The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hires such as United’s Lucy Rushton are called progressive. Soon they will be recognized as smart.

“Women do need to see other women in these roles,” new D.C. United general manager Lucy Rushton said. (Atlanta United)

During the early part of this century, as a girl growing up 40 miles west of London in the English town of Reading, Lucy Rushton had to squint to see any athletic dreams. The Lionesses, the women’s national soccer team, aren’t supported as robustly or followed as closely as their counterparts in the United States. The paths to a career in sports were marked by roadblocks, not by fresh pavement.

“Women’s soccer in England is not what it is over here — certainly not 15 or 20 years ago,” Rushton said by phone Thursday. “It really wasn’t a thing. So even to play as a girl was tricky. You normally ended up playing with the boys.”

It’s an antiquated notion, and Rushton is making it more antiquated still. This week, she was announced as the new general manager for D.C. United, which opens the season Saturday night at Audi Field. Now, let’s be honest: If United had named someone else its GM — namely, a White male — then I’m not writing this column.

Here’s a related prediction: If, in 20 or 15 or even 10 years, United names a new GM and it’s a woman, this column won’t have a follow-up. But it’s 2021, and Rushton is only the second female general manager in Major League Soccer history — and the first to truly oversee the soccer side of the operation — so here we are, a trailblazer in our midst, even if she’s just doing her job.

D.C. United hires Lucy Rushton as second female general manager in MLS history

“For me, my work will speak for itself, and I want to inspire women by doing a good job,” Rushton said. “That’s the most important thing for me at the moment, making sure that I do the club justice and do myself justice. That, obviously, will get the attention it deserves. I’m very focused on coming in and working hard and giving this team success, and the rest will follow.

“But women do need to see other women in these roles. So I’m always going to try and promote that and encourage girls because, without seeing women as higher-ups, they don’t have that to aspire to.”

Now they do. And they will have only more in the future.

Listening to Rushton speak about her career and her intentions once she arrives in Washington — where she plans to land late next week, after she finishes a wildly successful run of nearly six years with Atlanta United — the mind wanders to a place in which a hiring such as this is news for how it impacts a franchise, not how it impacts society.

In November, the eternally qualified Kim Ng smashed the glass ceiling in Major League Baseball when she became the general manager of the Miami Marlins. Becky Hammon has long been ascendant as the top assistant to San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Jennifer King was just promoted to a full-time assistant’s role with the Washington Football Team. Alyssa Nakken coaches for the San Francisco Giants. It’s happening. Maybe not fast, but it’s happening.

It all leads to a simple conclusion: By the end of this decade, there will be a woman leading the basketball operations of an NBA team. There will be a woman general manager in the NFL. There will be a female head coach in one or more of the major North American sports. At some point we won’t give it much thought.

Think otherwise? What would you tell your daughter, then, about the limits of her dreams?

Rushton’s experience should be instructive. At the University of Reading, an academic adviser encouraged her to look into performance analysis in soccer. From there, she moved into a master’s program at the University of Wales.

“I was like: ‘What? This is a career? This is a thing?’ ” she said.

It was and it is — for whoever wants to make it one. She began her career as a player recruitment analyst for Watford, then in the English Premier League, and then took a position as head of technical scouting for Reading, her hometown club. In 2015, she moved to Atlanta, where MLS was starting a franchise from scratch, as the head of video and technical analysis. As she wound her way through soccer’s international system, she found the focus on her gender came from one place: herself.

“Fifteen years ago, I definitely felt at the start that it would be more difficult for a club to choose to employ me over a male,” Rushton said. “So for me, there was always that inner kind of drive, like, ‘I really need to show them that I know soccer.’

“But I’ve got to be honest and say that my experiences with the people I’ve worked with since I’ve been in the game, gender just hasn’t been a thing. I almost don’t see my gender now because the people that I’ve worked with have been so inclusive and just so open. I’m just a member of staff. I do my job, and they accept that. They trust me. It’s an odd combination because, at the start, that was from me. That pressure was all driven from me.”

Would that girls in the future share that story.

Andy Najar signs with D.C. United, returning to his MLS roots

D.C. United now finds itself as something of an industry diversity leader, with MLS’s first Black team president in Danita Johnson and the franchise’s first Latino head coach in Hernán Losada.

Now, let’s get to the point where those sentences don’t need to be written.

Earlier this year, when the Washington Football Team hired Martin Mayhew to be its general manager — giving the franchise a Black GM, a Black team president and a head coach of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent — the coach, Ron Rivera, said, “As far as the diversity goes, it’s not planned.”

That’s how this has to work in professional sports and how it will work in professional sports. Like any business, these franchises and the governing bodies that oversee them will come to understand that soliciting opinions from a variety of perspectives — different genders, different races, different educational backgrounds, different professional experiences — will provide such an advantage that hiring a mix will become a requirement. And that will just happen, as it did with United.

MLS is back, with returning fans, new coaches and another celebrity owner

Rushton is clearly here because she is qualified. Atlanta United went from founding in 2014 to debut season in 2017 to MLS Cup champion in 2018. Rushton wasn’t just along for the ride. She was a reason for it, digging through the analytics to help Atlanta develop and maintain its attacking style.

Get ready for that at Audi Field.

“We want to be fast-paced, attacking, exciting, playing off the front foot,” Rushton said. “And we want to give our fans a product that excites them and makes them want to come and watch us play.”

Those are the questions a general manager should face: What are your goals? What style will you play? What type of player will you value? Why did you make this deal? What can we expect?

Let those be the queries Lucy Rushton fields in the future because she takes over a once-proud franchise that hasn’t advanced out of the first round of the playoffs since 2015. Her gender is important in 2021 because she is breaking new ground. Now she has broken it. Let her get to work. There’s plenty to do — and more like her on the way.