Home Sports With minor league team, MLS unveils bold plan to fix diversity problem

With minor league team, MLS unveils bold plan to fix diversity problem

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HIGH POINT, N.C. — By the time Eddie Pope was hired as the chief sporting director for Carolina Core Football Club last fall, returning to his hometown to guide its new entry in the MLS Next Pro developmental league, the legendary defender already knew whom he wanted as his head coach: Roy Lassiter, his close friend and former D.C. United teammate during the club’s late-1990s glory years whose coaching career had recently stalled with him as a low-level assistant.

Pope and Lassiter, their relationship so tight they claim to know the other’s thoughts from little more than a glance, worked their vast networks to put together a staff full of longtime friends and colleagues, all with extensive qualifications for their roles: former Honduran star Amado Guevara as assistant coach; longtime Jamaican standouts Andy Williams and Donovan Ricketts as head scout and goalkeeper coach, respectively; and Juan-Carlos Martinez, who worked with Lassiter in Houston, as soccer analyst.

Putting the band back together. Taking care of your own. Working the old boys’ network. However you phrase it, it is the way teams have been assembling coaching and player-personnel staffs since the dawn of organized sports, where whom you know can be more important than what you know — often to the detriment of historically underrepresented groups that are not part of those networks.

But there is a critical twist with Carolina Core FC: Pope, Lassiter, Williams and Ricketts are Black, while Guevara and Martinez are Latino, making their staff one of the most diverse in North American professional sports.

Far from an accident, the Carolina Core example is part of an effort by MLS to alter the molecular systems underpinning the hiring processes of its teams — systems that in the past have left most sports leagues grasping for answers to explain the racial disparities between their player workforce and their most influential off-field positions, such as head coach and general manager.

MLS itself is among the leagues that have struggled to solve their representation problems over the years, despite cycling through many of the same diversity initiatives that have largely failed to spur progress in the NFL, MLB and elsewhere. The league’s hope is that the combination of innovation and intentionality on display with Next Pro will move the needle where other attempts have failed.

“Diversity is a choice. It’s not something that’s going to fix itself,” said Pope, a National Soccer Hall of Famer who played for 12 seasons in MLS and suited up for the U.S. national team at three World Cups. “Progress moves really slowly unless you just sort of come in and go, ‘Boom!’ ”

Now in its third season, MLS Next Pro — a third-division league intended to develop talent for MLS clubs — was the perfect venue for this grand experiment in breaking down long-standing barriers to racial equity and inclusion. Twenty-seven of MLS’s 29 clubs have affiliates in the new league, while two other Next Pro clubs, including the expansion Carolina Core, which debuted this spring, are unaffiliated.

“There are advantages to being new,” said Charles Altchek, president of Next Pro and executive vice president of MLS, “in that you can shape it in the beginning in ways you think it should be shaped. We knew if we did this the right way, we’d be creating a lot of new jobs and new opportunities.”

The strategy undertaken by MLS’s leadership with its Next Pro staffing was intended to overcome two of the most critical disconnects that frequently keep candidates from underrepresented groups from progressing to top jobs in coaching or player-personnel: a lack of high-ranking minorities with decision-making powers over hiring and a lack of head coaching opportunities at lower levels where aspirants can prove their ability in the big chair.

“If one of my coaches goes and interviews [with an MLS club], one of the excuses [for choosing someone else] can no longer be, ‘You don’t have any experience,’” said Pope, 50. “Especially if it’s an affiliated club — because now, there’s not only the experience factor but familiarity with the parent club and its owners. We always hear, ‘You don’t have any experience.’ Well, that’s because you won’t give me a chance. We’ve been stuck in that vicious cycle.”

From the outset, one of the central missions of Next Pro was to filter top jobs to historically underrepresented groups, an effort that formed a central pillar in the league’s outreach to prospective owners. Carolina Core’s principal owner is a woman, Megan Oglesby, a scion of the family that founded the Old Dominion Freight Line; meanwhile, the unaffiliated Connecticut franchise slated to join the league next season will be one of the only franchises in American sports owned by a Black man, Andre Swanston.

“When we hire, we tend to hire people we are comfortable with and familiar with,” said Sola Winley, who in 2021 became MLS’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. “So how are we ever going to change the system? We’re going to change the system by broadening the cohort of individuals who are decision-makers, so that it’s more inclusive.”

