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Longtime soccer coach and executive finds liberation in coming out as gay

After widespread support from the soccer community, John Dorn wonders, ‘Why did it take me so long?’

At training for USL 2 Chicago FC United with head coach Logan Pause
John Dorn, left, at training for USL League Two’s Chicago FC United with head coach Logan Pause, a former MLS player and coach and one of the most supportive friends of Dorn’s coming out.

“Why did it take me so long?”

I haven’t had many moments of questioning my decision to fully come out as gay over the past couple of months, as it has been completely affirming for me and I have support from all corners of my life. But the one thing that does nag at me is why did it take me so long?

Since I have been completely out, I feel like I am on a victory tour with every conversation I have. I cannot describe how supportive the soccer community has been.

For example, I wanted to come out to a former player of mine who has become a good friend. He is still in his 20s and is one of the youngest people I had a conversation with about coming out. He’s from a rich suburb, played for me in a soccer academy, went to a major university and then into the MLS.

Maybe someone in another sport with that resume would not be welcoming and inclusive, but after coming out to him I got this text:

“JD for what it’s worth … you helped me become a professional. You helped me become a national champion. If you ever need anything at all, let me know. I just want you to be happy. That’s what matters most.”

That is a microcosm of the support and love that I have encountered and says everything about soccer here in the U.S. being inclusive and welcoming.

I have worked in soccer for a generation, coaching, directing and operating elite level teams and programs in Chicago. A futbol lifer, as we say. I’ve been following the dream I had as a kid from the first moment I touched a ball to my foot and knew this game was my love and passion. How many people in the world can say they get to work in professional sports 15 minutes from where they grew up? I get chills some days pulling up to the stadium thinking about that.

I started coaching in college and have coached at the high school, elite club, junior college and Division Ievel. In 2001 I was named director of soccer for the Chicago Fire’s U-23 PDL program, which was the first development team for the Chicago MLS team. We developed more than 100 players who progressed to the professional ranks in its first 10 years of existence and qualified for the North American Championship game in 2003 and 2009.

In 2008 I became the Fire’s director of player development overseeing all of the MLS club’s soccer programming below the MLS side. Through our academy system, there have been more than 20 players who have progressed to the Fire’s MLS side, with the U-20 side winning national titles in 2008 and 2012. The academy became the first MLS Development program to win the prestigious USSDA Championship in 2010 and 2015. I also helped work with MLS to bolster player development in the U.S.

In 2017 I became chairman and soccer director of the USL League Two franchise in Chicago and have been doing that since. In four years, we have had more players drafted in North American professional level than any other amateur team.

John Dorn, center, with general manager Kyle Retzlaff, left, and head coach Logan Pause of USL League Two’s Chicago FC United.
John Dorn, center, with general manager Kyle Retzlaff, left, and head coach Logan Pause of USL League Two’s Chicago FC United.

In addition, I have done consulting work for a number of expansion MLS clubs and in 2022 became the managing partner of the Peoria City FC USL-2 side. During my past 20 years of work, more than 200 players have advanced to the professional ranks.

During the time that my professional life was going well, I was creating compartments in the rest of my life, because I was sure I was gay (or at least bisexual through my 20s and into my early 30s). The next phase was me not having a personal life and just diving into work. The latest phase before I came out to everyone was putting the pieces of my life in compartments — work, family, straight friends, gay friends and finally gay relationships. Only a very small group of family and friends knew my real self.

Putting things in compartments led to destructive behaviors. I was not being honest about my true self to most everyone in my professional life and a large group of my straight friends. I was not being honest with my gay friends as they thought I was more out than I was.

And when it came to gay “relationships” (and I have to put quotations around relationships because others may have thought they were true relationships when in reality they were not), I would present a persona of myself not always true as a way to impress and/or hide who I was or what I did because I did not want to be really out in the soccer world. These “relationships” were always bound to fail as they were not based on core truths that are essential to a strong and healthy relationship. I would often seek out weak-willed or needy people as it made it easy for me control the truth.

For me, I was dealing with expectations related to my background. I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in a neighborhood where all our dads were first responders for the city, mostly Irish and all Catholic. My dad was a police detective and also our local community college’s basketball coach; that’s how I got my coaching genes. I also had a large extended family, with a lot of athletes, coaches, first responders and teachers.

John Dorn with his mom at the family beach house in Michigan.
John Dorn with his mom at the family beach house in Michigan.

But it was my professional life that got me to compartmentalize. In sports, there is such an emphasis on strength and masculinity that being gay has been perceived as a weakness. Anyone who is an athlete, coach or involved at some level with a male sports team understands that. And it terrified me to know that my sexuality was at odds with the culture.

Over time I came to realize you can be gay and masculine. I was finally ready to break out of that box that says you can’t be a gay masculine person in athletics who loves being gay and all the wonderful things associated with it and it happened.

I’m gay. I’m masculine. I work in sports. I love being gay. None of them singularly define me, but are all a part of who I am. I am proud of that. And the love and support of literally everyone around has made this some of the happiest times of my life.

I remember a story recently that made me realize I did the right thing about coming out.

A few days after I was telling friends in soccer about being gay, I went to meet one of my friends at a pub who already knew, to go watch Liverpool in a Champions League Match (as a Man United fan, it might be harder to tell people that I watched a Liverpool game than coming out).

As I walked in, I saw my friend was with someone else who used to coach for me but didn’t know I was gay. I wasn’t necessarily ready for the “coming out” conversation that day. But I went up to the table where they were sitting and asked him the score of the game.

He said 2-0, and I said, “Damn, Liverpool is up and I’m gay.” It came out of me so easily. After two minutes of “it’s all cool” and “happy-for-you” fist bumps, we went back to talking about the game.

John Dorn, far right, with the Fire Academy Under 15 team at a 2015 tournament in the Cayman Islands that the team won.
John Dorn, far right, with the Fire Academy Under 15 team at a 2015 tournament in the Cayman Islands that the team won. Five of the players from that team have signed professional contracts.

As someone who has taken the journey, no one should ever worry about being their own true self in the soccer world. The culture of soccer here in the U.S. stems directly from our fan base, with some of the most diverse and forward-thinking fans in any professional sport here in North America.

I truly believe that our fans are the most inclusive of any sport here. But the locker room mentality still makes it difficult for players, coaches and others to come out, so we all have to remember to get out of that box we put ourselves in when we are in sport.

There is a saying, “Don’t follow the crowd, follow your heart.” In our soccer community, if you follow your heart, the crowd will cheer and support you nonstop from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.

I hope the story of my journey can help anyone who may have some of the same feelings or thoughts that I did. As someone who has been a mentor to many players and coaches, I would love to help anyone who needs someone to talk to.

John Dorn is Chairman and Director of Soccer for USL League Two’s Chicago FC United and the former Director of Player Development for the MLS Chicago Fire. He can be reached via Instagram @jdorn14 and also on twitter @jdorn14.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (kandreeky@gmail.com)

Check out our archive of coming out stories.

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.

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