Imani Dorsey, Ifeoma Onumonu are changing the NWSL from the inside

Imani Dorsey and Ifeoma Onumonu have been teammates in New York since 2020. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

NEW YORK — Imani Dorsey and Ifeoma “Ify” Onumonu were in a reflective mindset after helping adidas announce the signing of 15 female student-athletes to landmark NIL deals at the brand’s New York headquarters late last month.

The Gotham FC duo were impeccably styled for the outing. As mentors to the group of collegiate athletes, Dorsey and Onumonu participated in breakout sessions with the signees earlier that day before hitting the stage at night.

While coaching the young adidas athletes on their sports journeys, Dorsey and Onumunu had begun to meditate on their own.

“I think being a mentor is nice because it helps you reflect on your own experiences and reminds you of the perspective that you’ve gained from so many different things that you’ve had,” Dorsey said. “Sometimes I sit in the present and I’m completely forgetting how I got here and all the different experiences.

“It’s a give and take … we give a lot, but we’re also gaining just as much from talking with them and reminding ourselves that we’re still learning and growing in this process, too.”

“You start to appreciate yourself a lot more,” Onumonu chimed in.

Dorsey, 26, and Onumonu, 28, have much to appreciate as groundbreakers in the NWSL.

Lucrative NIL deals, like the ones they helped present at the adidas event, were not possible when Onumonu and Dorsey were in college, and transitioning into a professional career was anything but promised. In many ways, the duo represent the first generation of the NWSL, those players who competed without getting much in return, building toward a future where their rights would finally be protected under a collective bargaining agreement.

When Onumonu entered the NWSL in 2017, the league was in its fifth season and experiencing some serious growing pains. In her conversations with the college athletes, she tried to explain the sacrifices she had to make to fulfill her dreams as a soccer player.

“I kind of spoke to my experience of myself transitioning into this league, and it had such instability that the idea of even coming into it was a risk in general. If you could get in, that is,” Onumonu said. “I definitely had a rocky experience up until, even I would say, this point where I have been with Gotham for three years.”

Drafted by the Boston Breakers in 2017, Onumonu played her rookie season there before the club folded in 2018. She went to Portland in the 2018 Dispersal Draft and played in eight games before getting waived, and her future looking more uncertain than ever.

OL Reign offered Onumonu a shot at redemption, signing her as a National Team Replacement player in 2019. Her breakout performance as a relief striker earned her a spot on the full roster in June 2019. Months later, she was on the move again, dealt to Sky Blue FC (now Gotham FC) ahead of the 2020 season.

The 2021 season served as Onumonu’s breakout year. The forward notched eight goals and four assists in 21 starts with the club and earned a spot on the NWSL’s Best XI Second Team.

“I’ve been bounced around teams, I’ve been waived. And if I had known all of this would happen when I was younger, I don’t know if I’d choose it for myself, but I am grateful at the same time,” Onumonu said. “I never thought I’d be at that place where I am now, where I can say, ‘Wow, have I grown as a person? Wow, did this make me grow? Wow, did this make me step up to who I am?’ Because it just showed me how strong I am.”

Dorsey’s transition into the NWSL was more straightforward. Joining Sky Blue as the fifth overall pick in 2018, she had success right away, winning NWSL Rookie of the Year after registering four goals and one assist in 14 games. Off the field, however, the club had come under intense scrutiny for poor working conditions and a lack of adequate player resources. New ownership took over in 2019, spurring a movement toward the Gotham FC of today, which is now the most valuable team in the NWSL.

“I’m a vice captain on the team, but I am in my fifth year, so I have so much to learn, and I’m constantly learning from the people around me. We have so many incredible leaders and women on the team who’ve been through a lot,” said Dorsey. “I think that’s something that’s really special, but also probably a little unique to our league, too, because there’s just so much going on constantly. You just kind of feel like you take on a bunch of different hats because you have to.”

Dorsey, Onumonu and their NWSL peers have had to navigate sub-par working conditions and instability while simultaneously pushing for progress through the league’s 10-year existence. Those responsibilities reached a crescendo in 2021 after a series of reports of abusive behavior resulted in the firing of multiple coaches and general managers. Former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down amid the scandal. The watershed moment highlighted the league’s hazards, providing the NWSL Players Association an opportunity to ratify the league’s first-ever CBA and guarantee greater protections for the players.

These experiences informed Dorsey’s advice to her adidas mentees, with NC State forward Jameese Joseph revealing that the Gotham defender encouraged her to advocate for herself.

“The biggest insight I got from Imani was speaking up for yourself. As we transition from college to pro,” Joseph said. “If something doesn’t make you comfortable, then you should speak up for yourself.”

