'Next Gen United' players run for U.S. Soccer Athlete Council to inspire younger generations

North Carolina junior Brianna Pinto looks to put more people of color in head-coaching positions. David Aliaga/MB Media/Getty Images

Five players representing experience across a variety of men's and women's national teams are running for open positions on the U.S. Soccer Athlete Council in what they say is a bid to bring American soccer closer to the federation's "One nation, one team" marketing slogan.

Calling their collective campaign "Next Gen United," Matt Freese, Smith Hunter, Mikey Lopez, Nick Mayhugh and Brianna Pinto announced their candidacies Thursday. The announcement came a day after the nomination process opened for November's election, which will fill 10 of 20 places on the council made up of players who have represented the U.S. in some capacity.

"We are living through a historical moment in our nation, with coronavirus impacting our ability to play soccer and widespread demonstrations for racial injustice in America sparking the necessary conversations across our nation," Hunter told ESPN. "We really believed that in order to meet these current challenges, U.S. Soccer needs 21st century perspectives and our generation deserves to be heard.

"So we think that we need younger voices on the council to make it more representative of its players."

Required by the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, the Athlete Council describes its own purpose as serving as a communications intermediary between athletes and U.S. Soccer and reporting the needs of athletes to the federation's board of directors. Along with that advisory mandate, the Athlete Council has a say in electing the president of U.S. Soccer -- currently accounting for 20% of the overall vote but increasing to 33% depending on legislation recently passed by Congress, the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic and Amateur Athletes Act.

Although the federation's next presidential election is scheduled for February, with former U.S. women's national team star Cindy Parlow Cone the incumbent after replacing former president Carlos Cordeiro following his resignation this past spring, the Athlete Council's increased voting strength isn't expected to take effect until after 2021.

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Although somewhat convoluted, eligibility for the Athlete Council (and the pool of voters) comes down to anyone who played or was in camp with any national team in the past two years or anyone who played or was on a roster for a major championship in the past 10 years.

U.S. Soccer doesn't keep detailed records of previous nominations, but sources told ESPN it is uncommon that individual candidates, let alone a collective group, actively campaign. Voters are informed of their eligibility and the nomination process via email, but elections have rarely been hotly contested.

That was Pinto's experience as the lone member of the "Next Gen Five" who was eligible to vote in a past council election. The junior at North Carolina, who trained with the senior national team while still in high school and represented the country across most youth levels, recalled simply voting for names she recognized.

"I didn't have an understanding of what I was voting for [last election]," Pinto told ESPN. "And we want to change that this year and make it something that everybody is passionate about."

American soccer players, particularly on the women's side, have been vocal advocates for change within the federation and society as a whole in recent years. But the voices, running a gamut from Megan Rapinoe to current Athlete Council member and NWSL Players Association president Yael Averbuch, have generally been established veteran, even retired, players.

Spanning the range of a younger generation from Hunter, 18, and Pinto, 20, to Lopez, 27, the Next Gen Five aspires to extend that voice and influence to the generation now coming through the ranks and utilizing the power available to the council to work within the system.

"Our main goal if elected is to really work with the federation and make it better reflect the soccer-playing population in our country and foster closer ties across athletes," Hunter said. "Our platform really calls on dismantling the existing financial and structural barriers to playing soccer right now. One of our first priorities was to expand access to opportunities for soccer players across the nation. Personally, as a lower-income athlete, I feel like I have a unique perspective on this, and it makes me particularly passionate about this aspect of our platform. From a young age, I've always had to find ways to fundraise or pay team fees to attend tournaments that ultimately allowed me to be scouted for the youth national teams."

Hunter, a Harvard freshman whose first college season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, recalled she and her sister selling bottles of water on the Seattle waterfront or boxes of cookies in Pike Place Market to try to come up with the money needed to play the sport at a level that would catch the eye of entities like the Ivy League and U.S. Soccer.

"I can't even imagine the amount of talent that's out there in the U.S. just waiting to be found," said Hunter, who played for the U.S. in the under-17 Women's World Cup and is currently a member of the under-20 national team.

The block of candidates has collective objectives, such as annual summits for members of all national teams and standardizing terminology across the strata of national teams. But each of the five candidates also comes from a different background and offers a different perspective. Currently a goalkeeper with the MLS' Philadelphia Union, Freese, 22, hopes to raise the profile of homegrown players, the increasingly prevalent demographic in men's soccer of players attached from an early age to development academies of professional teams.

Mayhugh, a member of the Paralympic national team who didn't know those opportunities existed until he was in his 20s, seeks to raise the profile and funding of the extended national teams.

Like Hunter, Lopez struggled to afford high-level club soccer growing up in small-town Texas. And even when he did, he found himself frustrated looking at national teams that often lacked a Latino presence on the field and certainly among the staff. As one of the top prospects for a senior women's national team that still lacks many women of color, Pinto also struggled with playing on teams with players or coaches who looked like her.

"We want to see more people of color hired to head-coaching jobs," Pinto said. "In my experience with the youth national teams, I've never had a head coach that was a minority. And that was challenging because you always want to see somebody that looks like you in a position of authority because it helps more youth players envision themselves rising to those positions one day."

All five candidates who spoke with ESPN agreed that theirs isn't intended as an insurgency campaign or a repudiation of the current council members. Mayhugh, for instance, talked over his ideas about running with current Athlete Council president and Paralympian Chris Ahrens.

"We want to be a resource to the current Athlete Council and assist their current efforts, because I feel like we provide perspective that they don't have right now," Pinto said. "We hope to inspire the next generation to think about how they can help their teammates or even younger generations."

Voting is scheduled to begin Nov. 5 and close Nov. 19.