Meet the women coaching NYU and UChicago men’s soccer and breaking gender barriers

NYU and UChicago’s men’s soccer coaches, Kim Wyant and Julianne Sitch, will make NCAA history on Friday by becoming the first female head coaches to face each other in men’s soccer.

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Kim Wyant is the first woman to be head coach of an NCAA men’s soccer team. (Image via NYU Athletics)

Ethan Rendon, Staff Writer

Under the Friday night lights at the Gaelic Park stadium in the Bronx, a seemingly mundane match between NYU and the undefeated University of Chicago men’s soccer teams will be a momentous one.

For the first time in NCAA history, both teams will be in a match coached by women. At the helms of NYU and UChicago are head coaches Kim Wyant and Julianne Sitch, respectively.

Wyant is a pioneer in her own right, as the first woman to be head coach of a men’s soccer team to make it to the NCAA tournament, and as a goalkeeper on the first U.S. Women’s National Team.

But when growing up in Miami in the 1970s, Wyant’s first love was not soccer — it was biking. More specifically, the freedom afforded to her by riding around town with friends to the 7-Eleven or to go play pinball in town. 

One day, her family visited a local motocross track and she was captivated by other kids racing BMX on iconic Schwinn Sting-rays. When Wyant got home, she quickly converted her bike, a playful pastime, into a competitive way to push the envelope — as one of the first girl BMXers in the nation.

“They were pedaling around this dirt track with paper plates tied to their handlebars with their numbers on it,” she said. “I thought, ‘That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’”

Although she was a multi-sport athlete all throughout high school, Wyant didn’t play organized soccer until her junior year. She said she was recruited by a coach who was looking for players at her school.

Wyant’s athletic ability translated perfectly as a goalkeeper and triggered a series of events that happened as a result of “ability, accident and meeting nice people,” she said. She went from a novice high school team to the best club team in the area, to playing at the University of Central Florida, to playing internationally on the inaugural U.S. women’s team.

I’m gonna take this one day at a time. I’m gonna take this one minute at a time — and I’m going to just go about stabilizing the team and helping them get through the season each day, each moment, and each practice.”

— Kim Wyant, NYU men’s soccer head coach

For Wyant, navigating winding roads to wondrous places did not end during her playing days. In the late 1990s while coaching at Florida Atlantic University, she fatefully met current NYU women’s soccer coach Michelle Canning, who walked into Wyant’s office and asked to be a volunteer coach.

Canning worked her way from assistant coach at St. John’s University and Seton Hall University, to her current job at NYU, which she began in 2011. After taking some time away for the birth of two children, Wyant asked to join Canning’s staff.

Later on, a job opened up at Adelphi University, just biking distance away from Wyant, which she said was a “slam dunk.” But she was a bit too certain of securing the job — she didn’t get it. 

At first Wyant was a little disappointed, but she chalked up the loss to being part of a larger journey. She thought that “something better is coming” for her. In 2015, that something came — in the form of a phone call from NYU Senior Associate Athletic Director Janice Quinn. Quinn explained that the prior coach quit one game into the season.

The team would not be in the position we are sitting in right now without her constant work and sacrifice that drives our success.”

— Alex Rovirosa-Illa, NYU men’s soccer co-captain, on Wyant’s coaching

Wyant was offered the job and the chance to become the first woman head coach of NCAA men’s soccer for multiple seasons — a fact she initially put on the back burner, instead focusing on building rapport with the players and recuperating the season. She said that if she hadn’t taken the job, the season would have been canceled.

“At that moment, I wanted to help because I’d been a player before,” Wyant said. “But I was also troubled — I can’t lie. I was also a little terrified because I was stepping into a really messy situation. And I knew that there potentially could be a lot of eyes on this going, ‘Oh, there’s a female coach taking over a men’s team.’”

Alex Rovirosa-Illa, a midfielder who is co-captain of the NYU team alongside Nicholas Suter, emphasized how integral Wyant has been to the team.

We are very happy and proud to be playing for her,” Rovirosa-Illa said. “The team would not be in the position we are sitting in right now without her constant work and sacrifice that drives our success.”

Sitch, the UChicago coach, a born and raised Illinoisan, had a more linear ascension. She played college soccer at DePaul University, professional soccer for the Chicago Red Stars and coached at various levels prior to her hiring at UChicago.

She mainly attributes her coaching style to the influence of strong players she knows or has played with — like Lori Chalupny and Kristine Lilly — as well as effective coaches both that she played and studied under. 

One of these coaches was Sitch’s predecessor, Pat Flinn, who encouraged her to apply for the job. On top of Flinn’s recommendation, UChicago students, whom Sitch described as “extremely motivated,” led her to return for multiple stints with the women’s team.

Flinn left behind a successful program that finished 16-6-1 and reached the NCAA Semifinals, leaving Sitch with the tough task of elevating the program to a higher level. 

Given that UChicago is 14-0 this season, it appears Sitch has done just that. She told WSN that she implemented a coaching style that ensures “players feel they can be themselves and grow, on and off the field.” Sitch said that she stresses creating a competitive environment where players can be themselves and maximizing everyone’s strengths.

UChicago senior defender Richard Gillespie said Sitch’s presence and philosophy has had a sizable impact on the team’s success this year. He said Sitch instilled, “a mindset focused on being gritty and working hard,” which has been validated by the team’s undefeated record.

He also noted that though some successful teams become complacent by the end of the season, Sitch has demonstrated the ability to keep the team engaged by fostering a healthy, internally competitive environment.

She has also done a tremendous job choosing a formation and tactics that play to the strengths of the players on our team,” Gillespie said.

Rovirosa-Illa said that he and the rest of the NYU team feel the same appreciation for Wyant.

I have always had the support and the care that I need to be successful on the field,” Rovirosa-Illa said. “Couldn’t have asked for a better coach to have here at NYU and she is for sure a reference for the sports world to have in terms of having women leaders in teams.” 

Though Wyant and Sitch’s paths leading up to the Friday night match may differ substantially, they will meet at the crossroads of college sports history. The two share the same love for the game, as well as the same goals of putting another win in the books and elevating their program’s futures. Wyant said she was originally intimidated by the optics of her coaching the men’s team. However, she decided to instead focus on what she could do for the players — for the team. 

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to take this one day at a time. I’m gonna take this one minute at a time — and I’m going to just go about stabilizing the team and helping them get through the season each day, each moment, and each practice,’” she said. “And that’s what we did. That’s what we did.”

Contact Ethan Rendon at [email protected]