FOUR CORNERS, Fla. – Slowly but promisingly, the needle is moving on equity and representation for Black coaches and executives in Major League Soccer, says Robin Fraser.
The Colorado Rapids boss was the only Black head coach in the league when he was hired in 2019, a sign of a persistent lack of representation that frustrated many around MLS and eventually led to the creation of the Committee for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in cooperation with Black Players For Change, among other initiatives.
Today Fraser has company in the form of Chicago Fire FC’s Ezra Hendrickson and the Columbus Crew’s Wilfried Nancy, who was hired away from CF Montréal in December.
“Is that a byproduct of the policy? I’m not really sure if you can make a direct correlation,” Fraser told MLSsoccer.com in an exclusive conversation at the Rapids’ preseason camp in Florida over the weekend. “But since the policy has been in effect, since this movement has been in effect, Wilfried’s gotten two jobs. And Ezra’s gotten a job as somebody who was an assistant coach, second-team coach, that sort of thing. Now Ezra certainly has an opportunity to prove himself. So I feel like we're in the infancy of real change."
Signs of progress
Fraser believes MLS’s hiring of Sola Winley as Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer in 2021 was a key decision, proof that the issue was being taken seriously.
“I don't think that there has been as dedicated an effort to create more equality, I don’t think that’s ever existed, really, before the last couple of years,” said Fraser. “With Sola being hired as the head of the DEI department of the league, I think it's the first time that that has become a focal point. It's always been a talking point. And there's always been – well, for as long as I can remember, there's always, maybe it’s an unwritten rule, may have been a written rule, that [clubs] interview at least one minority for jobs. And that was something that was in place for a long time. And clearly the feeling was that wasn't enough, if then they created an entire committee for it.”
As early as it is in the process, Fraser is heartened by signs of a shift underway since the 2020 murder of George Floyd sparked a wider reckoning about institutional racism in the United States and beyond.
“Sola is a really, really intelligent individual who took his time to really learn the league, and learn where he thought inefficiencies were and where he thought changes could be made,” said Fraser, who was born in Jamaica and emigrated to south Florida as a child before becoming one of the top defenders in MLS history over a 17-year professional career.
“With the policies now being in place, is it the policies, is it just happenstance? But Wilfried being hired, Ezra being hired, I think those are steps in the right direction. Obviously, Wilfried had a great year, and for that he's gone on to another club that presumably wanted him, paid him more money, had to pay [CF] Montréal to get him. So that to me is an example of everything I’ve said.”
"We just want equal opportunity"
Nancy’s story in particular is encouraging for Fraser, and proof that MLS clubs can reap benefits by applying a wider lens to their hiring processes. The Frenchman was largely unknown outside Quebec when CFM promoted him from an assistant’s role to succeed Thierry Henry when the latter returned to Europe just before the start of the 2021 season.
Yet Nancy led Montréal to the best campaign in their MLS history last year, earning a place on the shortlist for the Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year award and prompting the Crew to send an undisclosed but reportedly substantial compensation package to CFM in order to hire him as the successor to Caleb Porter in December.
“That’s a question I was probably asked the most in the first month after being hired: What about the diversity issue in terms of coaches? And I said no one wants a handout, no one wants to be given anything. We just want equal opportunity. That’s it. And Wilfried took his opportunity,” said Fraser, who first learned of Nancy when he himself was working as an assistant to Greg Vanney at Montréal's Canadian rivals Toronto FC.
“When Thierry left, there was this crisis. ‘Oh my God, Thierry's left, what's going to happen to Montreal? Oh, they're going to use their assistant coach, what's his name again? Who is he?’ That sort of thing. And what you find is that the guy's really good. He’s really good, and did really well in Montréal, so much so that he was now being sought after.”
For Fraser, Nancy’s ability to skyrocket from unknown academy coach turned assistant into such a hot commodity should prove to club executives that there is plenty of quality beyond the usual routes by which head coaches are identified and recruited.
“All you're trying to do is affect change in perception. If we can affect change in perception and more people get opportunities, then you might discover,” he said. “You might be looking over here, thinking this is the only place I can find a good coach. And if this policy makes you expand your search a little bit, and you go ‘oh, that’s a good coach, I wasn’t even looking over there,’ that's really the object of the whole thing.”