ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - When Kyle Johnson attended a Minnesota state high school tournament banquet, he noticed something about the top teams.
“On the girls’ side, there was zero diversity at all. There’s no diversity,” Johnson recalls. “I know so many different young women from all different demographics, and they weren’t being represented on that stage.”
Johnson, a half-Chinese and half-Vietnamese soccer coach, was observing the reality of mainstream girls’ football, known as soccer in the United States. It has developed largely as a white, suburban sport that requires athletes to join costly clubs to advance their skills.
“To play in the club system, we really need money,” Johnson said.
The system excludes young women who play on what Johnson refers to as “invisible pitches” — nonclub soccer fields.
Like a Girl founded
Johnson, along with two female colleagues, had coached an inner-city girls’ soccer team in St. Paul. The trio decided to take it a step further.
Two years ago, they founded Like a Girl, a nonprofit organization that offers a soccer and futsal program for daughters of immigrant, refugee and low-income families.
“I know they can play. It’s not a matter of if they can play, it’s just giving them the same opportunities that their peers have,” said Johnson, who used to operate a graphic design business and is now full time with Like a Girl.
“Girls who play on these invisible pitches tend to be girls of color, immigrants, refugees, low-income, and or city-based. We believe that these pitches and the girls who play on them deserve to be seen by others and themselves as real soccer players.”— Like a Girl website
Learning to fail
Like a Girl soccer practice starts with a long car ride. Each player is picked up from her house, apartment or public housing across St. Paul.
“It’s really a wide range of places, so we are going to spend a little time in the car before we are actually going to kick the ball. But the girls are used to it,” Johnson said from behind the wheel.
Without the ride, most of his players could not participate because their parents were unlikely able to drive them.
“Transportation is a big barrier to what we’re trying to do. Many of them don’t have access to transportation for them to play. So, we have two options — that is either I pick them up and they can play, or I don’t pick them up and then they wouldn’t be able to play.”
Johnson pulled his SUV up to a local recreation center where the girls play futsal, a version of football played on a hard, indoor court.
“Because it’s a bit faster game, you really have to develop your technical skills and your creativity. It’s a chance for you to really be able to fail and then learn from it. That’s another big thing that I do is I encourage failure all the time.”
Johnson divides the group into teams for the afternoon’s play. The players run enthusiastically onto the court.
Tenth-grader Hayblute Paw, who was born to Burmese Karen parents in a refugee camp in Thailand, likes that the program improves her soccer skills. But she also said it improves her relationships with the coach and her fellow players.
“We come from, like, the same background,” she said, “and we already know, like, a few things about each other. And we start playing with each other, and then we build on that, and we use that in scrimmages.”
Last year, Johnson organized the group’s first college showcase, an event at which college coaches come and watch teams play and scout players.
Only two colleges came, yet, “it was a big success,” Johnson said.
“From that tournament, we had three girls who had no intention of going to college in the fall of 2017. Two weeks after our tournament, they got soccer scholarships to go to college and play and get an education.”
Fresi Thoo is one of the three now attending college.
“Soccer is my favorite sport,” she said. But without Like a Girl, she would not have had an opportunity to develop her skill, and none at all to attend college.
Johnson said Like a Girl has given him a new sense of purpose. The players “are full of life. They are full of energy, and they are a ton of fun to be around,” he said.
He has a different training philosophy from many soccer coaches, believing that just playing for two hours straight is more of a learning opportunity than running drills.
Johnson’s goals for his players are different, too. He is not about winning but about the beauty and creativity of the game. And what he hopes to teach his players is not ultimately about soccer.
“It’s finding out what your passion is and working hard and trying to achieve the biggest goals you can in life.”