Ifeoma Onumonu hosts a mentorship session ahead of the adidas 50th anniversary of Title IX celebration. (Courtesy of adidas)

With the NWSL still in its infancy, and with plenty of shortcomings to work through, players like Dorsey and Onumonu have stepped up to create a league in their own image. Busy spearheading projects and guiding the NWSL off the pitch, the duo have aimed to make the sport a sustainable and healthy place for all athletes to not only survive but thrive.

That was the impetus, in part, for the establishment of The Black Women’s Player Collective, a non-profit organization created by the Black players in the NWSL to advance opportunities for Black girls in sport and beyond. The BWPC found an enthusiastic partner in adidas after collaborating with the company on the Black Players for Change project, which brought soccer fields to communities across America in an effort to mitigate inequality in the sport.

“I think a brand as big as adidas recognizing Black women in a sport where we haven’t had that recognition yet also just makes so much sense,” said Dorsey.

Dorsey and Onumonu were adamant about maintaining the BWPC’s vision after other competing brands approached the non-profit with the “bare minimum.”

“Even though we’re adidas athletes, before we were apprehensive of being part of a sports brand because of fear that sometimes with these big brands, they want to co-opt the movement, kind of lead it in a direction you didn’t necessarily want to go,” said Onumonu. “Then once you’ve signed on to them and whatever the contract looks like, they can start doing the bare minimum, and I think that was always our fear.

“With adidas, they came in like full force real quick. They have been supporting us, but they have really been there for us with major things, being very, very hands-on.”

Through the non-profit, Dorsey and Onumonu are focused on altering the face of professional soccer from the inside. The juggling of responsibilities has also prepared them for what has been a turbulent season on the pitch with Gotham FC.

The team has made sweeping changes since last year, losing star players Carli Loyd to retirement and Allie Long to maternity leave. Scott Parkinson also took over as head coach after Freya Coombe left for Angel City FC, and midfielder Kristie Mewis, defender Ali Krieger and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris joined the team in the offseason. All of that upheaval has taken a toll on the club.

At 4-7-0 with 11 games to play this season, Gotham has scored the fewest number of goals and conceded the second-most in the league for a goal differential of minus-11. Now 10th in the NWSL standings, Gotham is a far cry from the win-now, mini-super team many viewed the team to be ahead of the 2022 campaign. FiveThirtyEight forecasts Gotham’s playoff chances at just 11 percent, a figure the club will look to buck in the second half of the season.

“For me, I know it’s frustrating and infuriating because it’s like, yes, I’ve been here for a while, and I’ve seen this club grow and want to continue to see it grow, but I also have to recognize so much change has happened in a very short amount of time and sometimes it takes a little bit for change. The level you want to get to will still take some time,” said Dorsey. “I forget that Scott (Parkinson) is in his first year, like literally his first full season with us. We still have a very young, new coaching staff. They’re incredible, but it feels like everybody is learning together.”

Dorsey and Onumonu said the tumult, uncertainty and stress of last season’s reckoning also contributed to the overwhelming sensation of change.

“There’s ups and downs always in the season, and all we can do is just weather the storms and stick together and do the best we can and just trust in our coaching staff to lead us in the right direction,” Dorsey said. “That’s all we can do at the end of the day.”

Imani Dorsey and Ifeoma Onumonu participate in a mentorship panel discussion with other athletes at the adidas Title IX celebration. (Noam Galai/Getty Images for adidas)

While neither Dorsey nor Onumonu sugarcoats the club’s recent challenges, both see the team’s potential. When the squad’s off-field chemistry does coalesce, Dorsey says, “everybody’s going to know it.”

Onumonu rejoined Gotham this month after making a run to the semifinals of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations with her Nigerian national team and clinching a World Cup berth in the process. Nigeria’s campaign ended in a chaotic matchup against the hosts, in which two Super Falcons players were handed red cards, forcing Nigeria to play two down for 60 minutes.

Onumonu, though, has gotten used to being adaptable.

“I made a goals book for the beginning of the year, but I have learned now in my career that things don’t always go as planned, so it’s always having to readjust,” she said. “We’re at a turning point, so it’s like I have to decide now how much am I willing to give in order to get us to where we want to be.

“I can’t guarantee that the wins are going to come immediately, but that’s going to be my goal every game is that I have to give everything I have in order to get us to where we want to be.”

Looking ahead, Dorsey and Onumonu are empowered by their work off the field with BWPC, and humbled by their impact on the lives of the girls they’ve worked with.

On the pitch, in their unique position as young veterans, they have learned there are no sure things. Keeping their heads down, they’ll continue to stay the course.

“In this league, all I can really do is look at the next game,” Dorsey said.

Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.