Coaching Chaos Reveals NWSL's Growing Pains

After becoming the first professional league to return after Covid, the NWSL is starting to suffer from the same shortcomings that plagued its predecessors. With women's soccer on the rise, a culture change is needed to prevent it from meeting the same fate.

Coaching Chaos Reveals NWSL's Growing Pains
NY/NJ Gotham FC's Gina Lewandowski and OL Reign's Sofia Huerta battle for possession of the ball during their 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup group stage match. 

In 2020, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) made headlines as the first American sports league to return to play since the pandemic began. Now, over a year later, the league struggles to maintain consistency at the top with six head coaching changes this season across the 10 teams.

The coaching turmoil reflects the NWSL’s shortcomings, as the league competes with European clubs for talent and leadership. As new teams enter the NWSL, including Racing Louisville FC this season and teams from Los Angeles and San Diego in 2022, there is a renewed push for greater gender and racial equity in leadership positions across the league. All this has shined a long-overdue spotlight on coaching behavior in the league.

Players exposed the subpar conditions at the start of August after the Washington Spirit terminated Coach Richie Burke for harassing his players; tensions redoubled after Racing Louisville Head Coach Christy Holly was fired “for cause” as recently as last week. For many, these two firings highlight the need for increased player protection and established standards for player treatment in the NWSL. One former Spirit player, Kaiya McCullough, explained that Burke emotionally abused her throughout her time on the Spirit, including using the n-word at a preseason dinner. Two additional players added anonymously that he had called players “a waste of space” and “dog shit.” These allegations join a long list of claims against Burke, whose behavior was so infamous that multiple players advised against the Spirit hiring him in 2018 due to his known homophobia and emotionally abusive practices.

The NWSL did not have a formal anti-harassment policy until this year, and multiple players shared that they did not know who to report instances of emotional abuse to. By coming forward, McCullough hoped to expose larger cultural problems throughout the NWSL, where players feel that they can not speak up for fear of retaliation. She also expressed a specific need for the league to change its treatment of Black players at every level from the locker room to the coaches’ offices, the boardroom and the field.

When Racing Louisville fired Coach Holly, fans around the league wondered if his removal reflected a similar cultural problem as the Spirit. Holly had helped build the club in its inaugural season and league representatives touted him and his team as a success story after signing international talent. While Racing administrators did not specify the cause of Holly’s termination, they did allude to the seriousness of the decision, as the club’s vice president opted to “plead the fifth” when asked if Holly had broken the law.

The firing was a sudden shock for players, including team captain and goalkeeper Michelle Betos, who shared that, while surprised, she felt confident in her squad as they are “big-time pros." While the new club has struggled in the always-competitive league and currently sits in ninth place, they recently won the inaugural Women’s Cup, edging out FC Bayern Munich in penalty kicks. These players, and others throughout the league, continue to persevere through coaching and administrative turmoil, unstable working conditions and unequal pay compared to their male counterparts.

Furthermore, a third head coach, Farid Benstiti of OL Reign, resigned in July shortly after the story broke that he had bullied star U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Lindsey Horan about her weight during her time at famed club Paris Saint-Germain. Benstiti regularly made deprecating comments about her weight, saying she needed to be skinnier. After losing weight, Horan shared that she “was very unhealthy, and the funniest thing was the coaching staff absolutely loved it. They were like, 'Oh my gosh, look what we did to her, she's so much better for it. She's so beautiful now.’”

Even after Horan completed the club’s fitness test with a top score, Benstiti proclaimed, “Lindsey, your weight is not good enough. Your body fat is still too high. You're not going to play in a game until that's done.” While the team shared the official reason for Benstiti’s resignation as poor on-field performance, the impact of his past treatment of soccer superstars has not gone unnoticed.

Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSL Players Association, explained that the league’s head coaches serve as a “power broker in a system of rules built on disempowering players.”

As players call for better coaches and more stability, there is also a push for more female coaches in the league. One of the three female head coaches currently in the league, Freya Coombe, left her position at New York/New Jersey (NY/NJ) Gotham FC at the end of August to head up the new team Angel City FC in Los Angeles. Gotham replaced Coombe with Scott Parkinson, a former assistant coach in the league, passing over multiple female candidates to do so.

The new San Diego club hired the two-time World Cup Champion Coach Jill Ellis as its president. Ellis promptly displayed her commitment to increasing female leadership in the league, signing Former Manchester United Manager Casey Stoney to manage the fledgling club.

After Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons announced his departure from the club at the end of this season to lead the Dutch women’s national team, fans and players alike pushed for a female replacement, following the lead of Orlando Pride. The Pride hired Becky Burleigh after Marc Skinner resigned this summer to take Stoney’s former position at Manchester United. Coaches and players alike continue to flow from the NWSL to European leagues as investments in women’s soccer grow globally.

With this ongoing coaching carousel and two additional teams joining the league in 2022, the players’ push for an increase in labor rights and the NWSL’s first collective bargaining agreement proves all the more essential. Right now, the maximum salary an NWSL player can receive is $52,500, and its minimum player salary is $22,000. As a result, many elite athletes — including World Cup champions and some of the most popular social media influencers in the sporting world — work additional jobs as DoorDashers, personal trainers and Amazon packers to make ends meet. This reality continues to shine a light on gender disparities across sports in this country and beyond.

As women’s soccer grows across the country, especially after the U.S. Women’s National Team’s success at the 2019 World Cup and this year’s Olympics, players continue to make it clear they deserve better, both on and off the field.

After becoming the first professional league to return after Covid, the NWSL is starting to suffer from the same shortcomings that plagued its predecessors. With women's soccer on the rise, a culture change is needed to prevent it from meeting the same fate.