Where girls compete but men rule

As women’s soccer undergoes a historic shift toward gender equity, elite girls’ soccer is still largely controlled by men. The results, women say, are toxic for coaches and players alike.

Former youth soccer coach Elizabeth Williams quit after realizing her path forward was nearly impossible without harassment and discrimination. (Chris Bergin/For The Washington Post)
31 min

DEL MAR, Calif. — One after another, the industry created to empower young girls in soccer has sent a very different message to female coaches.

For Karley Nelson, a former coach for elite club San Diego Surf, it started when her boss made demeaning sexual comments and touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable on the sidelines, she said. Soon, another male colleague began to call Nelson her boss’s “girlfriend” behind her back. She was the only woman at a leadership retreat when a club executive told her she was “so beautiful” that he was trying to convince his partner “she doesn’t have to worry” about her. Nelson’s allegations were documented in a lawsuit she filed this year.

It became clear that the culture at Surf, perhaps the country’s most recognizable youth soccer club, would not change, Nelson told The Washington Post. So she left.

For Elizabeth Williams, the message came in a hundred small ways: from the referees who sought out her male assistants to the coaching instructors who said she needed to dress less effeminately to “look the part” of a coach. By the time her club, the Indiana Fire, said she needed to obtain a higher-level coaching license to advance, Williams was convinced she wouldn’t pass the course. She left coaching altogether instead.

For Yolanda Thomas, often the only Black woman in her high-level coaching courses, the message came literally. Thomas, who played professionally in Sweden, was a director at an elite club in Oklahoma, Tulsa SC. But that didn’t stop a male subordinate from “charging” angrily at her, she said, when he thought she had encroached on his field space. In front of his team of 12-year-old boys, Thomas said, the coach shouted that she was “just a placeholder.”

“You don’t belong here!” he screamed.

American women’s ­professional soccer is in the midst of a cultural sea-change, including an influx of female coaches and team owners and a push toward equity and workplace safety. But for female coaches, elite youth soccer remains male-dominated, with a culture that often veers into sexism, discrimination and even harassment, according to interviews with two dozen current and former coaches at clubs that play in the Elites Club National League, the pinnacle of girls’ soccer in the United States.

The ECNL is a stratosphere above typical “travel” soccer teams, selecting just a handful of top clubs in each region to compete their best teams against one another. Every year, ECNL soccer trains thousands of girls from coast to coast, building the pipeline to college, professional and U.S. national teams.

But men control ECNL soccer at nearly every level, from executives to club owners to boards and oversight organizations, according to interviews and a review by The Post of coaching rosters and public filings from across the 129 girls’ clubs in the league. Nearly 90 percent of coaching directors at ECNL clubs are men, The Post found. At many of the country’s most successful clubs, there is not a single woman in coaching leadership.

As a result, The Post found, many female coaches have been systematically shut out of their own sport. They are overlooked by male executives, subjected to difficult and sometimes hostile work environments, and denied basic protections such as maternity leave.

“The current youth structures are toxic, and they reproduce their toxicity,” said Nancy Rosas Asare, a high school soccer coach who said she believed her gender kept her from being given the chance to coach a Surf ECNL team in 2015.

“It’s not true there aren’t women coaches. It’s that the clubs don’t want to hire them, and they don’t want to hire them because they don’t want to change the status quo, because they benefit from it.”

The women’s allegations mirror some of the conclusions of an investigation into the sport released last month by former acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates, who found that the toxic culture of the National Women’s Soccer League “appears rooted” in the youth soccer system, where many NWSL coaches accused of abuse last year also got their start.

“Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players,” Yates wrote.

In response to Nelson’s lawsuit, San Diego Surf successfully argued that the case should be resolved in arbitration. That process is ongoing, and Surf’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. The club referred questions to Josh Henderson, the club’s national technical director, who was named in Nelson’s lawsuit as the executive who had commented on her appearance. In an interview, he denied her allegations about him and said the club had appropriately handled her complaint of sexual harassment by her boss.

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“I believe Surf did our best to provide a nurturing, caring environment for everybody — kids, adults, women, men, trans people. If we fell short, it’s not for lack of trying or lack of self-reflection or intent or lack of professionalism or lack of policies,” Henderson said. “Maybe it was a personality issue with somebody. Maybe they just didn’t get along for some reason."

Barry Williams, the president of Tulsa SC, said the club investigated the incident Thomas described. He called the male coach’s words “unfortunate" but said Thomas also “provoked" some of the argument by replying that the male coach should “shut up." Williams said Tulsa SC, which Thomas left this year, has been “at the forefront of diversity” in the ECNL. Officials at Indiana Fire declined to comment.

