The NWSL is one of the world’s premier women’s soccer leagues. But at present, it features only one woman in a head coaching position out of ten possible roles.
This week, Racing Louisville announced their coach for the team’s first expansion season. And in a trend that’s depressingly familiar, it’s yet another white man. Specifically, a white man from the British Isles. This time it’s Christy Holly. But there are plenty of others who have cycled through these positions.
The NWSL claims to have a ‘Rooney Rule’ – a requirement that clubs seriously interview a diverse set of candidates. And, as Steph Yang has reported, Louisville claims to have followed it in this case. According to their spokesperson: “Through the team building process, equality has been a word tossed around quite a bit here…You can be assured that mindset translated to a diverse coaching search.”
And that’s the nub of it. Requiring engagement with a diverse pool is one thing. But without something more restrictive, teams will often continue to go with ‘safe’ options. Which in this case generally means a man.
I have nothing specific against Christy Holly. He was moderately successful in a short stint with Sky Blue a few years back. He departed under somewhat dubious circumstances, with rumors that his relationship with then-player, now-fiancée Christie Pearce (Rampone) had perhaps upset the balance of the locker room. But those unique circumstances perhaps say little about how he will perform in the new job. And Holly has continued to build his resume in the intervening time, including working with the United States Women’s National Team over the past two years.
Maybe Holly will perform well. It wouldn’t be the first hire to raise some eyebrows about qualifications and motivations that turned out alright. Houston earned some criticisms when they turned to James Clarkson, for example, only to see him take the team to the Challenge Cup title the following year. You could say something similar about Richie Burke in Washington, Craig Harrington in Utah, Farid Benstiti in Tacoma, and plenty more before them.
But the question isn’t just whether these specific men can do the job. The question is about the process that leads to selection. There are surely dozens of coaches out there who could do something special if given the chance. So why do men consistently end up getting the call?
Put another way: consider the possibility of a woman with Holly’s exact record, including the circumstances of his departure. Does anyone believe that hypothetical woman would have made the shortlist, much less been offered the job? Or that any woman in the world would be offered the England head coaching job without having applied for it as their first head coaching gig—as happened with Phil Neville?
The reality is that underqualified men get hired all the time. Some succeed. Some fail. But the standards are much higher for women, even as the opportunities to construct solid resumes are weaker.
It’s great that jobs in women’s soccer are increasingly regarded as high status and worth taking. It’s even better that leagues like the NWSL have created platforms for genuinely wonderful coaches to flourish. The world is a much better place for having Vlatko Andonovski and Rory Dames coaching women’s teams. And I look forward to the new generation that is rising up the ranks now.
But I can’t help but wonder at the incredible women who could be turning into household names, except they never got their chance.
The burden isn’t wholly—or even primarily—on teams at the very top. The reality is that we need massive development throughout the entire pipeline. But the teams at the top shouldn’t pass along all the responsibility. I sincerely hope that we continue to see more assistant jobs filled from the ranks of incredibly qualified women (see the recent hire of Carrie Kveton by the Washington Spirit). I hope that as new coaching jobs open up, they actively seek women for the jobs.
And it seems worth emphasizing: I’m not arguing for hiring bad coaches. I’m arguing that teams need to consider how much potential opportunity their leaving on the table by failing to seriously consider women simply because they don’t fit the narrative of a ‘safe’ pick.
To that point, England has just announced that Sarina Wiegman will replace Phil Neville when his contract expires next year. On the one hand, that’s great. The England job is one of the best in the world and Wiegman has real success—having taken the Dutch to victory in the 2017 Euro tournament and to the 2019 World Cup final against the United States. It’s a far cry from the Neville hire.
At the same time, Wiegman’s Netherlands team often looked a bit lost. Her tactics were unimpressive at best. Really, she seems to have one single idea about how to play, and a stubborn insistence on sticking with it. It’s not at all obvious that this style will be a particularly good fit for England, or that she has the capacity to coach a team to play any other way. And at last summer’s World Cup, she overcommitted to the players who had won the 2017 tournament even when they were obviously unfit.
None of which means the Wiegman hiring is bad. It’s just to say that even the most defensible hire on paper carries significant risk, regardless of what their resume says. And if you’re going to insist on scrutinizing women for these jobs, you will always be able to find things to nitpick. So yes, teams should absolutely look for qualified women with stacked resumes. They should interview the Jill Ellises and Laura Harveys and Corinne Diacres and Sarina Wiegmans of the world. If Silvia Neid is available, go for it!
But organizations should also consider the potential value of women who don’t have those records, because they’ve never had the opportunity to take a head coaching position. They should recognize that untested women have just as much potential as untested men.
Just think of how many new doors would open if teams started treating women coaching candidates with the same degree of respect that they regularly grant to mediocre white men.