The Best Women’s Soccer Team in the World Fights for Equal Pay

In spring 2018, Abby Wambach, the most decorated soccer player in American history, gave a commencement address at Barnard College that went viral. The player who had scored more goals than any other, male or female, in international competition described standing onstage at the ESPYs the year after she retired in 2015, receiving the Icon Award alongside two peers, Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant. “I felt so grateful,” she recalled. “I had a momentary feeling of having arrived; like, we women had finally made it.” As the athletes exited the stage, each having, as Wambach put it, “left it all on the field for decades with the same ferocity, talent and commitment,” it occurred to her that while the sacrifices the men made for their careers were nearly identical to her own, their new lives would not resemble hers in one fundamental way. “Kobe and Peyton walked away from their careers with something I didn’t have: enormous bank accounts,” Wambach said. “Because of that, they had something else I didn’t have: freedom. Their hustling days were over; mine were just beginning.”

The United States women’s national team is the best in the world and has been for decades. Since the FIFA Women’s World Cup was inaugurated in 1991, the United States has won three of the seven titles, including the most recent one in 2015. Since women’s soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996, it has won four of six gold medals. The team has been ranked No.1 by FIFA for 10 of the last 11 years and has produced some of the biggest female sports stars of the last several decades, from Mia Hamm to Wambach to the current starting center forward, Alex Morgan. The squad playing at the World Cup this month in France includes Morgan; her accomplice on the left wing, the Tilda Swinton doppelgänger Megan Rapinoe; and the previous World Cup’s hat-trick-scoring hero, Carli Lloyd; along with newcomers like the elegant but deadly Mallory Pugh and the ingenious, bruising midfielder Lindsey Horan. The American team is favored to successfully defend its title, despite a field of opponents whose depth, fitness and all-around sophistication improved drastically even in the past four years, reflecting the rapid growth of women’s soccer globally. “This is the first World Cup where I feel like — and I’m rejoicing over this — I can count potential World Cup winners on more than one hand,” the former player and current ESPN commentator Julie Foudy said when calling a recent match between the United States and Mexico.

It was particularly important, then, in the months leading up to this moment, for the American women to keep their focus, minimize distractions and avoid drama at all costs. Which they did, with one enormous exception. On March 8, they sued the United States Soccer Federation, claiming “purposeful gender discrimination.” “The bottom line is simple,” the star defender Becky Sauerbrunn said in a statement. “It is wrong for us to be paid and valued less for our work because of our gender.” Rapinoe, also in a statement, mentioned the responsibility the team feels to advocate “on behalf of our teammates, future teammates, fellow women athletes and women all around the world.” This was 95 days before the team’s first World Cup match in France and mere weeks before the beginning of its next training camp — a weeklong blend of intense practice and tryouts aimed at enabling Coach Jill Ellis and her staff to get the alchemy just right. But the players felt they could not wait. “We don’t always want to be patient,” Morgan tells me. “You have to seize the moment.”

[Why is U.S. women’s soccer still fighting to exist?]

The lawsuit’s timing may be dramatic, but it was the natural next step in a continuing dispute that centers on equal compensation. Members of the U.S.W.N.T. have been pursuing fair compensation for years, with only marginal improvement: The lawsuit asserts, for example, that from 2013 to 2016, if a male and a female national team player each played 20 exhibition games in a year, members of the men’s squad would have earned an average of $263,320, while members of the women’s squad would have earned a maximum of $99,000. The suit also claims that “during the period relevant to this case,” the women’s team earned more for U.S. Soccer than the men’s team did. It cites numbers from the 2016 fiscal year that indicate that the federation had expected a combined net loss for the national teams of $429,929, but that largely because of the women’s team’s successes it revised its projections to a $17.7 million profit.

In a response filed on May 7, U.S. Soccer denies many of the specifics provided in the lawsuit, including those mentioned above, but it doesn’t dispute that the men’s and women’s players are not paid equally. Instead, it asserts that those inequities are a result of “different pay structures for performing different work.” It characterizes as “misleading and inaccurate” the claims that the women’s team generates more revenue than the men’s, while also framing the women’s and men’s teams as so different from each other that they can’t legitimately be compared at all. This is true in at least one sense: The women are way, way better. The men’s national team lost in the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup and didn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. American men haven’t won an Olympic medal in more than a century. Partly as a consequence of their superior results, from 2015 to 2018, the women’s team played 19 more matches than the men. In other words, the women aren’t working as hard as their male counterparts for less money; they’re working harder for less money. For the record, the men’s team’s players association released a statement of full-throated support for their women’s team compatriots and the mutual goal of equal pay.

