Young coach Zunyi Miller is forging her path in the game she loves with the assistance of New Mexico United's Diversity Fellowship. | Photo courtesy New Mexico United
From almost the moment she started kicking a ball around in her adopted hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Zunyi Miller knew that eventually, she wanted to become a coach.
“I've been playing since I was three,” she said recently. “I've always loved soccer and so I wanted to become a coach.”
As part of New Mexico United’s Diversity Fellowship program, into which Miller was accepted last December, she’s on her way to achieving her goals.
Having earned her USSF ‘D’ License last summer, the Fellowship arrived at an ideal moment for Miller’s development. Awaiting the opportunity to enter the ‘C’ License program – candidates are required to have held a ‘D’ License for a minimum of 12 months before they can apply for the next course on the development ladder – Miller has received access to all United’s resources and the extensive opportunities to observe and learn from NMU Head Coach Zach Prince and his staff this year.
From the start, the welcoming atmosphere and on-field intensity that surrounded United’s First Team was illuminating.
“That’s really a unique experience for me, especially as a new coach, to get accepted,” said Miller. “It was great seeing first-hand what training was like, how they prepare for games, how they get ready on gameday, very intense. Even the practices were very intense, which I loved.”
As important for Miller were the stories and insights Prince and his staff shared with her on their own pathways, and how they’ve achieved success in the coaching ranks. In particular, Miller appreciates the connection she’s made with United assistant coach Masaki “Mac” Hemmi, whose coaching path began at the same level as her own, leading players taking their first steps in the game.
New Mexico United first assistant coach Masaki "Mac" Hemmi (right) has proven an invaluable influence in Miller's Diversity Fellowship alongside Head Coach Zach Prince. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
“He started with little kids, and then he grew into older players, and then professionals,” said Miller. “It’s just really nice to learn and see it doesn't matter the pathway. As long as you’re continuing to work and striving for that goal, you can make it.”
There was never any question Miller was going to be involved in sports. Adopted as a baby and brought across the Pacific Ocean from her native China by her mother, Linda, she was part of an extended family that played all manner of sports, including soccer, tennis and badminton.
The collective nature of soccer – with its emphasis on teamwork, supporting and pushing each other to be the best – was what drew Miller in. There was also the social aspect of the game, forming bonds between teammates from different backgrounds and nationalities that went well beyond the field.
When she attended her first live professional game as a seven-year-old when the United States Women’s National Team came to Albuquerque’s University Stadium for a late-year exhibition against Mexico in 2007, it cemented those concepts in Miller’s mind.
“That was my introduction to women’s soccer, and just soccer in general,” said Miller. “It was really fun, just seeing it live, you know?”
At the same time, with her Asian background, Miller often cut a distinctive figure on the field.
“I knew I was different, obviously,” said Miller. “A lot of the teams I was on were mainly white, and I always stood out just by my ethnicity, but [my family and friends] taught me to be strong and not care about that. It doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s about who you are on the inside. And obviously, when I did play, my skill showed, so that was really fun.”
As Miller became accepted among her peers, the combined ideas of representation and self-determination were among the reasons why she wanted to become a coach one day.
“Some of my teams were diverse, which was really nice,” said Miller. “I was able to see someone that kind of looks like me, where it’s not all one-sided. Sometimes that’s intimidating, especially at a young age. You’re like, ‘am I supposed to look like this, am I supposed to act like this?’ But in the end, it’s just about being who you want to be.”
Coaching has also proven a path for self-improvement for Miller. A shy youngster who had an aversion to being the center of attention and public speaking, she’s now more comfortable in the spotlight as she puts her teams and players through their paces in training and games.
“I was very quiet,” she said. “Even my first practice, I had another coach and said, ‘you’ll lead. I’ll follow your lead.’ But now I can take charge and just get my own group ready, get them running on the drills. Just a little more confident, which is great.”
That confidence has continued to grow as part of the Diversity Fellowship. Celebrating the second anniversary of its launch this month, the program has been a prime example of the approach the New Mexico United has taken in building opportunities in the state.
For Miller, the experience and connections she’s gained – say nothing of the public visibility that has come with being part of the program – have been invaluable. It’s a concept she’d encourage other clubs to undertake in their communities.
“It provides a great opportunity for people to learn first-hand coaching and front office operations as well from a professional soccer club,” said Miller. “It’s different because it’s professional. Everything is top-notch, from training to preparation to gameday. It’s also very valuable to be able to watch and learn from professional coaches, and just see what they’re like during trainings sessions. The intensity level is way different than anything I've experienced.”
Its not hard to envision a day in the future when Miller is working on the sidelines either in the USL Championship or the USL Super League. The growing numbers of women in the coaching ranks in leagues like the NFL and NBA have provided inspiration as Miller pursues a pathway that could just as easily see her coaching in the men’s professional game as the women’s.
As she continues to build that pathway, Miller believes this experience will be one she will be able to look back on as a crucial building block on the way to her long-term goals.
“Having these professional connections, once you go through your journey, you can look back together and be like, ‘Oh, look, this is where we started. This is how we were, you helped me, and this experience helped me grow and become a better person and coach,’” said Miller. “And they can look back and just enjoy it.
“With the girls I coach now, they can see a young woman coaching and think, ‘if we want to be coaching in the future, we can do it too.’ There's no limit.”