ECNL executives declined numerous requests for interviews and declined to provide data about gender diversity at its clubs. In a statement, Jennifer Winnagle, the league’s chief operating officer, said the league was founded “in direct recognition” of the need for more women in sports. She noted that more than half of the staff in the league’s front office is female.

The nonprofit U.S. Club Soccer is tasked by the sport’s governing body, the U.S. Soccer Federation, with overseeing the ECNL. Officials at U.S. Club Soccer declined to be interviewed but said in a statement: “While there is more work to be done, we are proud of what U.S. Club Soccer and our member organizations, including ECNL, have been doing for the growth and empowerment of female youth soccer.”

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The gender disparity has consequences not just for women who coach but for the girls who play for them, more than a dozen female coaches told The Post. The dynamic deprives girls of important role models, they said, continuing a cycle in which girls do not consider becoming coaches — or other kinds of leaders — themselves.

“The lack of representation, it’s like a cycle,” said Briana Russell, a youth coach and the founder and CEO of Girls Leading Girls, a nonprofit that promotes female coaches in girls’ soccer. “If there’s less women out there, you’re not going to draw women and girls. They don’t see themselves represented, they’re not going to want to participate.”

“It’s a systemic problem,” said Ifeoma Dieke, a youth coach who played for the Scottish women’s national team for more than a decade. Dieke, who left an ECNL club in Florida earlier this year, said she experienced sexism from club officials and referees. “If [women] had a seat at the table, it would be better for the players, but they don’t care about the players. They care about their pockets.”

“To even get a seat at the table,” Dieke said, “that is the impossible thing.”

Young female players, male power

Under a screen of early-morning fog in Del Mar, Calif., the first ECNL tournament of the fall season filled the immaculate fields of Surf Sports Park with the bleat of whistles and the thud of balls. Towering banners showed photos of teenagers, named the league’s “players of the year” last season, posing like professionals with their arms crossed or fists pumping. There was an ECNL-branded pop-up store shaped like a giant Nike shoe box.

With the first game of the day was set to begin, hundreds of young female players from 20 of the country’s top girls’ teams took the field, their shoulders emblazoned with teal ECNL badges. All but a few teams were coached by men.

As the girls, between ages 12 and 15, warmed up in neat lines and made sharp passes, scouts for the U.S. youth national teams dotted the sidelines with clipboards in hand. Soon, Division I college coaches will flock to ECNL tournaments by the hundreds: The league said there were 800 at last year’s playoffs.

In the short span of its existence, the ECNL has come to dominate the market for producing the country’s best players. Seventy percent of players drafted by the NWSL since 2017 have come from the ranks of ECNL clubs, the league says, including all of the first seven draft picks last year.

The league’s revenue has skyrocketed since its founding in 2009, growing from $500,000 in 2010 to $3.4 million in 2019, according to public filings, a number that is probably higher after the league’s expansions.

As the league has grown, Christian Lavers, its founder, president and CEO, has amassed enormous influence. He took just a $57,000 salary from the league in 2020, according to filings. But he is also the executive vice president of U.S. Club Soccer, the oversight organization for the ECNL, which did not report paying him a salary. And he is the vice president of a for-profit company, C2SA, which provides management services to U.S. Club Soccer and collected $4.2 million in fees from U.S. Club in 2020, according to filings. Lavers owns the only ECNL club in Wisconsin, too, and in 2021 was made a top executive at an NWSL club, the Kansas City Current. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Lavers’s arrangement is a signal of the wealth and power available to the coaches who climb the ranks of youth girls’ soccer on their way to college, the pros or national teams. Two ECNL club executives were hired as interim coaches by the NWSL this year. And Rory Dames, one of the ECNL’s founders, used his sway as the owner of a top youth club in Chicago, Eclipse, to become the NWSL’s longest-tenured coach, before resigning last year amid allegations of emotional and verbal abuse. Dames has denied those allegations.

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“You look at all the clubs — male, male, male,” Dieke said. The world she entered into as a coach, Dieke said, reminded her of her mother’s experiences running for political office in Nigeria, where Dieke’s mother is from. Club soccer, Dieke said, is “like Nigerian politics. The rich want to get richer. The people in power want to stay in power.”

