Playing the Field: Soccer Boss JoAnn Neale Talks Career

After 20-plus years in her male-dominated industry, the MLS chief isn’t playing games.

A former soccer girl wonder and power lawyer, Major League Soccer president JoAnn Neale blazed a winding trail before leading the top boardroom in her male-dominated industry. On the heels of Women’s History Month and soccer season beginning, V sat down with Neale to talk about patience, tenacity and the sleeves-up approach to professional growth.

What got you into soccer?

Soccer was a big part of my identity growing up, but I’d also always aspired to go to law school. In 1994, while I was studying for the bar, I watched the U.S. [host the] World Cup [for the first time]; that was the year MLS was born. I remember saying out loud to my girlfriends that I would love to work there one day.

Clearly you passed the bar.

I [did] pass the bar! [I ended up] at one of the bigger law firms in the city, which was when I heard from a friend that Major League Soccer was looking for a lawyer, and to send my resumé! I was probably the only one crazy enough to leave a law firm job to come fleeing to MLS. But that’s how I started.

I was just reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming; she also studied to become a lawyer and later made a pivot. Interesting parallel! You’ve been at Major League for 20-plus years. What has kept you there for that long?

I like to keep it interesting, because my career has taken different paths. I was part of the legal department as well as others—the human resources department, administration, etc. In this time I was also having my kids, so I would come and go on maternity leave. [Each time] something [new] dropped in my plate that no one else really wanted, which kept it fresh and interesting.

Then I decided to pivot completely and go outside the legal area: I focused on social responsibility, which was an area that didn’t exist when I started in the League. We didn’t have the luxury of hiring people who specialized in different areas. So if you were doing a good job, more would get thrown on you. Everyone would just roll up their sleeves and get it done.

Speaking of social responsibility, can you tell us about MLS WORKS?

MLS WORKS is our social responsibility platform. We have national campaigns as well as local platforms, which helps our various clubs [serve] their diverse needs.

Was it difficult to rise up in a male-dominated industry?

In the beginning I struggled to be “one of the guys.” Growing up I was more of a tomboy, but now I wouldn’t say I’m either a girly girl or a tomboy. I’ve realized over time to just be me; that’s when I do the best work, as opposed to focusing on being something I’m not.

I think there were periods of feeling I wasn’t being [taken] as seriously because I was a woman. A man was never asked, “Are you going to come back from maternity leave?” I was a little bit naïve about having to work extra hard to show that I was committed.

Did you ever feel like you had to choose between your career and family?

It’s interesting because I grew up in a traditional household. And when I wanted to go into law, a lot of people said, “How are you going to do that and have a family?” If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to be like, “Well yes I am.” So I had to prove that I could do both.

With that being said, there were moments [I had to] pick and choose what to focus on. You need a support system at work and at home. And today, dual-worker households are more common, whether it’s because of changes in the norm or that the cost of living is so high that two people [need to work].

We’ve seen changes in our own organization. We pay family leave, and have seen more and more men taking advantage of it; we have more men “having babies” right now than women. I think that’s really good for women’s futures.

What advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Wear sunscreen! And be patient. Take a breath. I was very ambitious growing up and just wanted things to happen right away. [But] there are no shortcuts in life. You have to put in the time and work hard. Things will play out, so don’t stress so much.

And lastly, lipstick or lip balm?

Definitely lipstick. Don’t go out without it! I just tried this brand, Thrive, because it keeps coming up on my Facebook feed. So I said I would try it. It’s moist and it lasts. I like the mauve tones!

JoAnn Neale


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