Now that the U.S. Women’s National Team successfully won its second-straight World Cup title over an intimidating slate of European challengers, its stars can be seen in deliriously joyful photos and videos celebrating not just a victory for their team but for all of professional women’s soccer in the United States. For a few more days, they can continue to bask in the post-championship high. But soon, they’ll have to get back to the hard work of sorting out their futures and moving their fight for equal pay. Here’s where things stand now with the country’s most successful national soccer program.
After the team’s big victory in Lyon, the jubilant stadium audience burst into chants of “Equal pay, equal pay.” Public backing for the team’s efforts has grown wider than ever, as the team has become ever more successful than the U.S. men, who have never in recent decades advanced further than the World Cup quarterfinals and didn’t qualify for last summer’s tournament. A number of politicians , athletes, and celebrities have tweeted about the issue.
The support in part could be seen as a large fan base’s natural outrage about an unfair situation. But the players deserve some credit for strategically taking on the U.S. Soccer Federation in a very public way. Rather than wait for a quieter time, 28 players filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer alleging “institutional gender discrimination” on International Women’s Day: March 8, just three months before the World Cup. This timing heightened the already high stakes for their on-field performance—but it guaranteed media focus on their demands.
In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that the women and U.S. Soccer had agreed to mediation. The exact timeline for that process is unknown, but it’s expected to start soon. It’s possible negotiations will resolve the long-standing conflict between the team. (Five players filed a formal pay discrimination complaint back in 2016.) But to do so, U.S. Soccer will likely have to satisfy the female athletes’ complaints of poorer training and travel conditions, lesser promotional support, and, most importantly, pay disparities.
An attorney for the USWNT told the Journal that the federation agreed to a mediation because the team generated “significant revenue.” U.S. Soccer has long insisted the pay gaps arose from differences in revenues brought in by the teams and from the teams’ separate collective-bargaining agreements, which led to different pay structures. The Washington Post pointed out that it is hard to compare those structures, and it’s hard to know how the teams’ revenue hauls differ overall, because so much comes from sponsorships that can’t be easily divided by team. But in recent years, the USWNT games have generated similar sales to the men’s, and by some calculations the women have surpassed their counterparts.
When asked after the World Cup final if she believed the victory would affect the lawsuit, Megan Rapinoe seemed confident that it strengthened their hand. “Well it’s not good for them is it?” she said. “This just sort of blows it out of the water. It’s like, is it even about that anymore? Or is it just about doing the right thing?”
The professional league
All 23 USWNT players (and 32 athletes on other teams in the tournament) participate in the National Women’s Soccer League, but the NWSL has not been particularly powerful or wealthy when compared to international men’s soccer leagues or even, increasingly, the women’s soccer leagues in Europe. Real Madrid, for example, will invest 2 million euros to field a women’s team, and the more established Olympique Lyonnais—the most prestigious women’s team in the world—spent $8.5 million on its team last year, according to Yahoo Sports. That’s more than the entire American league spends in a year. The U.S. has capped players’ salaries at $46,200, meaning that players often struggle to make a living unless they also play on the national team.
The stars will return to playing for their respective teams toward the end of July. But some critics have warned that if the league doesn’t invest more in the players, it’s likely new, young talent may head to pro leagues overseas.
Word from NWSL’s management does not inspire hope that radical change will come soon. While the U.S. men’s leagues are growing rapidly, the NWSL has announced it has no plans to immediately expand beyond its nine current squads, until it can be sure those new teams will succeed. The league’s attendance has averaged fewer than 5,500 fans per game this season, according to the L.A. Times.
There are reasons for optimism, though. Despite its struggles, the NWSL is one of the most stable soccer leagues in U.S. history. It started in 2013 and has survived longer than every other American professional women’s soccer league that preceded it. More exciting is that the league recently signed a broadcast deal with ESPN, which said it will air 14 games on ESPN2 and ESPNNews during the rest of the season, which runs to October. (The games have lacked a broadcast TV partner since February, when Lifetime and A&E Networks left its three-year official sponsor-and-broadcast deal a year early.) Another good sign: Budweiser signed on as a sponsor of the NWSL.
The national team
While not as prestigious as the World Cup, the summer Olympics in Tokyo are just a year away. It’s unlikely that the USWNT will change radically in that time, and many of its older stars are likely to stay on to play on one final international stage. It’s unclear if coach Jill Ellis will stick around—her contract expires at the end of July—but even Carli Lloyd, the team’s oldest player at 36 and a former superstar who voiced frustration about often being benched during the World Cup, has suggested she will probably stay for the Olympics. There’s also a chance some players may decide to wrap up their international careers on a high note; no World Cup champion has ever gone on to win a following year’s gold medal.
Individual players and the coach
Jill Ellis is already the most successful manager of U.S. soccer in the country’s history. She is only the second coach, male or female, to ever win two World Cups. The U.S. team has not lost a game in the past two World Cups. While she may stay around for another year and $500,000, according to Yahoo Sports, it’s possible she may decide she has exhausted everything she can do in the U.S. She may decide to court exciting and higher-paid offers abroad, or she may decide to retire.
Many individual players will also have to decide whether this World Cup will have been their last. The USWNT was the oldest in the tournament—Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Alyssa Naeher, Kelley O’Hara, Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Ashlyn Harris, and Christen Press are all 30 or older—and several have already been asked about their plans. Rapinoe rejected the question (“I don’t feel like I’m that old,” she said), but she and some of the older players may soon face pressure to make room for younger players on the team.
Before they need to worry about anything else, the women still get a moment to enjoy their win. The USWNT and their fans recognize the enormity of the team’s accomplishment. The team partied late into Monday, and on Wednesday it will be honored with a parade in Manhattan.
Before preparing for the Olympics, the team will also have more fun with a four-game victory tour. On Aug. 3, the squad will play the first of those games against either Ireland or Mexico at the Rose Bowl in California. (Some players may sit out in favor of returning to their club teams, though: The national team has missed almost two months of the NSWL season.)
And the team may head to Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited the players to the Capitol in a tweet on Monday. One thing, though, seems likely: They’re not going to the f—ing White House.