Last week, Matt Freese (Philadelphia Union), Smith Hunter (Harvard University), Mikey Lopez (Birmingham Legion FC), Nick Mayhugh (Paralympic National Team), and Brianna Pinto (University of North Carolina) announced the creation of Next Gen United. The Next Gen Five will be candidates to be elected to the U.S. Soccer Athlete Council.
The Beautiful Game Network was able to catch up with Pinto, the UNC & USWYNT star, to talk about the potential of Next Gen United on the Athlete Council.
For someone that may be unfamiliar, Pinto explained, “The United States Soccer Federation’s Athlete Council is a group of twenty athletes who are elected by their peers.”
“The purpose of the council as laid out in U.S. Soccer’s bylaws is to: Provide a broader means of communication between Athletes and the Federation and Make reports and recommendations to the Board of Directors about matters affecting Athletes.”
How did these five players come together to form this exciting new initiative? “The soccer world is extremely close-knit. I love it because you can have the best relationships with the most unlikely friends, particularly because soccer is a game played by everyone,” she said. “All of us voiced our interest in becoming involved in higher ranks of the Federation, but we weren’t sure what approach we should take.”
“Last fall, some U.S. Soccer representatives went around the country to speak to collegiate women’s soccer programs about staying involved in soccer even if they didn’t have plans to play professionally. The Athlete Council was mentioned, and naturally, I wanted to know more and whether it was something I could pursue now.”
Continuing with Next Gen United’s origin story, Brianna said, “Mikey López is another UNC Men’s Soccer alum who I have gotten to know over the years. Smith Hunter and I have attended several youth national team camps together. Smith and Matt Freese are both currently enrolled at Harvard. Lastly, Matt and Nick Mayhugh have known each other through mutual friends. The five of us provide unique perspectives about what it means (or meant) to be a youth soccer player in the U.S. Soccer system. We check all the boxes in terms of race, gender, age, ability, and geographic location.”
Hunter and Pinto would be the only Black Americans if they are elected, while Hunter would also be the only Asian American. Mayhugh brings the unique experience of being a part of the para 7-a-side team and Freese is an MLS Homegrown player. For Lopez and Hunter, they both dealt with economic barriers that are a product of the current pay-to-play model. Lopez also had to move to a larger soccer market in order to get exposure to top collegiate programs and national team scouts.
With those unique experiences, Next Gen United would bring a new perspective to various issues across the landscape of U.S. Soccer. “We recognize how youth national teams represent the largest portion of the U.S. Soccer Program,” Pinto said. “Additionally, the game is becoming more diverse within our nation and we want to make sure that the governing bodies of the USSF represent all the different people who play the game in our nation.”
“It is our goal to be a resource to those currently involved with the Council so we can provide more perspectives about how we can effectively advocate for ALL of our athletes, particularly in terms of age and race.”
A few of the group’s platform ideas are:
• Dismantling the financial and structural barriers within the pay-to-play model
• More diversity & inclusion efforts in our coaching, support staff, and governing bodies
• Mental health resources for all athletes to ensure that they are supported as people BEFORE their identity as athletes.
On the topics of equality and diversity, Pinto has not avoided using her platform to speak out on issues she feels are important. “As I have progressed through the ranks of U.S. Soccer and UNC Women’s Soccer, my platform has grown significantly,” she said. “I fully recognize that I did not get to where I am without the help of other people, so I believe it is my responsibility to use my voice in a powerful way to make sure the opportunities that I have received are available to more minorities – (young people, women, POC, etc.).”
The announcement of the formation of Next Gen United was well-received across social media, including a positive message from USWNT legend Julie Foudy.
— Julie Foudy (@JulieFoudy) October 15, 2020
Brianna said, “The support we have received online is extremely empowering, especially from someone like Julie Foudy. She is clearly invested in the next generation of soccer in America and her support helps emphasize the entire basis of our campaign – we’re running to ensure that all athletes are properly represented, and we aim to inspire younger generations of players to get involved earlier in their careers rather than later. Becoming involved early ensures that we can be the change we wish to see.”
As one of the future stars of the USWNT, I asked Pinto what she wants people to think of when they see the colors and the flag of the United States of America as she represents her country on the international stage in the future. “First of all, I think it is a privilege to represent the crest. I am grateful for every opportunity I get to play in an international match with teammates from all over the country,” she answered. “However, as a national organization, we must recognize that America has not historically treated everyone equally. If we wish to fulfill the ideals of liberty and justice for all that our nation was founded on, we must grapple with the atrocities committed against people of color in our nation.”
“The fight for equity requires the commitment of ALL Americans. I hope that when people see us representing U.S. Soccer, they see a team of people committed to fighting for one another, on and off the field. We are a united group that believes in the sanctity of each and every single one of our lives, and we value one another for our humanity before our collective identity as soccer players.”