On Tuesday, which also marks the two-year anniversary of MLS hiring Sola Winley as MLS Chief Diversity Officer, the league announced the launch of "MLS Advance," a program designed to continue its diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] progress.
MLS Advance got underway late last year as a year-round professional development and networking program for diverse coaches and front office candidates aiming to join or lead an MLS Next, MLS Next Pro or MLS club. Forty-two percent of the inaugural class of candidates have already received job offers.
Among the former MLS players involved in MLS’s DEI work and the MLS Advance program is Darrius Barnes, who played for MLS's New England Revolution in 2009-2016 and in his rookie season was the league's only field player to play every minute in the regular season.
After finishing his career with the New York Cosmos of the new NASL in 2017, Barnes worked in the MLS marketing department for three years before joining Charlotte FC as Director of Business Operations in 2021. Barnes, a North Carolina native who played college ball at Duke, was named President of Charlotte FC's MLS Next Pro team in March 2022.
SOCCER AMERICA: When you came into the league, in 2009, were you aware of a lack of diversity or the landscape of diverse coaches and players in MLS, and American soccer in general?
DARRIUS BARNES: For me, coming into the league in 2009, it's just been fantastic to be a part of the league's growth and see the league through different stages of growth.
I grew up watching the league, followed it casually since it started in 1996 as a youngster and youth soccer player. I had the opportunity to play in the league at a different stage after it had gone through some ups and downs. I came in during a period of growth — Seattle came in and I got to play in front of those amazing fans.
The opportunity to play for New England, to stand there for the national anthem for my first game ever — it was a total full-circle moment.
Fast-forward a few years and I've retired but still had the opportunity to work at the league office and now for one of the league's clubs.
It's been really fantastic to see different facets of the league and to see it grow in these different respects, whether it be on the pitch technically, from a competition side, the quality of play now — I don't even know if I could play in today's game.
Commercially as well. Acquiring new fans, and the partnerships that the league is bringing in, and how we're engaging with the communities and seeing the different rituals that are being born through the sport. That's really what it's all about — it's a global game, and we're making our own version of it in North America.
SA: Your current work with MLS Advance — could you share your perspective on what this program is and how it's influencing aspiring coaches of color?
DARRIUS BARNES: It's an extremely important initiative. To just continue pushing the game and society forward. We all know how important the emphasis of diversity, equity and inclusion and just providing opportunities. That's the main thing at its simplest form.
Giving people opportunities to grow within the sport. We know that anyone who's gotten anywhere has gotten an opportunity from someone. Soccer at its purest form is a diverse game — that should be reflected in every single tentacle and every segment of our game — whether that's business ops standpoint, technical standpoint, fan standpoint. Diversity should be represented and celebrated throughout the collective game.
That's why I think it's an important initiative: to grow the game and bring people together.
Defender Darrius Barnes played for Duke in 2005-08. After captained the Blue Devils his senior year, he was picked by the New England Revolution in the third round of the the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.
SA: What about your involvement in the program? What did you take away from it?
DARRIUS BARNES: For me, it's doing my part on a club level. For me, I was given the opportunity to lead one of our MLS Next Pro clubs. For me, it's taking advantage of that opportunity. People of color have the capability to add value to this league and game.
It's not just on the field: a lot of people might look at people of color and see what they can bring from an athletic standpoint on the field. So I want to push that forward from a business standpoint, saying, 'We are more than athletes.' We are more than athletes and we can bring more to the game.
It's also about bringing the next generation up. Pulling other people forward and providing other opportunities for others to showcase themselves and let them succeed.
SA: How would you describe the MLS Advance program?
DARRIUS BARNES: So at the different marquee MLS events and with some shoulder programming as well, it's about providing opportunities and inviting those who may not be in the public eye or on the typical radars of MLS club leadership and executives. Just so that they know there's many candidates out there, because there is a lack of Latin and Black in coaching and executive leadership positions.
To provide the platform to bring these people together so that they can have real conversations — it's not just face value but it's about sitting down with sporting directors and presidents of clubs, leaders in the performance and medical space. Actually making these real-life connections — so that when there are openings and opportunities, these people are coming to mind.
Jobs come through the people you meet — it's all relationship based and we are in a very relationship-circulated business. Being able to provide those opportunities and that platform is what it's all about.
SA: When you look back on your transition out of the game, did you face obstacles finding work in the game? Did you wish you had this program to help you?
DARRIUS BARNES: It's both of those, really. Whenever you're transitioning and there's uncertainty, it's scary. Soccer was my identity for my whole life — when I retired, that was stripped of me. You got to reinvent yourself.
Luckily for me, I had relationships with people at the league office. And you have to leverage those to create new ones to get where you want to go. I'm not saying all relationships are transactional, it's far from that, but it's about having a genuine interest in people and understanding what they do and what options may come available.
It's funny enough, I was playing for the Cosmos in 2017 and I bumped into Calen Carr at a bar in New York City. He was doing content for the league office then. We had a conversation and he invited me to the league office to see the whole operation there.
That ultimately led me to my first role with the league in the marketing department. Fast forward a few years and now I'm helping to build an MLS Next team in Charlotte. I say all that to say, it's all about opportunities and meeting the right people and creating meaningful relationships with people because you never know where that can lead you.
MLS DEI overview
• In 2023, 57% of the league’s players are Black or Hispanic (compared to 36% in 2007, which is when MLS enacted its first diversity initiative).
• In 2023, 34% of the league’s coaches are Black or Hispanic (compared to 7% in 2007).
• Hiring of Black candidates has increased by 120% from August 2022 to November 2022.
• In February 2021, MLS appointed Sola Winley to the position of Executive Vice President, Commissioner’s Office & Chief Diversity Officer.
• In 2021, MLS updated and enhanced the Diversity Hiring Policy by ensuring the finalist pool for an open sporting position includes two or more non-white candidates, one of whom must be Black. Clubs must submit all details of vacant sporting positions into the Diversity Policy Portal (DPP). Teams that fail to follow the policy can be fined up to $100,000.
• Partnered with the National Black Bank Foundation in 2022, leveraging a $25 million loan from a syndicate of Black banks, marking the first time any sports league has participated in a major commercial transaction exclusively with Black banks.
• Prioritized diversity in the 2023-24 MLS Elite Formation Coaching License Program (EFCL) in partnership with the French soccer federation. Nine of the 25 candidates this year will come from underrepresented backgrounds.
• Launched MLS NEXT WellbeingNSoccer Culture Coordinators – an immersive 2-day coaching education program that supplies academy coaches and staff with tools to have informed conversations around DEI. Coordinators that complete the program then deliver trainings to their academy staff, players, and parents. Since 2022, 5,000+ Academy staff, players and parents have been trained by the first Culture Coordinators class.
• Started MLS All-Start Hometown Heroes Showcase to highlight innovative, diverse leaders positively impacting communities in MLS All-Star markets.