Like a Girl is creating community role models and new pathways to collegiate soccer

Photos by Chris Duke

Jen Larrick played Division I soccer at the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida. To reach that elite point in her soccer career, she relied on not only her supreme talent but also the support of her white, upper-middle-class parents to pay for and cart her around to club soccer practices and games, which supplemented her high school soccer career in the offseason.

College soccer spots in the U.S. are offered almost exclusively to those deeply engrossed in year-round soccer—an expensive and time-consuming commitment that is disproportionately accessed by white, suburban players above a certain income level.

Larrick, a queer 25-year-old, witnessed this opportunity gap while coaching the JV soccer team at Como Park Senior High in St. Paul. A majority of girls who play soccer at Como Park do not play club. “High school soccer is pretty accessible because the participation fees are relatively low,” Larrick says. “The mismatch in accessibility to play soccer is the rest of the year.”

Jen Larrick // Photo by Chris Duke

Jen Larrick // Photo by Chris Duke

Larrick, Risa Luther, and Kyle Johnson met while holding girls soccer coaching positions at Como Park. The three felt an urge to not only give these eager high school players some offseason field time but also access to the collegiate soccer “system” by inviting college coaches to scout players.

“These girls deserve to play and space to play, and they’re not getting that in the way they should,” says Luther, a 24-year-old queer and multiracial Macalester College graduate. Luther played soccer as a goalkeeper at both the high school and college level. “They’re able to play; they show up to play, but they were getting kicked off the fields by the boys time and time again, and it’s very frustrating.”

Like a Girl—now a nonprofit—provides weekly space for girls to play soccer or futsal (a style of indoor soccer), equipment scholarships, a low-cost college showcase tournament, and more. Johnson has since left the organization, and Like a Girl is now run by Luther, Larrick, and a board of directors including Karen women from the community. Larrick says about 75 percent of Like a Girl players are Karen, an ethnic group native to the border of Myanmar and Thailand. The initial participants were mostly girls from Como Park, but through word of mouth and social media, players from area high schools like Washington Technology Magnet and Roseville Area High School joined as well.

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Girls playing futsal (a style of indoor soccer) in the Like A Girl program // Chris Duke

Girls playing futsal (a style of indoor soccer) in the Like a Girl program // Chris Duke

On Thursday evenings, an average of 40 soccer enthusiasts from age 13 to around 18 gather to play futsal at the gymnasium inside the Rice Recreation Center in St. Paul. The energy is palpable.

“People are happy and no one gets mad. Guys can be aggressive with each other when we’re not here,” says Mu Chee, out of breath on the sidelines one Thursday night in January. Chee is a junior who plays forward on the varsity team at Como Park, where she’s scored 50 goals in two years. She has been involved in Like a Girl practically since its genesis.

Boys are allowed at Like a Girl—but under specific circumstances. If girls invite boys, then they’re counted as safe. It’s about allyship. Luther and Larrick will bring the boys together at the beginning of each session to remind them that they’re there to support the girls. The boys are discouraged from dribbling up and down the court and scoring goals. Instead, it’s their job to pass and set the girls up for success.

“There are more girls, so when the boys don’t play in an inclusive way, the girls let them know,” Larrick says. Around 10 boys come to each practice. “Having more girls shifts the whole tone of the space. They dribble more. They laugh more. They talk more.”

Tara Gautam is a junior at Roseville. She picked up soccer just two years ago but has already proven talent and impressive potential. Paper slips with handwritten motivational quotes about success and positivity are taped to the back of her iPhone case.

“Playing for school, I have to act a certain way to fit in,” Gautam says. “But this feels like home.”

Like a Girl hosts what they call the College Showcase every July. Players put together around seven or eight teams and compete against one another in front of college coaches from D-I, D-II, and D-III schools, as well as community colleges. Some 250 to 300 girls participate and several have been offered spots on college teams by coaches who attended College Showcase.

Risa Luther // Photo by Chris Duke

Risa Luther // Photo by Chris Duke

“The coaches are like, ‘Wow, these girls can really play,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s the point,’” says Luther.

Essential to the mission of Like a Girl is centering the girls above all else.

“[Larrick] and I are happy to be there and run the show from behind, but neither of us wants to be the voice,” Luther says. “It’s not about us. We grew up in the system, and we want the girls to have a chance to be their own voice.”

To that end, board member Hannah Jones has developed a soccer coach education
program for Like a Girl, one similar to her previous work for the St. Paul–based Sanneh Foundation—paying girls who are already involved to be coaches, and ultimately making the program self-sustainable and community-led.

“I am not the best person to meet them where they’re at and understand their lived experiences,” Larrick says. “We want them to have their own older female Karen soccer players and coach role models.”

Larrick, a queer woman, and Luther, a queer woman of color, both understand the feeling of being othered in general, but more specifically within the sports and soccer world. Though experiences differ, they draw on this to connect with the Like a Girl players and make decisions about the organization’s mission and future.

“In the same way that I want and need and crave straight allies or male allies in my life, the Karen girls need support from outside their communities,” Larrick says. “They need white allies and they need allies who have more connection to social and financial capital in the local community. If Like a Girl can help them deeply internalize a feeling of belonging more in soccer in America, then we’re doing our job.”