Former FIFA executive Mary Harvey on gender equity progress in U.S. soccer and worldwide

Former United States women’s national soccer team player Mary Harvey, who went on to become a U.S. Soccer Federation board member and administrator at FIFA, spoke at the 2018 United Soccer Coaches convention in Philadelphia.

On the last big day of the United Soccer Coaches convention, the spotlight shone on a forum with the eight candidates in the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election. The crowd was so big that organizers had to shut the doors and leave some people outside.

A few hundred feet away at the same hour, two former U.S. women’s national team players were starting a seminar. The crowd was so small that the speakers ditched the podium, moved a few tables together on the floor, and that was enough.

One of the players was Lori Lindsey, who won 31 caps for the U.S. national team (including one at the 2011 World Cup) and played for the old Philadelphia Independence. Lindsey is one of only four people to take the field in all three pro women’s soccer leagues in the modern era.

The other player might be less well-known to current fans. Mary Harvey was the starting goalkeeper on the 1991 U.S. team that won the first Women’s World Cup, and won an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. on home soil in 1996.

In more recent times, she has become a very influential soccer administrator. She spent 12 years on the Federation’s board, including five on the Federation’s executive committee, and helped establish the current Athletes’ Council.

Harvey ran FIFA’s development division from 2003 to 2008. Among many accomplishments, she secured equal pay for the female employees in that part of the organization and helped launch FIFA’s under-17 Women’s World Cup. She later served as chief operating officer of Women’s Professional Soccer, the league in which the Independence played. Last year, U.S. Soccer gave her the Werner Fricker Award, the organization’s highest honor for soccer administrators and builders.

Now, she is part of the North American 2026 World Cup bid team. She also continues to champion gender equality in global soccer, often working with former FIFA executive committee member Moya Dodd of Australia.

In other words, Harvey has actually done many of the things that the candidates for the U.S. Soccer presidency wish to do should they be elected. So when the opportunity arose to hear her speak on fighting for gender equity in global soccer — and to ask her a few questions afterward — it was worth taking. Even if it meant skipping one of the highest-profile events of the convention.

While many people in the American soccer community shout to the heavens about the domestic game’s flaws, she still sees positives. Not at the expense of the negatives, to be sure. But as she noted, questions about what to do with U.S. Soccer’s $150 million surplus couldn’t be asked if the surplus hadn’t been built up in the first place.

“It’s a high-class problem if you have money and now you’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to spend it,” she said. “I just want the institution to continue to prosper and do well, and be inclusive and diverse. … I think there’s an opportunity now to do a lot of listening about how we can do better.”

She talked specifically about wanting “to see more Latina girls be playing in this country and also Mexico, and finding ways to appeal and break down barriers to help other people make that happen.”

Harvey isn’t backing any of the election candidates, not least because a few of them have roles with the World Cup bid. She also made it clear that it’s a matter of principle. But several candidates have reached out to her for advice, and she has been happy to offer it.

“I just give them as honest [answers] as I can,” she said. “I care about the Federation. I always have. This is also about — we’re a steward of the game in the United States, but we’re also competing. So it’s about performance, and it’s also about inclusivity.”

She has seen an improvement in diversity within the Federation’s ranks. She would like to see more.

“More diversity and inclusion leads to better decisions, and I’d love to see our Federation looked at as best practice when it comes to being diverse and inclusive from top to bottom,” she said. “There have been some hires of some senior women at U.S. Soccer, which is terrific, and I hope that things continue along that path.”

Mary Harvey was the 2017 winner of the U.S. Soccer Federation's Werner Fricker Award, given to important builders and administrators in the sport.
Camera icon Courtesy of U.S. Soccer and ISI Photos
Mary Harvey was the 2017 winner of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Werner Fricker Award, given to important builders and administrators in the sport.

Some people within the U.S. soccer community wanted Harvey to run for president. Many insiders and outsiders surveyed by the Inquirer and Daily News during the coaches’ convention believe Harvey could have won the election. There is little doubt that her resume stands up to the task.

Harvey said she thought about running, but decided against it

“Really, I enjoy making change happen from the inside, so I’m probably at my best when I’m doing that,” she said. “I like rolling up my sleeves and doing it.”

She acknowledged being “an introvert by nature.” It fit with the afternoon’s aesthetic, in a way, as she held forth while most attention was cast elsewhere.

“I sort of reluctantly do public things,” she said with some humor. “It takes me out of my comfort zone to do stuff like that. I like helping to drive change, though … particularly if it involves bringing people along who you have to have in order to make it happen.”

The president of the U.S. Soccer Federation is one of those kinds of people.

“Everybody has a different role to play,” Harvey said. “I think that possibly, the next president of U.S. Soccer will be not the person who rolls up their sleeves and is doing that, and maybe that’s the kind of president that the membership wants to elect. Everyone contributes in a way that makes sense to them, I think, and I’d love to make a contribution in a way that makes sense for the institution and also me personally.”

No matter who wins the election, her voice will be worth listening to.