On eve of World Cup, USWNT’s fight for equity rages on

Courtesy of Jamie Smed via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve watched way too many hours of sports in my short life. Way too many. NBA Finals, Super Bowls, MLB World Series, Olympic Finals, yes, but also Little League World Series, regular season Arena Football games, English third division soccer matches. Almost all of those hours meld together, contributing to the general blob of largely useless sports knowledge floating around my brain.

Some memories, however, stand out from the blob. Some moments of sports fandom are so exciting, remarkable or painful—they implant themselves in you and never let go, pulling you back to your couch in front of the TV again and again and again and again. My grandfather may remember where he was when the first set foot on the moon, but I remember where I was when the New York Giants ruined my New England Patriots’ perfect season in 2008, and when Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski scored five goals in nine minutes against Wolfsburg in 2015.

My list isn’t long, but each of the entrants still invokes an emotion when I rewatch highlights however many years later. One of these moments was Abby Wambach’s game-tying goal for the U.S Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) in their quarterfinal match against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup.

I was in South Carolina for a family reunion, huddled in front of the living room TV in our rental house with my brother and mom. The U.S. had taken an early lead off a Brazilian own goal. In the 65th minute, however, Rachel Van Hollebeke (then Buehler) had been sent off for taking down Brazil’s ingenious Marta in front of goal. Hope Solo had stopped the ensuing penalty kick, but the referee called for it to be retaken, claiming a U.S. defender entered the box early. Marta converted her second attempt to tie the game at one.

Just two minutes into overtime, Marta scored a wonderfully crafty looping goal. Throughout overtime, up a player, Brazil had clung to their lead, feigning injuries to waste time. The clock wound down. I grew desperate, yelling at the Brazilian team. Then in stoppage time, the 122nd minute of play, precious seconds accumulated as a result of the Brazilian side’s time wasting, American winger Megan Rapinoe played an early cross from the left flank with her weak foot. The cross floated to the back post, flying past a stumbling defender. The Brazilian keeper came for the ball but couldn’t reach it. There at the back post, parked just beyond the keeper’s outstretched arms, was Wambach. The ball landed squarely on the striker’s prolific forehead and shot into the open net. Tie game. I remember jumping up, screaming and running around the room. The U.S. would convert all five of their penalties in the ensuing shootout to win and move on to the semifinal.

As an American soccer fan, it’s been a blessing to have the USWNT to root for. They’ve been one of, if not the best, women’s national team in the world for most of my lifetime, capturing their second World Cup in 2015 and winning Olympic gold in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Over the last decade, squad fixtures like Wambach, Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo have become legitimate stars. The USWNT’s deep World Cup and Olympic runs draw more and more American eyes to soccer. Their dominant performance against Japan in the 2015 World Cup Final was the most watched soccer match in U.S. history—for women or men—with viewership peaking at around 30 million during the second half (New York Times, “Women’s World Cup Final Was Most-Watched Soccer Game in United States History,” 03.06.2015).

Now we’re only ten weeks away from the start of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, to be held in France. The U.S. plays its first game of the tournament against Thailand on June 11. The Stars and Stripes are well positioned to defend their 2015 win, ranked first in the world by FIFA.

I’m excited. The World Cup squad will contain many of the sport’s big names: Lloyd, Rapinoe, Morgan, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Julie Ertz. The team should be strong (beginning in 2017 they ran off a 28-game unbeaten streak) but it won’t be a cakewalk. After losing 3-1 to France in Jan. 2019, ending the unbeaten streak, the USWNT tied both England and Japan in the SheBelieves Cup.

With ten weeks to go, the focus should be on the players, the teams and the tournament that awaits in France. American fans should be debating what the inclusion of veteran defender Allie Krieger in the squad for two upcoming friendlies means for a defense that’s looked uncharacteristically shaky so far in 2019.

Unfortunately, as too often is the case with women’s soccer, the competition itself isn’t allowed to take center stage.

On Friday, Mar. 8, a group of 28 women from the current pool of USWNT players filed a federal lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer), the non-profit that governs soccer in the U.S. and operates the women’s and men’s national teams. The suit alleges “institutionalized gender discrimination” against the women’s team and seeks equitable treatment and pay, as well as damages including back pay.

The lawsuit is just the latest in a long-running saga. USWNT players have long spoken out against the disparity in pay that persists between them and their male counterparts (by one comparison’s estimate, $4,950 per game for a set of friendlies to $13,166 per game) despite the fact that the women’s team has enjoyed far more competitive success. In 2016 four players filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (an agency that lacks penal authority), alleging the women were paid more than four times less than the men, despite earning more revenue (ESPN, “USWNT lawsuit: What we know and what it means going forward.” 03.11.19).

By filing the lawsuit, the 28 players are taking a significant leap forward in their personal fight for equality, and they seem to understand the power their position as athletes grants them to influence the general fight. Said veteran center back Becky Sauerbrunn to ESPN, “This team, we’re kind of a visible team—people watch us play and know our names, so I think it’s important that we kind of take that on, and we show that we are empowered women and that we will fight for things that we believe in, like pay equity” (ESPN, “USWNT lawsuit: What we know and what it means going forward,” 03.11.19).

These players deserve our greatest applause and support. It’s a shame, however, that, while preparing to go to battle in the rapidly approaching World Cup, the American women must also continue this fight. U.S. Soccer must do better.

When the World Cup opens in early June, I’ll be watching, rooting for another American win, rooting for another moment like Wambach’s goal eight years ago and rooting for another piece of sports magic that USWNT athletes produce—despite the wrongs of their federation.

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