The Post reviewed the leadership teams of 115 clubs in the ECNL Girls for which information was posted online, out of 129 listed in the league’s directory. Many directors’ bios did not include gender; where possible, The Post cross-referenced the rosters against social media and other online profiles.

The ECNL would not provide any information on the representation of women in its member clubs. The Post obtained data from 16 top ECNL clubs and reviewed the staffs of nearly 100 other ECNL clubs that listed their leadership online. Where possible, The Post also reviewed online coaching rosters and public filings that listed clubs’ boards of directors.

More than 85 percent of top executives at ECNL Girls clubs are men, The Post found, and some 50 ECNL clubs appeared to employ zero women in coaching leadership jobs. In youth soccer, coaching directors are often the only full-time jobs at clubs, overseeing hiring and team assignments. Clubs can have a half-dozen or more directors who oversee individual age groups and leagues.

The data provided by 16 girls’ clubs that were ranked among the best in the ECNL supports The Post’s analysis. Nearly 90 percent of coaching directors at those clubs are men, and a quarter of the clubs told The Post they did not employ a single woman in their top ranks. Thomas, the former professional player in Sweden, said she believed she had been one of just seven women in the country with the title of ECNL director when she was hired in Tulsa in 2020, out of more than 100 positions.

With a fluid, part-time workforce, determining the number of female coaches at any club can be more difficult; many clubs do not post complete rosters online. But nearly all of the women interviewed said they had been one of a small number of female coaches at their clubs.

At D’Feeters Kicks Soccer Club in Texas, which is consistently ranked among the ECNL’s best girls’ clubs, there are no women among six club executives or on the organization’s six-person board of directors, according to a review of the club’s website. And there are just a handful of women among the 50-plus coaches the club lists online. (D’Feeters Kicks did not respond to many requests for comment.)

FC Dallas, an elite youth club affiliated with the MLS team, also employs no women in six full-time director roles, even though it has one of the country’s top girls’ programs, a representative told The Post. Charlotte Soccer Academy, a highly ranked club in North Carolina, has 5,500 players but employs just one woman out of 33 leadership positions, the club confirmed.

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The ECNL itself, a nonprofit based in Virginia, has just two women on its board; its founders, tax documents show, were all men. There are only two women on the 10-person board of U.S. Club Soccer.

Keri Sarver, of the top ECNL club Internationals S.C., in Ohio, said she believed she was the only female ECNL club owner. (The league did not respond to questions about how many female owners it had.) She was “blessed and lucky,” she said, that the club’s former owner, a man, had mentored her with the intention of having her take over the club once he left.

“That’s different from a lot of peoples’ experiences,” Sarver said. “The reality is many of the clubs in this country were started by males, and then it becomes a network of who you know, who you’re close to. People promote from within and promote their friends.”

“There are many, many meetings, many days,” Sarver said, “when I’m the only woman in the room.”

A cold reception

As the business of elite soccer has exploded, few clubs have seen growth on the scale of the San Diego Surf.

The club has become the crown jewel of an empire that spans youth soccer’s biggest tournaments and several for-profit companies, such as Surf Cup Sports, which owns an expensive slice of land in Del Mar and licenses the Surf name to some 50 youth soccer clubs nationwide.

When it comes to hiring and retaining women, Surf sets a different kind of standard: It is among the least diverse in the ECNL, with an all-male executive team of 11 directors. Four women told The Post they had left their jobs at the club in recent years because of what they saw as a toxic, sexist environment at the youth club that calls itself the “best of the best.”

Their experiences are not isolated: They exemplify, several women told The Post, how the culture of many girls’ soccer clubs can quickly become intolerable for the small number of women who work there.

Nelson left a college soccer coaching job to work at Surf in 2020. She had been at the club for just three days when her new supervisor, Rob Becerra, remarked on her weight loss by saying she had “lost some butter,” she alleged in her lawsuit. “I’m not sure we are going to be able to let you work in the office with all those guys,” she said Becerra told her. “We may need to put you in another office or they won’t get any work done.”

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Becerra made degrading sexual comments about her for months, Nelson alleged, commenting on her “walk,” her “nice legs” and her “little waist.” He hugged her repeatedly after being told she did not want him to touch her, including once during an important game, when Nelson alleged Becerra came up behind her, put his arms around her and laid his cheek against hers to give her coaching advice.

Another woman who coached for Surf at the same time as Nelson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of professional repercussions, said she had herself been the subject of sexist and homophobic jokes by Becerra. The “boys will be boys” culture at Surf, the woman said, had “fostered” those kinds of comments.

