REIMS, France — In choosing to sue their bosses for gender discrimination amid the most critical phase of their World Cup preparations, the veteran leaders of the U.S. women’s national team insisted it would not be a distraction.
They were fully capable, they promised, of waging battles on two fronts: proving their worth on the fields of France while demanding via the legal system they be compensated fairly for it.
The Americans haven’t won anything yet, but midway through the tournament, they have scored major interim victories in both arenas.
On the field, they steamrolled through the group stage by scoring a record 18 goals and conceding none in three matches. And as the four-week competition entered the knockout stage this weekend — the top-ranked U.S. squad will face No. 13 Spain here Monday in the round of 16 — no team is more heavily favored or confident than the defending champions.
“Absolutely, 100 percent,” defender Ali Krieger said when asked whether she felt the U.S. team was the favorite to win the trophy. “What we’re translating on the field is really magical. We’re very successful in what we’re doing right now, and we’re playing well. That’s just what we wanted to showcase.”
Off the field, the U.S. women have parlayed their dominant performances into major leverage in the court of public opinion. That, in turn, may translate into legal leverage. The players filed the discrimination suit March 8.
Following the 13-0 rout of Thailand on June 11, social media erupted with support in the team’s fight for pay-equity. As the National Women’s Law Center noted on Twitter, the U.S. women scored more goals in that one game than their male counterparts in their past three World Cup appearances combined.
No less than four 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls took up the cause of equal pay as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) weighed in via Twitter, as well as former vice president Joe Biden.
So it wasn’t surprising, the day after the Americans blanked longtime rival Sweden, 2-0, to finish atop Group F, that news surfaced that the U.S. Soccer Federation had agreed to mediation with the players after the World Cup ends.
Each time the U.S. women have stepped onto the field, they have staged globally televised clinics in athletic excellence, making their case for equal pay with every goal and shutout.
While some criticized the players for what they deemed excessive exuberance amid their demolition of Thailand, even the sternest faultfinders couldn’t quibble with their response to a potential resolution of their wage-discrimination grievances via litigation.
The squad is solely focused on winning a fourth World Cup title while in France, defender Kelley O’Hara said. Like Krieger, she was a member of the 2015 championship squad as well as the 2011 team that finished runner-up to Japan.
O’Hara went on to explain that “compartmentalizing” is one of many skills the U.S. team has mastered over the years.
“We obviously have things going on back home that we’ll deal with when we get back there. But this team has always been very good at focusing on the task at hand. This is just another example of us doing that.
"I’m here to play a World Cup. I’m not too concerned about what’s happening back home. That’s why we have lawyers. They do their job, and we do our job.”
Krieger echoed the sentiment.
“We’re not listening to any of the noise,” she said. “We’re here to win and do a job and do it well. You work your entire life for this moment, so nothing is going to get in the way of that. We’ve been through way too much — individually, as a group, over the years, through our careers.
"Nothing will stand in our way of [winning] this trophy. You work way too hard to let the little bits and pieces of the noise get to you at this moment. That’s not going to happen.”
Krieger also said the team has not discussed legal issues since arriving in France. And, she added, the topic of the USSF agreeing to mediation did not penetrate the team’s inner circle.
“We haven’t said one word about it," she said. "We’re so focused on Spain; that’s our task right now.”
Krieger, a Dumfries, Va., native, has said the United States is not only the favorite but could field the two best squads in the world. She also said this year’s version is the best she has seen.
O’Hara tempered Krieger’s claim a bit: “This is a great U.S. team. There have been incredible U.S. teams throughout time. You can only be the best if you win. Talk to me in 17 days, and then I will answer that question.”