Brianna Pinto's young life has been shaped by several key influences.
Some – like national team player Crystal Dunn – look like her. Many – including her University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance – do not.
Pinto is grateful to all of them. But, as a Black woman, she knows the importance of seeing her own reflection when she looks at role models. “You believe what you see,” she notes.
Although she is only 21, Pinto is already paying it forward. For more than two years she’s been part of Voice in Sport. The program provides personal and group mentorship for girls and women, in a variety of sports.
Pinto has been paired with two girls, Chloe and Zoe. Both dream of playing for the U.S. women’s national team.
Pinto does too. She’s played on the U-23, U-20 and U-17 squads; reached the College Cup finals twice with UNC, and now will play in midfield for the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage. She has trained with the full national side. But she too is waiting for her first cap. “I’m going through the same learning curve they are,” she says.
Chloe and Zoe are “incredibly hungry for knowledge, and a competitive edge.” In Zoom sessions Pinto talks about training, recovery and nutrition. She helps them set goals, and advises on how to reach them. She refers often to her own journey – the lows as well as the highs. She inspires the girls. They, in turn, inspired her.
“Chloe and Zoe see themselves in me, and I see myself in them,” Pinto explains.
Sometimes, Pinto knows, social media can skew the impressions young people have of an athlete’s journey. “Instagram is a highlight reel,” she says. ‘You see the successes. You don’t see the failures, and the sweat. I’ve cried a thousand times. But I picked myself up. I talk to them about fighting through adversity, multiple times.”
Pinto’s mentorship style reflects her own mentors. Dunn’s dynamism has made a huge impact. So has Dorrance’s motivation, and his knowledge of what it takes to reach the top. Pinto’s family has played a huge role in her development too. Her father, Hassan, played at the University of North Carolina (and now plays pick-up “noonball” games with Dorrance). Her mother. Meleata, was a softball player at UNC. Her older brother, Hassan Jr., played soccer at Elon College, while her young brother, Malik, is now on the Princeton University team.
Those disparate influences underscore Pinto’s desire for the U.S. national teams to reflect people of all backgrounds. “Everyone plays soccer in this country. I’ve made some unlikely friendships, with people from all different backgrounds. We should have the most multicultural team in the world,” she says.
Hers is not just a voice in the wilderness. In 2020 she and four other young athletes – Harvard and U.S. women’s youth player Smith Hunt; Birmingham Legion and former men’s youth national team player Mikey Lopez, Para 7-a-side player Nick Mayhugh, and the Philadelphia Union’s Matt Freese -- ran for seats on U.S. Soccer’s Athletes Council. They called themselves “Next Gen United,” and had a clear platform: diversify the governing body’s age and culture. At the time, the Athletes Council had no Black members, and only one player born after 1990.
All five won.
As with Voice In Sport, the athletes’ platform is a place where Pinto can now see others who look like her – and work to draw even more in.
“We ran because we believe that all voices matter,” Pinto explains. “U.S. Soccer should reflect all the ages, socioeconomics, religions, sexual orientations and geographies of everyone who plays soccer in this country. And everyone who coaches and referees too.”
The Athletes’ Council – which now has 33.3% voting representation in U.S. Soccer, up from 20% before – has a “unique perspective,” Pinto believes. They are the direct representatives of the reason U.S. Soccer exists: to grow the game, and expand opportunities, for players. “No matter what you look like, or where you come are, you should have a place. We have incredible privileges and resources. But systemic inequities have kept people – like women, and people of color – from some opportunities. We’ve invested a lot so far. But there’s more work to do.”
As she helps do that work, Pinto makes sure to carve out time for Chloe and Zoe, her mentees. “I don’t have all the answers,” she says. “But I can help them make decisions, to guide them forward. If you reach for the stars, you may hit the moon.”
Just like Chloe and Zoe, Brianna Pinto has her sight set firmly on the stars.
Photos courtesy of the University of North Carolina