Women's History Month Stories: How club athletic trainers, dietitians lift MLS NEXT Pro players, teams to new heights

Celebrating Women’s History Month

An ACL injury halted Sara Kusner’s playing career, sidelining her for her whole high school senior season. However, she didn’t know that the time she spent in the training room would lead to a fulfilling career.

Kusner enjoyed learning more about athletic training through the experience, and it hatched the career she enjoys today. She serves as the athletic trainer for Columbus Crew 2.

“I just fell in love with it and I wanted to kind of stay in this pro soccer world,” Kusner said. “I think it was a childhood dream that kind of turned into reality later on.”

In recognizing the contributions of women to the league and the progression of its players during Women’s History Month, MLS NEXT Pro sat down with club athletic trainers and dietitians to discuss their role behind the scenes, women’s presence in the sport and league, and progress made by women in the beautiful game as a whole.

Some of the most inspiring women in MLS NEXT Pro contribute to the fitness, recovery, and nutrition of more than 900 players across the league.

Sara Kusner

Hard-fought opportunities for women in sports have expanded through landmark moments such as the passing of Title XI in 1972 and, more recently, the U.S. women’s national team’s achievement of equal pay from the U.S. Soccer Federation.

However, women continue to face challenges such as lack of representation, unequal pay, and lacking opportunities for career advancement compared to their male counterparts. Only about 40 percent of women in sports administration agreed their organizations were fair and equitable, and women in sports were more likely than peers in other sectors to feel they needed to leave their current organization to realize career goals, a 2023 McKinsey survey reported.

North Texas SC athletic trainer Payton Price became the club’s first woman athletic trainer and one of only three women athletic trainers among major men’s pro sports teams in Texas when she joined in 2023.

“I think it's great that we're starting to see more and more women in MLS NEXT Pro,” Price said. “We have women here in our academy and our first team, not exactly on the athletic training staff, but as we continue to grow. And I just think it's cool to see. And I'm just happy to be a part of that driving force to having more women and Black women in professional sports.”

Athletic trainers ensuring safety, guiding recovery

Kusner has benefited from strong representation by women throughout her career, working with other women in athletic training since she graduated from Ohio State University in 2020.

At the MLS NEXT Pro level, education about nutrition and injury prevention is as important as effective techniques and preparation to prevent and treat injuries. Kusner keeps her focus on the whole player, keeping in mind how many players arrive at Crew 2 with diverse backgrounds and life experiences.

“I love to kind of think about it as a holistic approach,” Kusner said. “So not just … Can you run, can you kick a ball? But, how are you as a person? How is your emotional health? How is your mental health? With a lot of the younger athletes, too, it's thinking about maybe they're away from home and they're not with their parents every day or they live in a host family. How do we help give them support, especially when they're injured and going through a tough time? So it's just giving them resources, talking with them, getting to know them.”

Similarly to Kusner, Price got involved with athletic training through her own athletic career in soccer and gymnastics.


At North Texas, Price and the staff put emphasis on mobility of the hips, knees and ankles with a focus on preventing injury. The knowledge she can impart to players empowers them to overcome setbacks. That can significantly affect the team’s dynamic.

“I think a lot of it has to do with our knowledge base, what we bring to the table with the prevention aspects of emergency medicine,” Price said. “I think we have such a vital role in keeping the team healthy with communication as well. We are kind of that middle point sometimes between the players and the coaching staff. And so I think we just do so much.”

As a woman making a difference in MLS NEXT Pro, Price said takes a lot of inspiration from the strong women in her family such as her mother, aunt, and cousins. She is inspired by the number of women she sees working in all sectors of soccer, and hopes to serve as an inspiration for more women to become involved.

“I think it's really important that we continue to recognize women in every field all over the world,” Price said. “Women do so much in our society that goes unnoticed in my opinion. I just think it's really important that we continue to highlight the work of women in pro sports as we're continuing to talk about. And just to show everyone that we are just as important and just as good as our male counterparts and that we can do the same job if not better.”

