It’s an event they didn’t dare miss, and not just because the Americans bulldozed their way through the world’s biggest soccer tournament. For four weeks the Americans won on the field, and for four weeks the Cole family had nightly conversations at the dinner table — deep, nuanced and complicated discussions about gender issues, income inequality and gay rights.
“We’re still the family that eats dinner together, and we’ve talked about it constantly. They’ve opened our minds, forced us to question our views,” Kristin Cole said of the triumphant U.S. team. “I’m thankful for what they’ve shown everyone, especially young girls.”
Even before the tournament began, the World Cup was about more than soccer for the 23 members of the U.S. squad and their growing legion of fans. The players sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination, drawing attention to the pay gap between the men’s and women’s national teams. Fans of all ages couldn’t help but take notice.
“I think people want to support them because they’re supporting women’s rights and equal rights,” said Madie Miller, a 13-year-old participating this week in a girls’ soccer camp at Maryland SoccerPlex in suburban Washington. “I think them winning the World Cup again was a good show that they’re not — that they’re better than the men.”
As the post-tournament celebration culminates with Wednesday’s ticker-tape parade, the full influence of the championship team will slowly start to reveal itself, measured by something bigger than youth soccer participation numbers or T-shirts sold. The team’s cause has already drawn in political leaders, sparked widespread debate and both lionized and villainized some players. Legal and sports observers say the lasting impact of the squad has the potential to transcend sports in a unique and unparalleled way, and its high-profile battle for equality could prove to be an influential one in a larger cultural war.
“You can’t help but be struck by the amazing accomplishments of these women but also how they’re standing up for themselves,” said Neena Chaudhry, the senior adviser for education at the National Women’s Law Center. “Their message is permeating the culture. Hopefully, it will help people, not just athletes — the younger generation in particular. It should be inspiring for all of us to stand up and demand equal treatment.”
The U.S. team chose to wage its legal battle at a time when women are increasingly taking important societal stands. Part gender revolution, part cultural reckoning, movements such as #TimesUp in Hollywood and #MeToo have empowered women in recent years to share their personal stories and strike back against oppressors. Already, this team has helped spark discussions about income disparity in other women’s sports, such as professional basketball and hockey, and Chaudhry said young people from all walks of life will feel empowered to openly question gender pay gaps. She said the team has “helped make ‘equal pay’ a household term.”
But fixing such a deep-rooted issue might not be as simple as speaking up, winning a soccer tournament and drawing attention to the problem, said Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard who specializes in the economic gender gap and women in the workforce.
“If women demand equality in their homes … the gender earnings gap would close a lot more than if they won at their own personal game of soccer,” she said. “The point is that the reasons for the gender gap in earnings, by and large, are not the enormous inequities that we have seen between male and female soccer. The world isn’t soccer. If it were, we could eliminate the gender gap more easily. What we have is a far more difficult problem.”
In Savannah, Ga., 9-year-old Evey Pelham quit playing soccer a couple of years ago but is eager to return to the pitch this fall. She asked her mother how old a girl must be to compete in the World Cup, and Heather Pelham pointed out that Mallory Pugh, the talented American forward, is only 21.
"Okay,” Evey said. “That gives me 11 years to practice."
In Minneapolis, 8-year-old Madelyn Sieberg wore her own soccer jersey as she watched the championship match with her family. “Do you think someone like me could play in the World Cup?” asked Madelyn, who has Type 1 diabetes and will soon try out for her city’s travel team.
She might not have digested all of the nuances of the players’ plight, but she did absorb the commentary during the broadcasts, the announcers noting the U.S. women now have four titles while the men’s best performance was a third-place finish nearly 90 years ago.
“Girls rule,” Madelyn told her mom.
In Chicago, Mike Magee, a former Major League Soccer MVP, watched his 9-year-old daughter Keira take a ball outside and kick it alone against a wall. He had tried unsuccessfully for years to cajole her into playing the sport he loved so much. The women’s team seems to have finally hooked her.
“These girls have changed the outlook on life for an entire generation of young girls,” said Magee, who played 14 seasons before retiring in 2016. “Me telling my daughter she can do anything her heart desires is much different than her seeing girls show her anything is possible.”
In the Washington area, a group of 35 girls, ages 8 to 13, gathered at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds on Tuesday for a summer camp hosted by the Washington Spirit, a National Women’s Soccer League team. The young girls practiced on a field adjacent to the professional players, and discussions ranged from favorite U.S. players — Pugh and 24-year-old Rose Lavelle, both Spirit stars, were popular choices — to how the girls felt after watching the final.
“I just thought that going into the World Cup, the U.S. was everybody’s target, and they handled it really well,” 12-year-old Audrey Swift said. “It was so cool to watch them show the world — it was just so cool to watch that level of play, because the other countries have really improved, too. I like how people respected women more in sports, and how they want to get everybody rights.”
The Women’s Sports Foundation was founded 45 years ago by tennis legend Billie Jean King and has been focused on issues such as pay equity from Day One. Staffers there watched the World Cup final Sunday and were especially moved by the chanting in the stadium. “Equal pay! Equal pay!” the crowd inside the Parc Olympique Lyonnais stadium bellowed. The national team’s message clearly had a galvanizing effect, said Karen Issokson-Silver, the organization’s head of research.
“Of course this is a critical issue in women’s sports, but sports is a microcosm of society,” she said. “The implications are tremendous, and I think female athletes are really leading way. … I think you’ll see it across every sector, from grass roots to the workplace, the conversation has really been changed.”
The true impact of this squad might not be realized for several years, both on and off the soccer field. By most metrics, the World Cup was a success — from TV ratings to merchandise sales. The challenge for organizers at all levels is to capitalize on that success and extend the impact beyond the national team’s month-long run in France.
Long-touted as one of the United States’ fastest-growing sports, soccer has seen its participation numbers decline in recent years. In 2008, nearly 14 million Americans played the sport at least once a year, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, which has studied youth sports participation for more than 40 years. That number fell to less than 12 million in 2017, a drop of nearly 15 percent.
The sport’s core participants — those who play 26 or more times per year — have fallen by nearly 1 million in the past five years alone to 5,258,607 in 2017, according to the organization. The number of girls playing hasn’t seen the same drastic decreases as boys but is still down nearly 300,000 from the 4,588,000 participants in 2013.
Phil Summers, executive director of the Virginia Youth Soccer Association, which oversees 144,000 registered players in the state, said the sport has become too expensive for many families, and the U.S. Soccer Federation needs “to put greater emphasis into supporting the female youth game financially.”
“Certainly, young female soccer athletes (and female athletes as a whole) will feel empowered by the current success and social positions” of the U.S. team, Summers wrote in an email. “However, this is now more about what happens post [World Cup]. In the past, we have seen tremendous potential for growing the women’s game from both improved participation and the equal pay and support positions.”
There are early signs that this time might be different. ESPN announced a new rights agreement with the NWSL, and Budweiser has signed on as a sponsor. The women’s game at the highest level should have a platform at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
And the U.S. national team will continue its wage battle. The sides have agreed to mediation, with the players having picked up leverage in France — and scores of supporters, too.
“She’s showing all these young girls you don’t have to go by the old standards of being seen and not heard,” Kristin Cole said. “She’s speaking up for what she believes in, even if not everyone wants to hear it. My daughter is just enthralled.”
The tournament is over, and there are no more games left to play. But soccer fans everywhere still feel invested in the team’s fight.
“This is all unfamiliar territory for us, stuff we didn’t think or talk much about it,” Kristin Cole said. “I think it’s changing everybody, really.”