Scandals highlight lack of women coaches at top of US soccer

FILE -Twila Kilgore, assistant coach on the U.S. team watches players warm up prior to a CONCACAF Women's Championship soccer semifinal match against Costa Rica in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, July 14, 2022. Kilgore, is an assistant for the U.S. women’s national team and one of just four women in the United States who hold the U.S. Soccer Federation’s elite pro license.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Twila Kilgore knew her career path when she was just 12 years old, thanks to a youth soccer coach who used to drive her to practice.

During those rides, she got to hear “all the behind-the-scene things that were happening” and was "exposed to what a coach actually does,” she said. “I pretty much knew then that when I was done playing, I would coach.”

Now she’s an assistant for the U.S. women’s national team and one of just four women in the United States who hold the U.S. Soccer Federation’s elite pro license.

Kilgore's path makes her a rarity. American soccer offers limited coaching opportunities for women at the top of the sport, and the cost to obtain the requisite licenses can be a barrier.

The issue has drawn FIFA’s attention. A 2019 study by soccer’s international governing body found that more than 13 million girls and women played organized soccer, but only 7% of coaches worldwide were women.

The shortage of qualified women was highlighted by a glut of vacancies created by men who were pushed out of the nation's top professional league.

When scandal rocked the National Women’s Soccer League in 2021, five male coaches were dismissed or forced to resign because of misconduct, harassment or abuse. Earlier this month, four of those men were banned from ever coaching in the NWSL again following an investigation by the league and the players' union.

Today, just three women hold head coaching jobs in the 12-team league, all on the West Coast: OL Reign's Laura Harvey, San Diego's Casey Stoney and Angel City's Freya Coombe. Five coaches, all men, are embarking on their first season with their teams this year.

For women trying to break into such elite circles, money is a glaring obstacle.

Top coaching licenses are expensive to obtain — the USSF pro license costs $10,000 — and the process is both lengthy and labor intensive. Male coaches often have teams and leagues behind them willing to foot the bill and provide the time to complete the courses.

Kilgore, who worked for the Houston Dash before joining Vlatko Andonovski's staff on the national team, got her pro license with financial help from the Dash, a scholarship fund set up by former national team coach Jill Ellis and from FIFA.

“I can tell you it’s a huge blessing because every other step along the way with licensing up to this point, I’ve paid for myself with a little bit offset from the universities I’ve worked at," Kilgore said. "It is a major barrier for a lot of people.”

Professional players — the logical pool from which to draw future coaches — usually don't make enough to pay for the higher-level courses. The average salary in the NWSL is $54,000. Players are also busy with the rigors of a pro career.

“There are players that are interested in coaching education, but with just how our schedule works, it’s tough to get into any of the normal coaching programming, and it’s also pretty pricey," said Washington Spirit goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, who has also played for the United States. She has two lower-level coaching licenses.

The NWSL Players Association was so concerned about the costs and available coaching pathways that the collective bargaining agreement struck last year includes a provision to help players fund enrollment costs.

U.S. Soccer provides financial aid through the Jill Ellis Scholarship Fund, which honors the legacy of the two-time Women's World Cup championship coach. Announced in 2020, the program seeks to double the number of elite women in coaching by 2024.

FIFA also offers scholarships and last year introduced a mentorship program that had 80 applications. The participants met in August at the under-20 Women's World Cup in Costa Rica.

FIFA's push to get more women into coaching has also been tailored for individual member associations. For instance, Trinidad and Tobago didn't have coaches who would benefit from upper-level courses, but there was a need for a lower licensing course — and 20 women applied.

“We talk about how important it is to have female players being seen on TV, on ads, just for little girls and boys to see ‘OK, this is possible. This is something that I can do.’ They always say if you don’t see it, you don’t believe it. But I do think for coaches, it is the same," said Arijana Demirovic, head of Women’s Football Development at FIFA.

Another result of drawing more women into coaching is the prospect that female players' concerns will be addressed in a more thoughtful way.

The upheaval in the NWSL led to a pair of investigations into misconduct in the league. One probe conducted by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates was done at the behest of U.S. Soccer. The investigation revealed “a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims.”

Two of the now-former coaches investigated by Yates — Racing Louisville's Christy Holly and Rory Dames of the Chicago Red Stars — did not hold the requisite A-level license to coach in the NWSL.

The Yates report recommended that all NWSL coaches be required to have A-level licenses — one step below a pro license — and to turn the licensing process into an accreditation program that requires background screening and annual recertification.

U.S. women's team general manager Kate Markgraf pointed to another hurdle for coaches once they are licensed: finding jobs and advancement possibilities. Because there are fewer women's leagues, the jobs aren't as plentiful, and the men have a big head start in the industry.

For example, data collected by the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport revealed that 70.9% of Division I women's soccer teams are coached by men.

“It’s part of an overall strategy: How do we make sure that women get into the pipeline, stay in it and aren’t on a glass cliff? Retention is hard and attrition is common," Markgraf said. “We have to be intentional about how we support every single female hired in a male-dominated industry.”

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