In her Barnard speech, Wambach said she regretted being so caught up in gratitude for what she and her peers did receive that she “missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us.” Her former teammates do not intend to make that same mistake. They are better paid than any women’s sports team in history, and at least as well known, but it’s not enough. Not only because by the players’ calculations they are making as little as 38 cents to their male counterparts’ dollar, but because these players feel a responsibility to fight, in public, on the biggest stage possible, while they can. “It’s wonderful to be a professional athlete and feel fulfilled, but at the same time, what sort of legacy do you want to leave?” Morgan wonders. “I had this dream of being a professional soccer player, and I never knew it entailed being a role model, being an inspiration, standing up for things I believe in, standing up for gender equality. But now I don’t know a world where I just play soccer. It goes hand in hand.”

On a glittering April evening in Los Angeles, 20,941 fans crowded into the Banc of California Stadium, home to Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles F.C., to watch the American women trounce the 20th-ranked Belgians, 6-0, in a match of no real consequence. (This was one of several exhibition matches, known as “friendlies,” the women’s team played before leaving for France.) Three teenage girls gathered on the south end of the stadium near the Belgian goal. Two wanted to head up to the mezzanine to see if they could get a glimpse of the Hollywood celebrities in the house — Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria and Uzo Aduba were all in the V.I.P. box, hanging out with Megan Rapinoe, who was not playing because of a mild injury. But one of the teenagers, a tall brunette in jean shorts and a cropped T-shirt, wasn’t ready to go actress hunting yet. She stood staring at the action on the pitch, mesmerized. “Let me just see this last play,” she pleaded — and right then, Carli Lloyd cut back behind her defender and threaded a perfect pass to Alex Morgan, who chipped it into the back of the net.

The official Time’s Up Instagram account later posted a photo of the actresses, all Time’s Up supporters, in their U.S.W.N.T. jerseys, with the caption “It’s time for U.S. Soccer Federation to pay their women players what they deserve.” That Time’s Up is choosing to formally align itself, and its quest for equal pay in Hollywood, with the women’s national team is particularly gratifying for the players. They consider their fight to be in keeping with the larger social-justice stories of this era, from the rise of explicitly feminist movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo to Black Lives Matter and L.G.B.T. advocacy. “It’s one and the same,” Rapinoe says. “I get asked this question a lot, like, ‘Where does this come from?’ or ‘Why do you stand up for these things?’ To me, it’s literally all the same, insofar as I want people to respect who I am, what I am — being gay, being a woman, being a professional athlete, whatever. That is the exact same thing as what Colin did.” Rapinoe began kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in September 2016; in March 2017, U.S. Soccer instituted a policy requiring players to “stand respectfully.” (Rapinoe now stands but does not place her hand over her heart.) “Who do you want to be?” Rapinoe says. “What kind of person do you want to be for yourself, but also in the larger context of the country and in the world?”

Serena Williams, asked by reporters to comment on the women’s soccer team’s lawsuit after a second-round victory at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., called the pay discrepancy “ludicrous,” adding, “I think at some point, in every sport, you have to have those pioneers, and maybe it’s the time for soccer.” Indeed, American women’s soccer has its original class of pioneers: the so-called 99ers, members of the 1999 World Cup-winning team. At the Los Angeles friendly, Jennifer Garner wore one of their names — Mia Hamm — on her jersey, Aduba wore the legendary goalkeeper Briana Scurry’s number and Jessica Chastain wore the jersey of a player with whom she happens to share a surname: Brandi Chastain. It was Brandi Chastain who became a kind of aesthetic allegory for the spirit of the national team when, after sinking the winning penalty against China in the 1999 final, she whipped off her jersey in celebration. The image of Chastain in her sports bra, six-pack on display, triumph on her face, is one of the most famous in the history of sports, both because it captured a huge moment in soccer and because it launched a backlash against Chastain, who was accused of being disrespectful by critics who appeared to believe it was cool for male players to celebrate in this way but uncouth for women to do the same.

[Read about the Women’s World Cup’s other inequality: rich vs. poor.]

Many of the 99ers were in attendance at the friendly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their World Cup victory. It was that win that established the Americans as women’s soccer’s first true global stars, the first group of players with the clout to move the needle on issues big (better pay) and small (getting uniforms in women’s sizes). Before that World Cup, which was held for the first time in the United States, the team was accustomed to playing to crowds of 5,000, but the 1999 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl drew 90,185 people, still the record for a women’s sporting event. After they won, the players toured the country like rock stars, visiting the White House, Disneyland and “The Late Show,” where David Letterman referred to them as “babe city.” When the dust settled, however, America’s newest sweethearts discovered that they were out of work. There was still no viable professional league in the United States.

