, Major League Soccer (MLS) is the most diverse sports league in North America (and one of the most diverse soccer leagues in the world). According to an article in The Conversation, there are 82 countries represented by players in this league. 

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Photo taken from: Los Angeles Times / Jeff Zelevansky / Getty Images

Unfortunately, this story changes a bit when we start to look at the national teams, and in particular the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT), which is one of the most successful national teams in history with multiple World Cup wins, Olympic medals, and some truly amazing star players like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. The USWNT, according to an article by NPR, is one of the least diverse national teams in the world. In their last World Cup, the United States had a total of five players of color on a 23 woman roster; for comparison purposes, the article states, that France had a total of 12 (half the roster). NPR also interviewed Crystal Dunn, a player on the USWNT, and she reported that during the 2019 World Cup the team did not have a stylist who was familiar in working with Black hair, and she was required to attend media events as part of being on the team. 

The biggest barrier to getting women and men into this sport (and to grow the sport in general) is the idea of “pay to play” sports. Rich families are able to outspend families from disadvantaged and marginalized communities. US Soccer’s Cindy Parlow Cone referred to soccer as a “rich, White kids’ sport” as she is working on ways to increase diversity and inclusion of all players, regardless of background. Sports in the United States, in general, can cost thousands of dollars per year – and if the kid is skilled enough to go onward, then the costs can really start to rake up when you account for travel teams, the travel to matches, the equipment, the coaching, summer camps, etc. Very quickly, youths from disadvantaged communities are left behind – regardless of their skill on the ball; and this seems to be holding true, across genders. 

Desmond Armstrong, according to the New York Times, was the first Black player to play in a World Cup for the United States (after not having qualified for a World Cup for 40 years), alongside the substitute player Jimmy Banks (came on later in the match); and he states that the United States Men’s team is finally starting to have an increase in diversity. The US Men’s National Team (USMNT) roster is the most diverse it has ever been. There are players that are White, Black, and Latino that represented at the last World Cup in Qatar in December 2022; and they are captained by a Black player named Tyler Adams, who also plays in the English Premier League, the top league in the world.

The trajectory for US Soccer, on the topic of diversity, is a positive one – it seems. There are now programs  aiming to address access to the sport at a grassroots level. US Soccer’s Soccer for Success program has impacted over 400,000 children, overwhelmingly from communities of color, according to NPR; which also reported that the number of non-white female players has increased from 24% in NCAA Division I, ten years ago, to 34% now. So, growth and inclusion has been going in a positive direction.

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