By Jacob Born | February 3, 2021

In 2011, when accepting the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Preston Robert Tisch Award in Civic Leadership, tennis legend Billie Jean King said, “You have to see it to believe it.”

King was referencing Title IX specifically, emphasizing the importance of women seeing other women succeed, especially in sports. It was a small line in an hour-long speech, but one that held tremendous impact. 

Today, February 3rd, marks the Women’s Sports Foundation’s 35th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day, embracing King’s message and celebrating girls and women in sports while promoting a healthy lifestyle, inclusion, diversity and equality. 

King has always been a strong advocate for equality in sports. Recently, she became part of the majority-female led Angel City FC, a Los Angeles based NWSL franchise set to kick off in 2022. Of the 40 initial investors, more than 30 are female, including U.S. Women’s National Team members Shannon MacMillan and Angela Hucles, both of whom are dedicated to giving back to the sport that gave them so much and to the generations that follow them. 

MacMillan started playing soccer when she was five and enjoyed it immensely, mostly because of the halftime snacks. But as she grew older and colleges started to recruit her, she realized it was more than just something she could do with friends. 

“When I started playing rec soccer, I really just fell in love with it because all my friends were out playing,” MacMillan said. “I had the chance to be around all of them. And in fairness, I loved that you got snacks at halftime and a potential postgame treat and stuff like that. But probably my junior year of high school, when I started getting recruited a bit was when I actually realized it was a good way to get my college education taken care of.  It really wasn’t until I got to Portland and started playing for Clive Charles that I realized it could be so much more than that, beyond a playing career, but also the life lessons soccer afforded me.”

After a whirlwind recruiting period, where she nearly committed to a different school, MacMillan attended the University of Portland in 1992 under the tutelage of legendary coach Clive Charles. At Portland, where she was awarded the 1995 MAC Hermann Trophy and was a four-time All-American, she found the guidance and tools to be the best she could be on the field and off. 

“You know, I’m not shy to say that I owe who I am as a person, the many hats I wear today and what my career enabled me to do, to Clive,” MacMillan said.  “The overcoming obstacles, the leadership, that teamwork, the confidence, all that stuff came from Clive and the University of Portland.”

What she learned and experienced at Portland was at the center of MacMillian’s playing career. With the USWNT, she scored arguably the two most important goals in Women’s Olympic history during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, when she scored the game-winning goal in the semifinals against Norway and opened the scoring against China in the Gold Medal Game. She was a super-sub on the 1999 USWNT that won the Women’s World Cup in Los Angeles, which pushed women’s soccer to the forefront and inspired an entire generation of girls to take up the sport. In 2002, she was named the US Soccer Female Athlete of the Year. 

Macmillan was a founding member of the Women’s United Soccer Association, the world’s first women’s professional league where every player received a paycheck. In addition to being a founding member, she was even able to play for the San Diego Spirit, her hometown team. It was a dream come true. 

You know, it was a dream come true, especially for me being from San Diego and playing for my hometown,, to be a founding member,” MacMillan said. “For me, it was just an incredible experience to be able to say I’m playing professionally and being a part of that league.”

When it came time to hang up the cleats, MacMillan stayed true to herself when finding the next step in her career. Her playing experiences at Portland, in the WUSA and with the USWNT were all factors when she accepted the Executive Director position with the ECNL’s Del Mar Sharks

When I retired from the game as a player, I definitely went through that mourning period of just like, ‘What in the world do I do now,’” MacMillan said. “And as I really took time to think about it, all I could think about was Clive and the impact that he had on me, again, not just as a player, but as a person. And I just realized, you know, I need to give back to this game. It is so much more than the actual soccer on the field. Only a small percentage of players will go on to compete professionally and potentially for a national team, but it’s a larger percentage that are going to go off into the world. And how can we give them the tools to be confident kick-ass women?”

MacMillan said she wishes she had a league like ECNL growing up, because much like she did at Portland, the league gives athletes skills and abilities to be the best version of themselves, not just on a soccer pitch, but off it as well. Those values have been critical to her development as a player and a person, and that’s the only way she wanted to run her club if given the chance. 

“When I joined the Sharks, I said, ‘Look, if we do it, it’s going to be my way. I don’t care about results, or championships or trophies and medals. It’s really got to be about these kids and setting them up to have tools to succeed,’” MacMillan said. “And sure enough, they said, ‘Sure, come on down.’ And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really great people along the way since then. When I first started with the Sharks 12 years ago, it was a small semi-competitive club. And now we proudly offer recreation soccer all the way through ECNL, the top level for our players. I really am thankful for ECNL and all that it has afforded us as a club, from those players that go off to play collegiately, to those that play ECNL and then decide they want to focus on their studies. They’re gaining great tools to be change and difference makers in the future.”

Being a difference-maker and bringing change isn’t just limited to her involvement in ECNL though. It was also a major reason for getting involved with Angel City FC. All it took was one email and MacMillan was instantly in. 