Club dietitians educate, accommodate players


Young athletes all over the world have access to information through social media, and information about diet, nutrition, and physical wellness doesn’t always filter to them from verified, reliable sources. Fad diets, questionable nutrition tips, or dangerous body image standards can come from social media just as easily as well-established factual diet tips.

At Crown Legacy and the Charlotte FC academy, dietitian Katie Best promotes education about nutrition using TikTok or Instagram videos. She embraces social media, showing players videos they can use to learn more about nutrition concepts, and pointing out false or misleading information.

“I usually include a TikTok video or an Instagram reel on whatever topic we're talking about. Sometimes, it is real, accurate nutrition information and sometimes it is completely inaccurate stuff from social media,” Best said. “So that is part of the education piece for us is helping them identify accurate information. Is this something I can trust? And even if it's accurate and something I can trust, is it relevant to me as an athlete and a high-level athlete at that?”

At Columbus Crew, dietitian Kyla Cross maintains a similar perspective. She knows when she watches a Netflix documentary or sees a popular TikTok influencer speaking on diet or nutrition, a Crew 2 or academy player is likely seeing the same thing.

"The club is big on, 'What is the vision we have for this player, especially in the academy? What is the vision we have and what can we help this player accomplish, not just on the field performance-wise, nutrition-wise?'" Cross said. "We're all very collaborative and everyone has their vision and their ideas. And it's been really cool to be able to have that conversation around a lot of players and kind of building their profiles, if you will, within the club."

Cross focuses on an evidence-based approach to diet and nutrition, making sure to take into account a player’s physical traits and their personal goals as well as goals the club seeks to help players reach.


One of the moments Cross is most proud of during her time in professional soccer came last year, in which Major League Soccer and MLS NEXT Pro implemented a stoppage in play at sundown during Ramadan to allow players who observe the Muslim holiday to break their fast.

Over the previous two seasons, Cross and others at the Crew had pushed to put a plan in place for players observing Ramadan. Two Crew first-team players, Steven Moreira and Mo Farsi, observe Ramadan.

As those who observe Ramadan abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, it can be a challenge for athletes to access enough energy to compete while appropriately adhering to their religious practice.

“It's very important to the guys, and to see how important it was to not only our players, but players on all the other teams as well,” Cross said. “And to see them break their fast – it's a very religious thing for them. To know that we're able to offer that to them, that was probably one of the highlights I'd have to say for the past four years. It was very fulfilling.”

Cross and Kusner also participated together in another momentous accomplishment the following year. The Crew won MLS Cup over Los Angeles FC weeks after Crew 2 progressed to its second MLS NEXT Pro Cup Final. It was a positive culmination to the season, and a memory Kusner will never forget.

 “I'll never forget just that feeling of accomplishment and togetherness with the team and the coaches was a lot of fun,” Kusner said. “And then this past winter, the first team winning the cup again from the first team level, just kind of seeing it come full circle and being a part of it in different ways. But it's kind of a one-club mindset and kind of being able to be a part of all the different levels and experiences.”

Each woman in MLS NEXT Pro overcame their own personal challenges to get where they are now, and collectively, women strive to improve representation and break through glass ceilings. Though each of them are grateful to serve as key parts of MLS NEXT Pro staffs, they acknowledge the continued need for acceptance, representation, and advocacy for women in any profession.

“I think that Women's History Month is an opportunity for organizations to think about how they are doing the real work of supporting women in sports,” Best said. “It's great to post a picture on social media or to send out a thank you email, or all these things that organizations do – we appreciate it. But at the end of the day, it's also about, how are we making it easier and better for women to work in the field? Are we representing women of all identities and not just straight white women?

“It also needs to be about how are we retaining, how are we promoting, and how are we continuing to help move it forward. What we've done is fantastic, and we can do better.”