Edna Brewer Middle School students Rachel Sanchez (left) and Vivienne Manning, both of whom play on their school's soccer team, watch the Oakland Roots pro soccer team play during an evening home game at Laney College on April 30, 2022. (Annelise Finney/KQED)
There are plenty of reasons to like the Oakland Roots soccer team. Tickets are $20 a pop, and the games, at Laney College, are easy to get to.
The team also makes a point of celebrating the local community. At a recent game, the middle school and high school champions of this year’s Oakland Athletic League soccer playoffs were invited onto the field before kickoff and showered with applause from the crowd.
At a recent Roots game, members of Edna Brewer Middle School's girls' soccer team, who were being honored for winning the Oakland Athletic League championship, were thrilled to hear the news.
“For real?! No way. Oh my god! There’s really going to be one?!” shouted 11-year-old goalie Rachel Sanchez, as she sat with her teammates in the bleachers, watching the Roots' offense move the ball up the field.
“It has a really awesome connection to Roots,” said Jenna Lamb, Oakland Soul’s business development director, on the new team's name. “They're both intangible, things that you can't see. And obviously, Oakland has an incredible amount of soul in the culture, the arts and the people here.”
'Build the pipeline'
The team is now beginning the process of recruiting and selecting players.
“A good chunk of the roster will come from universities,” Lamb said, noting that the team’s preprofessional, amateur status means it will focus on developing the skills of advanced college players. According to the club, the team will have between 24 and 30 players on the roster, who will come from a combination of open tryouts and recruitment. University players will include locals who play for colleges outside the state and out-of-state residents who attend local colleges. “We're really lucky that, in the Bay Area, there are so many incredible top-tier universities in women's soccer super close,” Lamb said.
But that also means players on the team won’t receive any compensation. That’s typical for amateur teams, but for some fans of the Oakland Roots, whose players are compensated, having an unpaid women’s team is a point of contention — particularly in the wake of the recent high-profile fight waged by the USA women’s soccer team for pay equity.
"I don't think that's a message that we want to send to our young athletes,” said Reanna Couts, head coach of the Edna Brewer girls' team. “We want to send the message that they are just as important, just as talented, and deserve the same compensation as men.”
Lamb, however, points out that players on Project 510, the men’s preprofessional team — Oakland Soul's counterpart — are also unpaid. The decision to not yet create a professional women’s team in Oakland, she adds, boils down to the lack of available facilities.
“I think as anybody in the Bay Area is aware, land is hard to come by,” she said, noting that only two fields in Oakland — the Oakland Coliseum and the field at Laney College — meet professional soccer standards.
The Coliseum would be far too expensive, Lamb says, and the Laney field doesn't have the capacity to host another professional team.
“It would be sacrificing the quality of both teams to try and squeeze another professional organization in there,” she said. “There just isn't room.”
Lamb says that with a few changes, like more bleacher seating and lights, Merritt College's field could be developed to meet professional standards, assuming the college was on board.
In the meantime, she says, the club didn’t want resource limitations to keep female players off the field. “Starting a development team now allows us to get into the community and allows us to build the pipeline,” she said.
Business and activism
Oakland Roots club president Lindsay Barenz, who took the helm in January, is hopeful Oakland Soul could someday go pro if enough people show up to games and make it worth the investment to build a new facility.
The Roots club was founded in 2018 with the “purpose of using soccer to create positive social change,” Barenz said, noting that adding a women's team has long been a goal.
Women's soccer, she says, has taken off in the U.S. ever since the national women’s team won the World Cup in 2019.
“It finally became apparent to the owners of capital that [women’s soccer] was a worthwhile investment — not [just] an opportunity to make a contribution to the social good,” said Barenz, “but an opportunity to make money.”
Now, she says, there are more opportunities than ever before to build new professional women’s soccer teams. But even so, both Barenz and Lamb say they want to be careful how they proceed.
“There's this very storied history of women's teams, women's leagues in the United States collapsing because of growing too quickly or mismanagement,” said Lamb.
That has played out here in the Bay Area. The last two professional women’s teams — the San Jose CyberRays and FC Gold Pride — both folded after just three years.
'The full spectrum'
Those teams took with them the social benefit of having professional female athletes be local role models, Barenz notes.
“You can't be it if you can't see it,” she said. “We have to make young people realize that there's a wide range of opportunities for participating in sports. Young boys have always seen the full spectrum,” from weekend recreational league opportunities to professional teams.
“For a long time, we've only shown women and girls a part of that spectrum,” she said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark national law that expanded sports opportunities for women by requiring all federally funded schools to provide their students equal access to athletics, regardless of gender. The law is currently undergoing changes that would expand these protections to transgender athletes, in an effort to counter a series of new state laws that ban their participation in sports that match their gender.
In the half century since the law’s passage, participation in women’s high school and college sports has multiplied tenfold. That rate, though, still pales in comparison to involvement in men's sports, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations and the NCAA.
It’s a disparity that also plays out in many middle schools, including some in Oakland. This year’s citywide middle school soccer playoffs included eight teams in the girls’ bracket and double that in the boys’ one. Despite Title IX, funding is still more likely to go to boys’ teams, especially when resources are limited, says Edna Brewer’s girls’ soccer assistant coach August Spafford.
“It's a lot of the schools with more resources that have both,” he said. “It's the smaller schools that need the extra support that will often have only a boys' team.”
Barenz says high-visibility, high-skill women’s teams, like she hopes Oakland Soul will develop into, are important because they encourage young women to stick with sports, which can help put pressure on school districts to provide more team opportunities, and extend other benefits, like improved physical and mental health.
“There's also a lot of life lessons that we learn through team sports,” she said. “We learn leadership, hard work, teamwork and resiliency. Those are life lessons that can be challenging to learn, but they're very easy to learn through sports.”
Back at the Roots game, Edna Brewer soccer player Monrovia Prinz says she’s happy to hear about Oakland Soul, but also doesn’t mince words about it being long overdue.
“I feel like they should've done that first before the men's team, because that's what always happens, is that the men get what they want first,” she said.
Nearby, her teammate, Rachel Sanchez, is closely tracking the ball on the field. “There's not many teams for women and they don't get as much attention as men,” she said. “But now we're gaining our spotlight to show them the other side of the world.”
Oakland Soul will host an official launch party for the team at The Loom in Oakland on June 23. Tickets for that event and the deposits for the 2023 Oakland Soul soccer season are available on the team’s website.