Danita Johnson, D.C. United President of Business Operations. Courtesy of D.C. United

By Melissa Silverman 

As the 2022 D.C. United soccer season gets underway at Audi Field in Southwest, two dynamic female leaders are making history with senior-level positions in the organization. 

As the United’s General Manager and Head of Technical Recruitment and Analysis, Lucy Rushton is only the second woman to ever serve in a Major League Soccer general manager position. Rushton grew up with the sport in her native England and was an early convert to the use of statistics to improve sports performance with rigorous, data-based analysis. 

“Fifteen years ago, it was still in its infancy, an up-and-coming thing,” Rushton said of the approach. 

Her expertise in sports management and leadership – and skills with statistical analysis — earned her a job with the Reading Football Club, where she worked with players and coaches, giving daily feedback on performance. Rushton crossed the pond to build the inaugural roster for Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United, an effort that resulted in the club winning the MLS Championship in just their second season and earning enough fan support to smash league records for attendance.  

Rushton moved to Washington to step into the role of general manager, taking her day-to-day work beyond data to managing the roster and daily tasks of running the team with Head Coach Hernán Losada. 

“It was a big change for me,” Rushton said. “I felt like I had a lot to give within the role. It just felt like the right move at the right time, and it’s been fantastic. Going into the 2022 season, I’m really excited with the growth we’ve had as a group, together.” 

In 2021, D.C. United missed the MLS playoffs by a single point, but Rushton has spent the off-season reshuffling the roster to find players best suited for Losada’s style and approach. 

“We are ambitious. We come in here every day and our aim is to win the MLS Cup,” Rushton said. “First and foremost, as a stepping stone and going forward to improve on where we were, we have to make the playoffs. Ultimately, we want to be champions.”

While Rushton’s day job keeps her too busy to spend much time outside the stadium, she has quickly seen the value of the team’s connection to the Southwest community. 

“Since I’ve been here, one of the things that has really stood out to me is the way the club and the community work together and interact,” Rushton said. “From my experience being at Audi Field, what we see from fans every match day, the atmosphere they create is huge to us. This is the most historic club in the league, so there is real opportunity for growth and it stems very much from us as a club reaching out to the community.”

While Rushton has only one female predecessor who ascended to the position she now occupies, she hopes that her engagement with the community will demonstrate to other women and girls that sports management is a career path open to them. 

“The more that young girls can see women in positions within professional sport is only going to show them that there is an avenue for them, and give them the confidence that it is something that is achievable,” Rushton said. “Being part of an organization that is clearly at the forefront of that is really important.”

Rushton has company as a pioneering woman leader in the United organization. As she works to shape the team on the pitch, President of Business Operations Danita Johnson builds the club’s profile from the front office. Johnson is the first Black President of an MLS club and is believed to be only the third woman in league history to serve in this role. 

Johnson is new to soccer, but brings deep experience from a range of roles with the Women’s National Basketball Association, including the local WNBA franchise, the Washington Mystics. 

“The piece that attracted me to D.C. was not only the leadership of our organization, but the city itself,” Johnson said. 

After working for the Mystics in 2013 and 2014, Johnson has seen the city change, including waves of development in Southwest. In thinking about the club’s community relations, Johnson said, “it’s so important to serve not only the newcomers to this community, but the people who have been a part of this community for generations. We are very aware that we are in somebody’s backyard every day.” 

For Johnson, Southwest is also her own backyard. “I’m a member of this community,” she said. “I think it’s important for me to be in this neighborhood and be a part of it.” 

From her local vantage point, Johnson saw the need for community support from the club grow during the COVID-19 pandemic. From hosting graduations that had to be moved outdoors to partnering with the D.C. government on vaccinations, Johnson stressed the importance of being present and showing up in good times and in bad. 

As the deepest impact of the pandemic begins to wane, Johnson sees a new opportunity for community engagement. “We are in a place where we can truly show up now, and I’m looking forward to those things this upcoming season,” she said. 

Johnson and her team are working to elevate the fan experience for the 2022 D.C. United season, including pre-match music and entertainment and theme nights for families and children. Her day-to-day work includes a clear focus on the consumer experience and delivering the right product at the right time. Her understanding of business fundamentals supports her view on and approach to leadership. 

“It’s a craft, it’s something you have to study and work at day in and day out. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Johnson said of leading people. 

She also feels a responsibility to move women forward, whether she is working with women’s or men’s sports leagues. Johnson said she had both male and female mentors, and aims to pay forward their support to create opportunities for the next generation. 

“I see my leadership here as an opportunity for women to hopefully feel a little inspired,” she said. “There has to be a sense of belief in yourself, and let that overpower doubt. And when you do so, you can reach your greatness.”

The D.C. United kicked off their 2022 season at Audi Field on February 26, and will be joined in Southwest by the defending National Women’s Soccer League champions, the Washington Spirit, who will play several home games at Audi Field this season. For schedules and more information, visit dcunited.com and washingtonspirit.com. 

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