The innovative approach to diversity is evident in the league’s eye-opening demographic data: While 16 of Next Pro’s 28 head coaches this season are White (57 percent), another nine (32 percent) are Black and three (11 percent) are Hispanic. (The league is using 28 as the denominator because its 29th team, Minnesota United FC 2, is operating without a head coach.)

Those numbers stand in stark contrast to those in most other leagues. Take the NFL, where even after a flurry of minority hires this offseason, only nine (28 percent) of the league’s 32 head coaching positions belong to minorities, including six (19 percent) to Black coaches. Roughly 54 percent of NFL players are Black vs. only about 25 percent in MLS — which means while Black head coaches in the NFL are underrepresented relative to the player workforce, in Next Pro they are overrepresented.

Imagine if the NFL could launch a low-level developmental league and fill its coaching and player-personnel staffs with qualified minorities who had struggled to break into the job market, creating a new pipeline of talent out of thin air. That’s essentially what MLS did with Next Pro.

The track record of MLS in racial representation suggests its new strategy was born, at least in part, out of desperation. Despite roughly a quarter of its players being Black, MLS has employed only eight Black men as head coaches in its 28-year history. When you add the qualifier of “American-born” Black head coaches, the number is zero. In the most recent hiring cycle, 11 MLS teams hired new head coaches. None was Black.

“To say we weren’t disappointed in the last hiring cycle when it came to head coaches and Black coaches in particular — we were,” Sola said. “But disappointed doesn’t mean we’re discouraged.”

This season, of the league’s 29 teams, only one employs a Black man as head coach: the Columbus Crew with Wilfried Nancy, a Frenchman who last year became the first Black head coach to lead his team to the MLS Cup title. While the league received a grade of A for racial hiring in the most recent (2022) report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, that was achieved largely because of its strong Latino representation.

In 2022, Ricky Hill, an English-born Black soccer coach, sued MLS, the second-division United Soccer League and several individual teams, accusing them of racial discrimination in their hiring practices. In a court filing this year, MLS argued it should not be a defendant in the suit because, its lawyers said, “It is the team operators, and only the team operators, who hire and employ coaches in the league.”

In an interview, Hill, 65, said: “The response we’ve heard [from MLS] is, ‘We can’t force people to make hires.’ [But] this is not about forcing them to hire us — it’s about forcing them to treat us fairly when it comes to opportunity.”

Hill’s lawsuit is still being contested in federal court in New York.

More than most people, Pope understands the racial landscape of American soccer. Growing up as a Black kid in High Point, a city of 115,000 between Greensboro and Winston-Salem, N.C., Pope was an anomaly within both the Black community and the soccer community — and occasionally on the receiving end of racial slurs, including the n-word, on the pitch.

He wasn’t even looking for a job running a club — in part because such a thing seemed implausible — until the opportunity presented itself in his hometown. Before his return to High Point, he was working on the player side of MLS, first as director of player relations for its union, then as an agent.

Now, his position with Carolina Core affords Pope the opportunity to shape the trajectory of the sport from a seat of power. Were he not in this role, he said, Lassiter and the other minority staff members “would not have been hired. This would look a lot different, no question.”

Lassiter agreed. “I wouldn’t be here,” he said, “if it wasn’t for Eddie Pope.”

But the critical question about the MLS Next Pro model remains: Will it work? More specifically: Will the type of representation institutionalized with Carolina Core and other Next Pro clubs filter upward to MLS coaching staffs and change the sport’s racial math the way the league’s leadership envisions?

There is already evidence that, at the very least, MLS teams are rewarding successful stints in Next Pro with promotions to the big leagues. In just two-plus years of existence, Next Pro has graduated a handful of head coaches to assistant coaching jobs in MLS (not to mention nearly 90 players who have graduated from Next Pro to MLS), and this winter brought the first direct jump of a Next Pro head coach to the same job in MLS when Laurent Courtois, a White Frenchman, went from Columbus Crew 2 to CF Montreal.

Suddenly, there was a track record for advancement that didn’t exist three years ago. What remains to be seen is whether a similarly upward trajectory will be made available for successful minority candidates.

“It could be that, after one year, Roy Lassiter starts getting interviews with MLS teams — or maybe it takes two or three years,” Altchek said. “But we know if he does well in this league, he’s going to get opportunities at the next level.”

Pope isn’t given to grand statements of optimism when it comes to racial issues in America, in large part because of his background and experience. But from his current seat, helping bring new ideas to an old problem, this looks like progress.

“This feels very different than what has gone on in the past,” he said. “So, yes, I do think it’s going to work.”

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