Becerra declined to be interviewed. He denied any wrongdoing through an attorney, who noted that Nelson had not served Becerra in her lawsuit, instead targeting Surf, meaning she no longer had an active legal complaint against him. Henderson, the Surf executive, said he believed the club had adequately handled Nelson’s claims when she reported them.

Asare, who worked at Surf until 2015, said that after she found success coaching second-tier girls’ teams, as well as a varsity boys’ team at a local high school, she asked Surf executives for a chance to coach in the ECNL, submitting a proposal about what she would do with the team. But she was turned down by male directors, Asare said, who offered excuses about “reshufflings” that eliminated team openings. She left, she said, because she believed Surf “didn’t have an interest in promoting women coaches.”

“That is a boys’ club,” Asare said. “The men get promoted. The women get overlooked and expelled. [They] habitually get offered the lower-tier teams with hollow promises.”

Surf hired a female director and ECNL coach, Kate Norton, in 2019. Norton, who was hired by Becerra, told The Post she had had a positive experience with Surf and left on good terms in 2020.

“The most important thing is getting the best person for these kids. We cannot be prejudicial in any way when considering that. Sometimes it’s female. Sometimes it’s male. It should always be the best person,” Henderson said. “Do I believe that? Do I wish that best person, there were more females in that role? Of course.”

Another woman, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity over concerns about professional repercussions, said she left Surf after an incident in which Henderson undermined her in front of a group of players and parents. After Henderson offered her a promotion, she said, he told a group of parents that he didn’t know whether she would be a good leader while praising a man Henderson had recently hired as “overqualified.”

It was the last in an accumulation of slights, the woman said, including when the club’s new coaching director had stripped her of an older girls’ team, telling her she was “not a good enough 11-vs.-11 coach” after watching her run a single training session. She was reassigned to a younger team that played lower-stakes games, she said.

“Male coaches are hired off potential,” she said. “Women coaches are treated and hired and expected to perform off proven experience.”

Henderson confirmed what he said to parents but called it a “huge miscommunication” that he later apologized for. Her story about the new coaching director, Henderson said, was “not true”: The director had been critical of both male and female coaches, he said. “He can watch in five minutes and see this person is not right for this age group right now,” Henderson said. “It’s easy to take a couple of instances and in her mind understand it to be what she thought it was.”

By the time the woman quit, at seven months pregnant and without a job lined up, there were zero female coaches left at Surf.

Babysitter status

She coached for a top Division I college team and was a top defender at Pepperdine University, but in youth soccer, Diana Alexander never got a chance at her goal.

“I always wanted an ECNL team," said Alexander, a former coach at two clubs that have teams in the ECNL. "I’d say, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ ”

Instead, Alexander said, her club gave her a team of 8-year-olds who don’t play in ECNL tournaments. “It was a higher-level team,” she said, “but they kept taking the best players from me, and eventually I had the lower-level team. Then I had to give them up at 12 or 13.”

In interviews, more than a dozen women described the same pattern: They were consistently denied opportunities to coach in the ECNL and relegated to younger, lower-level teams, even after years of coaching and licensing courses.

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Jobs coaching older and higher-level teams, especially ECNL teams, paid far more than younger ones, the women said. ECNL coaches were also more likely to get a chance to advance into full-time roles, such as top directors, which can pay close to $100,000 a year; in 2020, Nelson was offered $80,000 for a high-level role working with ECNL teams at Surf, court filings show.

As contractors coaching lower-level teams, some women said they worked the equivalent of a full-time job but made as little as $30,000.

Ligia Santos, who played soccer professionally in Europe, said she was saddled with several young teams when she coached at ECNL club Sporting Blue Valley outside Kansas City, including being asked to coach kindergartners.

“I was surprised because I had never in my life coached kindergarten,” she said. “I came from Europe, from real soccer. I was a professional coach. ... But they don’t give us the same chance as the men.”

“They wanted the women with young players — the nurturing and all of that,” said Nancy Schott, who also worked at Sporting. “As soon as you get out of the age where they’re developing into different levels of talent, they were giving it to the guys.”

Sporting Blue Valley’s website lists nine coaching directors, all of whom are men, and an all-male board of directors. The club did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

One woman said she was told she could not coach high-level teams because her college coaching job meant she could not commit the time; at another club, a different woman was told the high-level teams were reserved for people who were coaching at a college level. For every excuse they were given for why they could not advance, the women said, they saw exceptions made for men.

