Each May, Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month honors the contributions and influences of our fellow Americans to our country’s history, culture and achievements.
In honor of AAPI Month, we absolutely have to shout out our very own Johnny Le. Johnny has been a key part of the soccer community in AO’s hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, for the past 15 years. He’s coached tens of dozens of youth and refereed matches for many, many more; meanwhile, he started a soccer-focused nonprofit.
In 2020, he brought his extensive background in design, digital marketing and leadership to the AO National Staff as Brand Manager. He’s been immense in keeping the wheels turning as we navigated a hectic 2021 and look toward the 2022 World Cup.
OK Johnny: Why did you join AO – first as a member, and later as its first-ever brand manager?
Johnny: It seemed like everyone in the Lincoln (Nebraska) soccer community was a member, and the shirts looked cool, so I signed up. A few watch parties at Captain Jack’s was enough to hook me for life.
As for becoming brand manager – frankly, that was a dream job, working on all things soccer. I was given the opportunity to improve the organization’s operations and use my creative background to impact the brand. I just feel honored to have the opportunity to be part of the team and the AO Family.
Let’s go back even further. What’s your background in soccer?
Johnny: Growing up in a small town in Nebraska, we didn’t have any level of organized soccer. I played a lot of street pickup, mostly with other immigrant families from Vietnam and Mexico. I was usually the tallest – and I had the worst ball skills – so I usually played goalie. And I was only somewhat good at that.
I became part of the Lincoln soccer community when I was thrust into the role of coach for my son’s YMCA team when he was 5. Over the next few years, I discovered a love for coaching and supporting not only my kids’ teams, but various clubs and Nebraska’s Olympic Development Program (ODP).
You started ONYX for Change, too – tell us more about that.
Johnny: A nonprofit, futbol-loving organization, our mission was “Goals for the Greater Good” – teaching our youth to become better stewards of their community. We held various events to raise money for local charities, like a futbol tournament in downtown Lincoln. In AO and AO Impact, I found a lot of similarities to what we were trying to achieve with ONYX.
And we can’t forget to mention you’re a ref – how’d that happen?
Johnny: Because I was no longer needed as a coach, team manager or juice box supplier! I still wanted to be on the field with my oldest son and we heard there was a big referee shortage, so we both signed up. We got paid to run around and get yelled at, and I began to love the challenge of it. I studied the rules of the game and worked as often as I could at the YMCA, club and high school level.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to referee as part of the Nebraska delegation at the President’s Cup in Cincinnati, which opened my eyes to a level I’d never seen before. The camaraderie among the referees was great.
Have any of the skills you’ve picked up refereeing translated into other parts of your life?
Johnny: As a ref, I learned to give people some grace if they’re upset by the calls I make or don’t make. I think you can take that approach toward a lot of tough challenges life throws at you.
As a ref, fan, American Outlaw, father of accomplished youth players – what does it mean to you to be an Asian-American so heavily and passionately involved in soccer?
Johnny: Asian-Americans often face the challenge of not being accepted as athletes, whether it’s due to age-old stereotypes like “not being athletic” or “being too nice,” or people being more interested in where you’re from than what I can do. I experienced that growing up, and I still see it today. Being a dad has driven me to make sure my kids earn and cherish the opportunities to play soccer, or to do whatever they want to do. I want them to know that being Asian does not prevent you from achieving those dreams. Most of all, I want them to be examples for other Asian-Americans.
As for being a fan, I hope to see more Asian-Americans represented at the highest levels – including the U.S. National teams, of course. I’ve dreamed we’ll one day have a player influence a new generation of fans and players, like Jeremy Lin, Tiger Woods or Naomi Osaka.
Until then, being part of AO means being part of an inclusive, diverse family of crazy fans, wherever we go.