President and Co-Founder, Julie Uhrman, reached out to Julie Foudy, our USWNT captain, and just said, ‘Hey, we want you guys. We want players to be involved,’” MacMillan said. “Foudy, of course, said, ‘Do you realize how many former national team players and actually “99ers” live in the SoCal area?’ And Julie (Uhrman) said let’s do it. So Foudy sent us all an email. I think there are about a dozen of us and just said, ‘Hey, great opportunity, you guys want to be involved?’ And we said absolutely. So you know, we’re a small piece of an incredible pie. And it’s great to be able to invest in the women’s game. At this level, it’s something I’d never thought we’d be able to be a part of, and to really just raise the bar. Just to make sure it’s about the community and making a difference for women athletes in general.”

When she helped found the WUSA as a member of the San Diego Spirit, MacMillan said she and the other players were like kids in a candy store; just excited to have a league of their own and to play the game they love. And now, she recognizes an opportunity to continue to build the next generation of soccer players and leaders. 

“I think the story of how a lot of former players became involved just speaks to the leadership of Julie Foudy, who will always be our captain along with Mia Hamm, and pulling us together with Natalie Portman, who is one of the driving forces of Angel City FC,” MacMillan said. “The group and the passion that’s behind Angel City FC, makes me so excited because we’re going to push the envelope, we’re going to continue to raise the bar. And I’m excited to see the other teams follow that mold. We’re already starting to see that in Carolina and Kansas City in the NWSL too. I mean, it’s women investing in women and making a difference.”

There are plenty of similarities in the paths MacMillan and Hucles took throughout their careers. Hucles also fell in love with soccer, and she too realized she had a major opportunity within the sport when she was being recruited to play collegiate soccer. But for her, the big moment was when she received a gift from her father; a VHS tape of the 1991 US Women’s World Cup team. 

My dad brought home a VHS tape and it was the ‘91 Women’s World Cup, the first Women’s World Cup event,” Hucles said. “And I saw the US team play and completely dominate. I was like, wow, this is awesome. My own country is sending a women’s team and winning. And to be able to see other females that were just as competitive, just as fierce, who love the game as much as I did, I definitely resonated with that.”

That tape was a major influence on her both on and off the field. On the field, Hucles attended the University of Virginia, where she set numerous records for the school, and eventually graduated to playing more than nine seasons professionally while also winning two Olympic gold medals and finishing third at the Women’s World Cup as a part of the USWNT. Off the field, that tape gave her the confidence to be a role model for those coming after her, but it wasn’t something that she realized until her career was winding down. 

When I was younger and trying to chase that dream and goal of making the US team, it wasn’t necessarily as conscious, being a role model,” Hucles said. “I always heard, when you’re a professional athlete, you’re a role model. I don’t think I really understood that fully until I got towards the end of my playing career, and especially being a woman of color, and especially now, just taking that to a whole other level. Really being a part of the culture of the US Women’s National Team, that’s when I started to learn that what we did mattered, and the power of the group, doing things together to push positive causes or to create greater impact through the sport and the platform of soccer.”

Hucles continues to be a role model, even after retiring from playing professionally. She serves as a broadcaster for ESPN, Fox Sports and NBC and is a commentator for LAFC games. She gives numerous Ted Talks and keynotes leadership workshops. But perhaps most importantly, Hucles has been involved with the Women’s Sports Foundations for years, highlighted by her serving as the organization’s President from 2015-2017.  

I think I’ve been involved with the foundation for a couple decades now,” Hucles said. “I think just the alignment of values and mission of the foundation was pretty much the exact same of what I had intrinsically. So it was just an easy, easy decision, and easy to be a part of the organization and to continue to support them to use sports as a powerful tool to help young girls and women be active. Because those opportunities haven’t historically been there, for girls and for women. For me, it was easy to make that decision to support and I treasure my time in those positions.”

And much like MacMillan, when she got the email for Angel City FC, it was an immediate yes. 

It’s, it’s extremely special,” Hucles said. “I think when I first decided to become an investor, I felt differently than I do now. I think my love for Angel City has grown on a daily basis, and it already started pretty high. Just to see the intentionality about creating an organization that leverages the amazing tool of sport and a platform of soccer, but to be an impact organization too. Being able to do great things in the community to use a platform to leverage the voices, whether it’s women, people of color, LGBTQ community, this organization is setting kind of a new standard of what it could be and mean to be a soccer organization, a professional soccer organization but also for women. And to be able to do this with former teammates, is definitely unique and special. 

Both MacMillan and Hucles are laying the groundwork for the next wave of girls and women in sports. They’re doing it not because of recognition, but because that’s what was done for them when they were younger. And they want the next generation to be able to dream and achieve anything they want, with no barriers or roadblocks in the way. 

For me it’s knowing that I still had a lot of opportunities, and I still had privilege in some respects, even as a black female, Cuban descent, LGBTQ family,” Hucles said. “I call myself the triple threat and I turn these things that used to be like negative connotations into something quite powerful. I think I’ve just kind of taken that upon myself to say, ‘How can we do more for others? How can we make a positive change and impact on this world, especially for people who look like me or feel like they don’t have a voice? How can we make sure that everyone feels seen in this world?’ I just think it’s something that’s critical and important to do.”

To learn more about National Girls and Women in Sports Day, click here. If you have tips or story ideas, please contact Jacob Born at jacob@theecnl.com