An ongoing shift in women’s soccer has been apparent at the Tournament of Nations – not on the field but on the sidelines.
Three of the four teams participating in the international event have female coaches, a rare majority in soccer.
A year ago, the two teams playing for the gold medal at the Rio Olympics were both led by women, Sweden’s Pia Sundhage and Germany’s Silvia Neid. And Jill Ellis led the U.S. national team to the Women’s World Cup title in Canada the year before.
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Ellis and others in the sport believe that recent events show women are making important and necessary gains in soccer – but there’s more work to be done.
“I think it’s forward-thinking federations that are about hiring competent coaches but also willing to provide opportunities,” Ellis said. “I know we’ve recently hired technical advisers for our academies and they’re all female and I think that’s great. We’ve got to have more coaches out there and more role models for young coaches. I think it’s great.”
The inaugural Tournament of Nations concludes on Thursday night in Carson, California. The U.S. women rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Brazil 4-3 on Sunday in San Diego and will face Japan in the tournament’s final match.
U.S. Soccer hopes to host the tournament each summer that there isn’t a World Cup or Olympic competition. In addition to Ellis, Emily Lima is the new coach for Brazil and Asako Takakura manages Japan. The only male coach in the event is Australia’s Alen Stajcic.
Lima and Takakura are former players who are relatively new to their teams: Lima took over Brazil last fall following the Olympics and Takakura was appointed after Japan failed to make the field for Rio. Both are the first female coaches for their teams.
Another sign of a possible culture shift in the sport: Five of the top 10 teams in FIFA’s world rankings are coached by women.
The trend has not been lost on Moya Dodd, a former Australian national team standout and vice president of the Asian Football Confederation who has been a vocal advocate for women’s soccer.
“When given the opportunity, women coaches are phenomenally successful. All but one of the World Cups, Olympic golds and Euros in women’s football since 2000 have been won by female-coached teams,” Dodd said, adding that’s 11 of 12 tournaments at the sport’s highest level.
However, Dodd said any shift is far less apparent below the senior national team level and at the club level, where female coaches are scarcer.
For example, among the 10 National Women’s Soccer League teams, there’s just one female head coach: Laura Harvey of the Seattle Reign.
Dodd also points to the NCAA, where the number of women coaches has dropped. A recent study of women’s collegiate teams by the University of Minnesota gave soccer a “D” grade with just 26.2 percent of teams with female coaches in 2016-17, a drop from the previous season.
“In the U.S.A., the percentage of female college athletes coached by women has halved since Title IX was introduced. It seems that women face barriers that grow higher as women’s sports become bigger,” Dodd said.
In an email exchange with The Associated Press, Dodd added that she sees unconscious bias as one of the biggest obstacles women much overcome.
“The characteristics that are seen as assets in a male coach – being tough, having strong opinions, or yelling at players (like Alex Ferguson’s famous `hairdryer’ treatment) would characterize a woman as difficult, emotional or hysterical,” she wrote. “Yet if she is motherly and caring, she doesn’t fit the definition of a coach. In other words, gender stereotypes work against her at both ends.”
At the UEFA Women’s European Championship, there are six women coaches among the 16 teams that took part. Of the four teams playing in Thursday’s semifinals – England, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria – one has a female head coach, Sarina Wiegman (Netherlands).
The women’s Euros are played every four years as the premier competition in the UEFA Confederation. In the last edition, four of the 12 teams were coached by women.
Japan’s Takakura gave added perspective when it comes to female coaches: they should be treated the same as men.
“From my point of view I think it’s good news to have female coaches,” she said through a translator. “But as a coach the gender doesn’t really matter; it doesn’t matter if it’s a he or a she. As a coach, you have to educate and develop your players.”