“I would ask why I can’t coach a [higher-level] team, and it’s, ‘Well, he has [a higher-level] license.’ Or if he doesn’t have his license, ‘He’s been here for longer than you.’ But they’d bring in someone from the outside,” said one current coach at an ECNL club, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing professional repercussions. “Once it was, ‘You have to miss one weekend out of the year, and he doesn’t.'”

When the Yates report into abuses in the National Women’s Soccer League was released, several women said, they saw a stark example of that double standard.

The report detailed how male coaches in the league had been allowed to flout U.S. Soccer’s licensing standards for professional coaches. Christy Holly was hired by two different NWSL teams, in 2016 and 2021, despite not holding the required coaching license. U.S. Soccer, Yates found, had discussed holding a special small-group class for Holly. He was fired for sexual misconduct before he could complete the course, Yates’s report said. (Holly could not be reached for comment.)

“That’s literally youth soccer in a nutshell,” said Candice Fabry, a longtime youth soccer coach who now coaches in college and owns a mentoring organization for women in sports careers. “Those jobs are limited, and they’re controlled by men.”

One woman who worked at a top club in Texas, speaking on the condition that she and the club not be named, described how she had fought in recent years to try to get a promotion to coach an ECNL team. When her club’s all-male executive team told her she needed a higher-level coaching license, she said, she went and got one — a grueling, rigorous course, administered by the U.S. Soccer Federation, that took six months and cost thousands of dollars. “They were saying time and time again, ‘We need more females; there’s so few of you.’ So I went and asked for my shot.”

At a three-hour meeting after getting her license, she said, a male executive again told her he didn’t have a job for her in the ECNL. Among the reasons he gave her, the woman said, was that women “were often too emotional to coach at a high level.”

“That was when I stepped back and I started to pay more attention,” the woman said.

She replayed times when male executives rolled their eyes at one of the few women who spoke up in meetings, sometimes even muting her on Zoom without her realizing. She remembered noticing that female coaches were often given the worst fields, without light towers.

And after being told women were “too emotional,” she said, she remembered watching as one of the club’s top coaches — a man who held the job she wanted — reacted to his team’s missed set piece by ripping a tent out of the ground.

‘They get married’

In interviews, many youth soccer executives lamented that women had left their clubs and — often — coaching altogether. Five top executives at youth clubs offered the same explanation for their departures.

“It’s just tough for them. They get married,” said Walid Khoury, who runs one of the ECNL’s most successful girls’ clubs, Slammers FC, and served on the league’s board of directors. “We did have a number of women on staff, really good young women, and then they got married.”

Even as revenue have grown and as maternity leave has increasingly been offered in women’s professional sports, elite youth soccer clubs have made almost no inroads toward making it easier for women to stay in coaching, according to coaches and executives across the sport.

Of the clubs where leaders lamented the departures of female coaches, just one, St. Louis Scott Gallagher, had a maternity leave policy. Slammers, Khoury admitted, didn’t. Neither did Surf, Henderson said. He noted that when a transgender coach needed two months off to transition, the club gave it to him, and Surf would similarly accommodate women who needed parental leave.

“Honestly, we have never been in that situation,” Henderson said.

Few women interviewed said their clubs offered maternity leave, even unpaid. Thomas, who was a director at Tulsa SC in Oklahoma, said she secured maternity leave only by demanding it, something she worried other women would not be able to do. She recalled having to explain the physical toll of birth on her body to male superiors to get eight weeks’ paid leave, which wasn’t part of the club’s official policy.

“I had to explain that I am healing from stitches,” she said. "I had to lay it all out there.”

Tulsa SC has since added a maternity leave policy, the club said.

Many club owners, including Henderson and Khoury, noted that their clubs are nonprofits, with financial realities that they said made offering maternity leave difficult. Slammers reported $2.4 million in revenue in its last filings but $3 million in expenses.

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One club, Pacific Northwest, in Washington, said it offered six weeks of paid parental leave to both male and female coaches. Its top two executives are both women, and women coach the majority of its girls’ teams, including six ECNL teams.

There were other structural barriers that kept women out of high-level coaching roles or eventually led them to leave the profession. The punishing hours — after-school practices and tournaments on many weekends for higher-level teams — made it difficult for anyone, male or female, to have a family while coaching youth soccer, they said, unless a supportive partner could handle child care.

But by boxing women out of director jobs, many women said, the clubs were all but guaranteeing that women would leave once they had to pay for child care. It’s a dynamic that has long existed across the American workforce and was worsened by the pandemic, with men earning higher wages on average than their female partners. But in youth soccer, the gaps between lower-level jobs and club directors are particularly pronounced because directors are usually the only full-time employees of clubs.

