Brianna Pinto is 20 years old, on the verge of breaking into the WNT senior player pool, and is looking to shake up the status quo. Not necessarily on the field - although she could certainly do that as a brilliant midfielder who was named young player of the year in 2019. What Pinto wants right now is to break into the governance of US Soccer, so that she and other young athletes like her can have a say in how the federation treats them.
US Soccer’s governance is made up of a board of directors and a national council. The National Council is responsible for, among other things, electing the president and vice president of the federation, amending bylaws, approving budgets, and adopting policies. Part of that council is the Athletes’ Council, which must comprise at least 33% of eligible National Council votes. There are currently 20 current and former players on the Athletes’ Council, with players from the Para 7-a-side team, beach soccer, and the men’s and women’s senior teams. Its current composition is heavily white, with an average age around 36.
Pinto aims to change that with her group, Next Gen United: five young players all running to be elected to the Athletes’ Council. Along with Pinto there’s Smith Hunter, currently at Harvard and member of the U-20 women’s team; Mikey López of the Birmingham Legion in USL and former men’s YNT player; Nick Mayhugh, current Para 7-a-side player; and Matt Freese of the Philadelphia Union, also a former men’s YNT player. Their average age: 22 years old.
They all knew one or more of the other members of the group already; elite international soccer is a small world, and they’d all crossed paths through the US youth setup, NCAA play, or mutual friends. It was simply a matter of sitting down, getting organized, and refining their messages. For a group with different races, genders, and abilities, that message could have gotten complicated. But in talking to the group and to some of the players individually, the word that came up most often was “access.” They all want access - not necessarily for them, although that would be nice, but for all the players coming up after them. Even at their relatively young ages, they’re aware that progress is a multigenerational act, and the seeds they plant today may not be harvested by them.
Mayhugh, who told SSFC that he didn’t even know about that Para team until his 20s, looks up to current AC chair and fellow Para player Chris Ahrens. Mayhugh hopes to be the same source of support and information for players coming up after him, not just for the Para team, but for all the disabled players under the USSF umbrella, which includes deaf and blind players and players with cerebral palsy. The first step is making players aware that there are even resources out there, and places to play. Making them aware that they can have a voice.
That’s what Pinto emphasized: players having a say in what happens to them. She was eligible to vote for the Athletes’ Council in 2018 through her YNT play but didn’t know what it was for and didn’t recognize some of the names on the ballot. She only came to fully know about the AC because a US Soccer rep came to the University of North Carolina, where Pinto is still a student, and talked about the program. Pinto stayed behind after the presentation and started asking questions. Now, the Next Gen United site pointedly focuses on telling players what counts towards eligible status and how to vote, and provides a form to quickly tell three other players about the AC election.
All of the Next Gen crew have struggled with the access issues in ways particular to their situations, like Pinto not seeing another Black girl on a team until she was 14 or having never had a minority head coach as a WNT member, or Hunter selling bottled water on the Seattle waterfront to pay for club team fees, or López moving nearly five hours away from his home in McAllen, Texas to Austin, Texas to go to a good soccer academy because otherwise he had a much smaller chance of getting scouted. They want players to know the way the system works and for that information to be widely available. They want the players coming after them to feel less isolated, and definitely to be less disadvantaged by not having money, connections, the right geography, or even a coach who understands their situations, because being treated as a whole person and not just a chess piece on a board is conducive to player development (not to mention simple decency).
Mayhugh had a youth coach who insisted on making him practice his non-dominant left foot - fine in theory, but a problem when Mayhugh ended up getting diagnosed with a dead spot on the right side of his brain due to a stroke in utero, which was affecting his ability to use his left side. Hunter comes from a lower-income family and in her hometown of Seattle, elite girls’ club fees can easily run into the thousands of dollars; she and her sister would sell water and cookies to tourists, sometimes spending all day on the weekends hustling to make up the money. How much better might these players be if they’d had support from the beginning, if they’d been able to take the hours they spent struggling and put them into training, or studying, or even just being kids?
The Next Gen United group want to bring new perspectives to the Athletes’ Council. Pinto wants to talk about diversity and inclusion, not just among players, but among coaches, staff, and governance officers. Smith wants to address low income players. López wants scouts to reach beyond their usual geographical nets and to become more comfortable approaching the Hispanic community. Freese is a homegrown player concerned about players having their needs met as they move into pro development at earlier ages. And Mayhugh wants more awareness of the disabled teams, with more youth leagues available to help funnel young players through to the national level, instead of finding out as adults, as he did at 21 when he saw an Instagram ad.
“At the end of your career,” Pinto said, “People see that time as when they should join the Athlete Council, but we want to flip the script and get people involved early so that by the time they reach the senior national team they know how the system works. They can enact real change.”
For more information, you can read through Next Gen United’s mission statement and player bios here.