The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The USWNT victory tour begins, but the larger battle remains over equal pay

U.S. team members including, from left, Christen Press, Crystal Dunn, Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O'Hara, after they won the World Cup (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
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PASADENA, Calif. — The 23 members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team and their outgoing coach regrouped here for the start of a victory tour celebrating the World Cup championship won four weekends ago in France.

Their mission, however, was always about more than winning games and lifting trophies. It was about leveling the financial playing field with the less successful men’s program and leading the global campaign for equality in a sport that has historically favored men.

So as the Americans prepared to play Ireland on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, off-field issues overshadowed on-field concerns associated with the first of five celebratory friendlies and renewed attention on the players’ legal challenges to the U.S. Soccer Federation.

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The sides agreed in June to enter mediation over a gender-discrimination lawsuit filed in March by the players, who have complained of, among other things, inferior standards and smaller compensation.

The public squabble had seemingly died down in recent weeks until Carlos Cordeiro, the USSF’s president, wrote an open letter Monday with a “fact sheet” outlining the economics of the men’s and women’s programs.

It claimed, in part, that “separate and apart from any prize money awarded by [world governing body] FIFA — U. S. Soccer has, over the past decade, paid our women’s national team more than our men’s national team in salaries and game bonuses, and we continue to make unprecedented investments in our women’s program.”

The letter did not go over well with the players, who were under the impression that the sides would refrain from such actions while the case was pending.

The USSF, though, had lost badly on the public-relations front during and immediately after the World Cup. Cries of “Equal Pay!” from fans rang out in France and at a ticker-tape parade in New York. Players pushed the message in national TV appearances.

After a World Cup victory like no other, one chant stands out for the U.S. women: ‘Equal pay!’

Besides taking exception to the letter itself, the players disputed the contents of it.

“It missed the whole point,” forward Megan Rapinoe said. “Everyone called B.S. on it.”

With a grin, she added, “I am looking forward to mediation.”

About Cordeiro using National Women’s Soccer League salaries — which the USSF underwrites — to demonstrate balance in gender compensation, forward Christen Press said: “It’s actually a little illogical and takes away from the validity of those [NWSL] games. That’s a job we do week in and week out. You can’t count those games out. It’s two separate jobs.”

The dispute, all agree, is complicated. To start, the women enjoy base salaries for NWSL and national team service, regardless of how often they play or how well they perform. The men earn most of their money from clubs in MLS and around the world, collecting supplemental cash from the USSF for training camps attended and games played and via bonuses. The teams negotiated separate collective bargaining agreements with the federation.

However, the women’s players’ union said, “Any apples to apples comparison shows that the men earn far more than the women.”

In the broader picture, the women’s team believes its success should provide greater reward.

“U.S. Soccer has an opportunity to stand by us and do what is right, and Carlos has expressed his desire to do that,” Press said. “He has an amazing opportunity to set a precedent for women on a global level.”

The players have the support of their coach, Jill Ellis, who Tuesday announced she would step down this fall after 5½ years and two World Cup titles. Her last game is Oct. 6 against South Korea in Chicago.

“You have to look at what the team itself represents and what it does,” she said. “I have a young daughter and you hope if she is doing the same work in the same capacity and has the same level of experience, I would want her to be paid the same level as her counterpart.

“You’ve got to look at what’s done, what the value is. I don’t know all the nuances of this — there is a lot of counterpoints — but at some point it comes down to doing what’s right.”

Ellis said she is optimistic that a truce will be reached and the team, with a new coach, will turn squarely toward on-field endeavors following the victory tour and two friendlies in November. Regional qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will take place in January and February at venues to be determined.

“Carlos spent a lot of time with us in France and saw up close and personal just how special this team is,” Ellis said. “So the hope is these conversations get closer and closer in terms of an outcome.”

Read more:

Double earners: The U.S. women’s national soccer team and the fight for gender equity

'Timing is right’: Ellis to step down as U.S. women’s national team coach

NWSL enjoying a World Cup bump, but sustainability is next step