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U.S. Soccer has been good to the women’s game. But it could do a lot better.

U.S. women's soccer champs demand equal wages, conditions (Video: Reuters)

Both sides in the U.S. women’s soccer team’s labor dispute, which entered the national spotlight Thursday with a wage discrimination claim filed by five players, will make their cases in the courts of law and public opinion in the coming weeks and months. There will be a blizzard of numbers, but this much is clear:

The U.S. Soccer Federation has been very good to the women’s game.

It also can do a whole lot better.

With wage discrimination complaint, U.S. women’s players raise stakes in debate over pay

A quarter-century ago, when most of the world sneered at women’s soccer, the USSF created platforms for both young female players just looking to play and elite players looking to conquer the world. Was it equal to efforts for men’s soccer? No way. But it was a start.

Hosting the 1999 Women’s World Cup and, against common sense, staging the games in large stadiums, turned a competition that averaged 4,315 fans per game four years earlier in Sweden into a global event. Attendance grew by ninefold and, for the final at the sold-out Rose Bowl, the largest crowd for a women’s sporting event in global history turned out.

The chauvinistic soccer world was beginning to take notice.

Four years later, when China withdrew as host because of the SARS virus, the USSF stepped up on four months’ notice and slapped together a good show. The federation was also instrumental in pushing for the inclusion of women’s soccer in the Olympics, starting in 1996. The Americans have won four of the five gold medals and are favored to win again this summer in Rio de Janeiro.

If not for the USSF, the current pro circuit, the National Women’s Soccer League, probably would not exist. In collaboration with its Canadian counterparts and individual investors, including MLS teams, the federation underwrites the league, pouring in millions annually.

Two previous independent initiatives, the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer, crashed after three seasons apiece. In two weeks, the 10-team NWSL will begin its fourth season. Only the Portland Thorns average more than 7,500 fans, but the league has added teams in each of the past two offseasons and appears to be on stable ground.

In backing the NWSL, the USSF does, of course, have its own interests in mind: A stable domestic league strengthens the national team, which, in turn, boosts the federation’s bottom line.

Bidding for the Women’s World Cup also had financial benefits. So let’s not pretend the efforts are purely altruistic. But they are genuine efforts, nonetheless.

By global standards, the USSF is the progressive model. Though the numbers are growing, only a few countries in Europe, North America and Asia take the women’s game seriously. While the U.S. men are among 175 to 200 national teams with true ambitions, the U.S. women are only competing, in earnest, against a dozen countries.

One of the saddest cases is Brazil, a global power and home to the most technically gifted player of all time (Marta). The national program would go dark for long periods, then reconstitute ahead of major tournaments. Only now, with the approach of the Olympics, is the Brazilian team playing regularly.

Small countries, such as Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago, have had to rely on donations and online fundraisers just to cover expenses at regional competitions.

At the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China, the U.S. and Nigerian teams were forced by FIFA to fly on the same plane to Shanghai from Chengdu ahead of their group match. Awkward, to say the least. When they arrived, the U.S. players headed to their bus while support staff waited for checked baggage; the Nigerian players waited for their belongings at baggage claim.

The U.S. players, though, should not be penalized for the shameful shortcomings of FIFA and other countries. While the USSF has been well ahead of the curve in women’s soccer, it also has stumbled in some areas.

Sally Jenkins: For U.S. women’s soccer players, pay issue boils down to respect

The pay equity issue is complicated because the core of the women’s team is salaried by the USSF while the men, who are employed full-time by clubs around the world, earn appearance fees and bonuses only.

Both teams negotiate their own collective bargaining agreements. Labor disputes with the USSF have not been limited to the women. In 2005, a bitter dispute threatened to undermine the men’s World Cup qualifying campaign.

At some point, the women’s players’ union and the USSF will engage in serious CBA talks. When that occurs hinges largely on whether the current deal — a memorandum of understanding that extended the terms of the lapsed previous CBA — remains in place until the end of the year, as the USSF contends it should, or is subject to immediate renegotiation, as the union wants.

The USSF says it is willing to improve conditions going forward. And given the team’s longstanding success, popularity and large share of public support, the women have the upper hand.

In fairness, some things are out of the USSF’s control. At the Women’s World Cup last summer in Canada, FIFA placed competing teams in the same hotels and arranged substandard training facilities. FIFA also sets World Cup payments to federations, which are tied to the percentage of revenue generated by the tournament.

While the wage issue is at the forefront of the dispute – and is not going to be settled easily – the USSF should immediately address other concerns:

  • Stop scheduling women’s matches on artificial turf. The men never play home games on synthetic surfaces. If that means the women can no longer make appearances in certain cities with no adequate grass facilities, so be it. Most of the venues used in the women’s victory tour last fall were turf fields, and the conditions at the Honolulu facility were so bad, the players refused to play, forcing cancellation. No one likes playing on turf, including women.
  • In the coming years, narrow the massive gap between coaching salaries. After overseeing the women’s world championship, Jill Ellis was awarded a raise and a multiyear extension. The new terms have not yet been made public, but her previous base contract was around $200,000. Jurgen Klinsmann, who has had mixed results over almost five years with the men’s program, earns $3.2 million annually. The going rate for coaches of women’s teams is considerably lower than for men’s, and Ellis is believed to be one of the highest-paid female coaches in the world, if not the highest.
  • Show greater respect. While the USSF promotes the women’s team, schedule games and backs youth initiatives like no other federation, it does have periodic brain freezes. In 2013, the federation commemorated its 100th birthday with a friendly between the U.S. and German men in Washington. There was no such celebration wrapped around a women’s match.
  • If the men are chartering or flying business class, so too should the women. If the men are staying at the finest hotels, so too should the women.

They are world champions three times over and four-time gold medalists. Treat them as such.