Seattle, Washington - Sunday, June 12, 2016: Seattle Reign FC head coach Laura Harvey celebrates with her team after a regular season National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) match at Memorial Stadium. Seattle won 1-0.

Five seasons later, where are all the female coaches in pro women’s soccer?

There’s a tradition every year right before the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) College Draft takes place in early January. The head coaches assemble for a photograph in the media room before they split off to their individual tables and the work of selecting college seniors for the upcoming pro season actually begins.

This year was no different. The morning of the draft on Jan. 13, the 10 head coaches of the NWSL clubs dutifully filed into the media room to pose for their photo, some cracking a few last-minute jokes as the time on the countdown clock ran down to when the first pick would take place.

No one in the room thought much of the photo—just one of the many things on the checklist to get out of the way before the controlled chaos of the draft took over. But after the league posted the photo to its social media accounts, there were many replies, with one common thread—and one big question. After seeing the picture of nine men and one woman, fans wanted to know: Where’s the gender diversity in a pro women’s sport?

The answer? Well, it’s a work in progress.

When the NWSL launched for its inaugural season in 2013, three of its eight clubs had female head coaches: the Portland Thorns FC’s Cindy Parlow Cone, Seattle Reign FC’s Laura Harvey and Boston Breakers’ Lisa Cole (who was replaced by interim coach and team captain Cat Whitehill after she was fired mid-season).

Today, as the NWSL prepares to enter its fifth season, only Harvey remains. The league has also grown to 10 clubs total, and four of them—FC Kansas City, Houston Dash, North Carolina Courage (formerly Western Flash New York) and Orlando Pride—have never had a woman serve as a member of the coaching staff, let alone in the top leadership position.

Of course, this doesn’t detract from some of the great success stories of women in the NWSL who are currently assistant or goalkeeping coaches, like Nadine Angerer, Sophie Clough and Cary Copplestone in Portland; Denise Reddy and Kati Jo Spisak in Washington; Bonnie Young in Chicago; and Whitehill’s new expanded role in Boston as Club Ambassador in addition to her assistant coach position. But right now, women represent only about 20 percent of the league’s total coaching staff as a whole.

[More from Excelle Sports: What Title IX missed: How the gender-equity law has led to fewer women coaches]

The league is definitely aware of the lack of diversity on the coaching side, evinced by all the work they’ve quietly been doing over the past year to open pathways to coaching careers both inside the NWSL and in the greater world of soccer.

If a head coach position opened up at one of the 10 clubs today, there would be a handful of qualified women who could be hired to step in at a moment’s notice. But it’s only a handful—and that lack of depth of qualified female candidates is far more concerning. And there’s no easy or immediate solution that would somehow double or triple the number of qualified female coaches overnight: Developing good coaches takes both time and money. While the young league didn’t necessarily have either resource in the past, it does now, which is why it’s making gender diversity among coaches a top priority.

To help increase the numbers of female coaches, the NWSL is helping pro players transition into coaching roles more easily when they retire. NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush revealed that the league has been underwriting the costs of U.S. Soccer trainings for coaching licenses for its players during his media availability at the draft.

“If we do this year over year over year, we’re going to start developing a pipeline of coaches who understand that they can have a real impact and a real career in this,” Plush said.

Matt Beard and Cat Whitehill get in on the drills during a Boston Breakers practice on June 22. (Meg Linehan photo)
Boston Breakers assistant coach Cat Whitehill and head coach Matt Beard participate in a drill during practice on June 22, 2016. Whitehill served as the team’s interim head coach during the 2013 season, then became an assistant coach and club ambassador. (EXCELLE SPORTS/Meg Linehan)

NWSL player salaries aren’t massive, so the league covering the cost of coaching licenses would ostensibly help more players make the move. While obtaining an F license through U.S. Soccer only costs $25 and takes two hours, the next several steps up the coaching development ladder are most costly and time consuming. The E license, at $160, takes over 18 hours of on-site training. Then someone has to hold her E license for a minimum of six months before she can earn her D license. That one requires 36–40 hours of on-site training over two sessions, held 10 weeks apart, at a cost of $295. A year after completing the D, a coach can earn her C for another $1,300 and 2–3 months of training. While programs often pay coaches to earn their B and A licenses, these can take another few years of training and $7,000 combined.

What this means is that, for an NWSL player to become a head coach with an A license, in theory she would have to spend a minimum of 5–6 years and $8,780 out of pocket if there’s no financial assistance. That the league will help cover those costs and encourage players to become coaches will certainly help ease the burden, but it’s not entirely up to the NWSL alone.

“It’s not just what we can do, it’s everyone,” Plush said. “It’s the league, it’s the colleges, it’s the [U.S.] federation, it’s the [Canada Soccer Association], how we can all create a platform for more women to realize that there’s a career in this league and a career after their playing days. It’s a priority.”

Still, there are already women in the world who are qualified to be head coaches. So are these women being considered when head positions become available?

“We’ve made it a priority for our clubs to make sure that they are interviewing candidates, a diverse pool of candidates, including minorities, including women,” Plush said. “We certainly understand and would like to have more female head coaches in our league. We know that that’s an opportunity for us and a priority and so we’ve instituted that policy.”

Opportunities to helm a professional women’s soccer team in America are few and far between, simply due to the fact that there are only 10 teams in the entire country. The first real test of the league’s policy could come in 2018, if the league does in fact approve two teams for further expansion. While that pipeline of coaching talent might still be a few years off, it’s absolutely within the realm of possibility that by the time the 2018 NWSL College Draft rolls around, Laura Harvey might not be the only woman in the annual photo.

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