Why Are There No Black Coaches in MLS?

The league touts its global diversity, but has failed black coaches—something that the rest of the U.S. soccer world mirrors at every level.

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Mar 5 2015, 2:00pm

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Hylton Dayes is the men's soccer coach at the University of Cincinnati, and one of only eight black coaches in all of Division 1 soccer. But when Dayes and his assistant Dan McNally, who is white, are introduced in new settings it's often assumed that McNally is the one in charge.

"I'm used to it by now, and Dan and I usually just laugh," Dayes says.

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Mike Curry made it to the bench of the U.S. men's national team by training goalkeepers as a personal hobby. He's used to the challenges of being a black soccer player and coach. That has often meant having to outwork his peers.

"I was almost always the only black individual on the team, and for better or worse I had to adapt and prove myself even more than my white peers," says Curry. "So whenever somebody needed a volunteer I offered my time and used it as a chance to show what I could do."

Eddie Pope is a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame and was capped 82 times by the US national team in the 1990s and 2000s, but he echoes Curry's sentiments.

"Growing up I was always told I had to be twice as good as my white counterparts on the field, or in any walk of life," Pope says. "That's just part of our upbringing and it creates a strong work ethic, but that doesn't change the problem that exists in the first place."

A white MLS head coach. Image via Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In spite of soccer's naturally global reach, in spite of the fact that MLS is recognized as the most diverse league in North America, and in spite of the fact that the U.S. men's national team has brought 23 black men to the World Cup since 1990, the United States continues to lag in its support of black people: an issue that extends to the coaching ranks at the college, professional, and national level. The country's marquee league, MLS, has no black head coaches, and only four assistants. The numbers in USL Pro aren't much better, and again, of the 205 Division 1 men's college soccer coaches, there are only eight black men.

As Franklin Foer wrote in How Soccer Explains the World, the visible foundation of American soccer development was mostly consolidated in the "yuppie confines" of the upper-middle class. But with the game outgrowing those confines on the field, it remains to be seen if MLS or U.S. Soccer are committed to cultivating diversity from an organizational standpoint in their technical staffing.

In a 2007 MLS press release the league did announce a Coaching Diversity Initiative, which, like the NFL's Rooney Rule, was designed to "provide for diversity on the sidelines to mirror that within the player ranks." But unlike the Rooney Rule, MLS's initiative has not gained public recognition, nor is it clear that the league has enforced their own demand that clubs "interview candidates of diverse backgrounds for any open technical staff position," submitting "a list of minority candidates they have interviewed for the position."

"I don't think there is a conspiracy against black coaches, but we see qualified applicants being passed over far too often," says Daniel Gordon, the chairman of the Black Soccer Coaches Advocacy Group (BSCAG) for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA).

MLS's Coaching Diversity Initiative is so obscure that Gordon did not learn about it until the reporting of this story.

"Given my position with the BSCAG and NSCAA I stay up to speed on developments in MLS and this has never been in discussion with colleagues or candidates. In fact, I've reached out to the league office on this subject, with the hopes of building a partnership, and they've never returned my calls."

A white MLS head coach. Image via Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of the league's policy, some clubs have been proactive in their hiring of minority candidates. For Real Salt Lake president Bill Manning—who has Andy Williams and Tyrone Marshall on staff, and has had CJ Brown and Robin Fraser in years past—the basis for hiring has always been professional qualities and character. "I never considered these hires as African Americans, just darn good coaches."

In many ways, Manning's approach is in line with Eddie Pope's, a former Real Salt Lake player himself. No matter what challenges black coaches face, "nobody wants to be given a job just because they're a minority. It's no better to be left out than it is to be brought in for the wrong reasons. All anybody wants is an opportunity to contribute."

For Pope, who is currently the MLS Players Union's director of player relations, the ultimate question is both simple and baffling: How do you create inclusion when it should already be there?

Subsequently, for MLS and U.S. Soccer, the question is one of leadership: Do American soccer's two most important institutions have the will and commitment to resist the corrosive damage that systemic racism and unconscious bias enable?

According to Mike Curry—who in addition to coaching is a risk management expert with the Vanguard Group and the chair of the Philadelphia Union Foundation—overcoming unconscious bias is a major challenge but not an insurmountable barrier.

"It's natural for people to gravitate toward cultural or racial homogeneity, and people of privilege (in America that certainly means white males) need to recognize the inherent value in cultivating diversity. Also, people of color need to resist the temptation to replicate the same mistakes of white privilege and isolation in their endeavors to higher levels of achievement."

For Hylton Dayes there's still a long way to go to reach those levels, but he believes more black coaches will have opportunities in the near future, partly due to the growing number of talented players of color pursuing professions in coaching.

Still, Dayes, who works alongside Daniel Gordon at the BSCAG, was equally surprised to learn of MLS's Coaching Diversity Initiative. "Daniel and I speak on this subject all the time and work hand in hand with coaches who want to work in the pros, so it's hard to believe they haven't promoted this policy or communicated with us about it. It also makes you wonder what measures are in place to hold clubs accountable."

Whatever the case may be, Dayes doesn't view cultivating diversity as a numbers game. Rather, "the significance of providing opportunities to black coaches is ultimately about education and mentoring. I've had mentors from every racial and ethnic background, but in the current climate it's important for young black men to have leaders they can identify with, who've experienced some of the same prejudice and injustice."

In his recent essay "Who Will Pay Reparations on my Soul," Jesse McCarthy recognized that the experience of racial injustice can, and does, contribute to growing economic disparities. But more disturbingly—and especially in light of events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York—it creates a moral disparity where Americans of privilege have the luxury of ignoring "a well segregated subset of their fellow citizens" who in fact "still don't see equality before the law."

In listing some of the painful evidence, McCarthy argues that, "injustice inflicts a moral cost, and only incidentally a monetary one." So addressing racial inequality is certainly about job opportunities, economic parity, and equality before the law. But perhaps more than that, it is about equality before one's fellow human beings. In the context of American soccer, the opportunity to resist the corrosive damage of racism is ultimately about equality before the fans.