Even the coaching courses that were important to advancing to higher levels and teams were clearly built for and by men, multiple women said, in ways that dissuaded women from moving forward in their careers.

U.S. Soccer issues coaching licenses, beginning with local “grass-roots” courses and offering national licenses ranging from D, the lowest, to A and “pro,” the highest. The licensing classes are almost always taught by male instructors, several coaches said, and more than half of the women who spoke to The Post said they were the only female students as they progressed to higher levels. The courses are multiday affairs that often require travel costing thousands of dollars, the women said, which also meant an extra burden when it came to child care.

“In my course, I was told, ‘Why are you wasting your money?’” said Lula Bauer, a coach who serves as the chairwoman of Women and Girls in Soccer, a nonprofit that started hosting all-female coaching courses. “We had such horrendous experiences. . . . Not feeling accepted, not feeling respected.”

The federation has made progress toward encouraging more women to get high-level licenses. It hosts all-female coaching courses, and a scholarship fund started by U.S. Soccer and Jill Ellis, the former coach of the U.S. women’s national team, provides financial support to women pursuing high-level licenses. The goal, the federation says, is “doubling the number of elite professional coaches by 2024.” Twenty-two percent of B license recipients in 2022 have been women compared with 13 percent in 2021. But the proportion of women receiving their A licenses fell this year, to just over 7 percent.

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Elizabeth Williams, who worked for Indiana Fire Juniors, said she left coaching in part because of the roadblocks of male-dominated licensing courses. The classes were unnecessarily physical training grounds, she said, where she was expected to do full-contact drills with men. “I had my shins kicked out from under me,” Williams said. “I got checked so hard I went flying.”

Williams recalled feeling mocked by male instructors for gendered reasons, such as when she turned in a color-coded chart that contrasted with the rest of the class’s. She said she was told by the men evaluating her: “We need you to look the part. We like you, but there are things people expect to see.” The message, Williams said, was that with her effeminate clothes, feminine habits and fancy nails, she didn’t belong there. She didn’t take another course.

Stuck in the cycle

Whenever she left jobs in soccer, Thomas, the former professional player in Sweden, found herself worrying about the young women she left behind. It wasn’t uncommon, Thomas said, to hear from players who were struggling after her departure, often with coaches who berated or attacked them, damaging their self-esteem.

“I always know those things will be on the horizon if I’m not there,” Thomas said. “The way that girls in the sport are treated by the adults that are supposed to guide and lead them — it’s behavior we’d never accept out of a teacher.”

More than a dozen female coaches at ECNL clubs told The Post they had concerns similar to Thomas’s. They had witnessed too many coaches and directors at top clubs adopt a mentality that had costs for players’ mental and emotional health. At times, many said, they watched their mostly male colleagues cross a line into emotional and verbal abuse of young girls.

“There’s a two-prong thing: There’s the issue of more women needing to be in coaching, but it’s also quality in coaching, and that’s a male problem only because there are more men,” said Lesle Gallimore, the commissioner of the Girls Academy league, an ECNL competitor. “There are plenty of negative examples of women who are abusive, too. It’s about what we’re going to tolerate in this space and how we’re going to make it better.”

Still, Gallimore said, girls who grow up playing in clubs made up entirely of men get a clear message: “That men know more about sport and soccer than women do. That they’re the experts, they understand better. That they know what’s better for you, as a girl, than a woman would know.”

“Women and young girls, we’ve been conditioned to not question and to obey, to put everyone else’s needs are put before ours. Anytime we’re going to provide an opinion or we’re going to be confident, we’re called a b----,” said Fabry, now the head coach at Ottawa University. “It’s a perfect environment [for coaches] to come in and invoke fear in youth players.”

Yates’s report echoed those concerns, focusing in part on allegations of verbal and emotional abuse against youth players by Dames, including from his time as an ECNL coach. Yates noted that another coach accused of verbal and emotional abuse by NWSL players, Aaran Lines, is now the girls’ ECNL director at a club in New York. Lines did not respond to a message seeking comment.

One young woman’s message has stuck with Thomas. After Thomas left a club where the girl played, the girl reached out to say she was struggling with the man who had replaced Thomas. The coach was “degrading,” she wrote, and made her feel like she didn’t belong on the field or deserve a future spot on a college team. “My mental health and confidence in my game couldn’t be lower,” she said.

The player wrote to Thomas, “I miss you."