The 99ers were determined to use the leverage gained by their victory to start a fully professional league, the W.U.S.A. But by the time the national team (including a young Abby Wambach) was defending its title four years later, the league had already folded. And so it went for the next decade. The women’s national team continued to be among the most elite in the world, but it returned home after major victories (Olympic gold in 2004, 2008, 2012) to a succession of professional leagues that never stabilized, all the while clawing out incremental financial advances in a series of collective-bargaining agreements with U.S. Soccer.

The National Women’s Soccer League, now in its seventh season, is the longest-running professional women’s soccer league ever in the United States, but its players still do not make a living wage: The minimum salary was just bumped up to $16,538. Major League Soccer pays male players a minimum salary in the $50,000-a-year range.

The women’s national team’s lawsuit will play out in a Los Angeles courtroom on a date yet to be set by the Federal District Court, where U.S. Soccer will need to show that the pay disparities between their two teams exist for some reason, any reason, other than sex. According to the women’s lawsuit, U.S. Soccer has said it can’t grant economic parity because “market realities are such that the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men.” Then there’s the “But you agreed to be paid less” argument, which appears to be central to U.S. Soccer’s strategy: In April 2017, the women’s national team and U.S. Soccer signed a new collective-bargaining agreement in which the women gained ground but did not receive the equal pay they were hoping for. “It was the best deal we could get at the time,” Rapinoe says.

The previous agreement had been in place since 2013. As the 2016 Olympics loomed, the female players were reportedly considering striking — hoping to leverage their position as defending gold medalists to increase their shot at earning equal compensation in their next collective-bargaining agreement — when U.S. Soccer sued to prevent them from doing so and won.

Shortly before that ruling came down, five members of the team — Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo, the goalkeeper at the time — filed a federal discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is required before you can sue. This February, when the team was between training camps, the five original players named in the 2016 complaint finally received a response in the form of “right to sue” letters, meaning that no determination had been reached one way or another and that they had 90 days to file suit in federal court. So they did.

The 2019 Women’s World Cup is expected to be the most watched in history. In the United States, these matches will most likely be among the highest-rated soccer games ever played. (The 2015 final in Canada, between the United States and Japan, averaged 23 million English-language viewers in the States, six million more than the 2014 Men’s World Cup final.) Yes, the Americans are favored, but no team in the history of the Women’s World Cup has ever won back-to-back titles, and the United States has lately shown some vulnerability. The last major tournament it won was the 2015 World Cup. In 2017, it failed to perform as well as expected in two invitational events hosted on home soil, coming in last in the SheBelieves Cup and finishing second to Australia in the Tournament of Nations. At that point, several senior players, in what Sports Illustrated called a “player revolt,” initiated conversations with U.S. Soccer about replacing Coach Jill Ellis.

This unrest came in the wake of the most psychologically gutting performance in team history, at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. For the first time ever, the team failed to make the Olympic gold medal match; they lost on penalty kicks to Sweden in the quarterfinals. To say the humiliation of this defeat still stings is to put it mildly. “A lot of the players on this team that have never been to a World Cup did go to the Olympics and were a part of the team that didn’t perform as well as we should have and had the worst exit that we’ve ever had in the Olympics, and we never want to replicate that ever in this program, but especially this World Cup,” Alex Morgan told me in an unusually breathless burst. “That’s definitely in the back of my mind.” At the end of 2017, U.S. Soccer made it clear that Ellis was staying, and by 2018 things had stabilized a bit; the team went undefeated last year. But in their first match of 2019, they lost 3-1 to France, a rising power that will no doubt be emboldened this summer, playing on its home turf.

In filing suit when they did, the players set themselves up for a very tense few months — in part because they believe that their performance on the pitch holds the key to their progress off it. “Always and forever, how well the team does on the biggest stage is probably the most important thing,” Rapinoe says. “That’s what I stress to these kids,” she continues, referring to the younger players like Pugh and Horan, who walked into the national team’s world believing that their job was merely to play the best soccer of their lives and are now learning that’s only part of it. “Everything is more and better,” Rapinoe says. “I want them to understand that it’s better because we earned it; but it’s also better because we won. The most important thing is continuing to win.”

In the lobby of a boutique hotel in downtown Santa Barbara, where the national team stayed during its World Cup training camp in March, well-heeled tourists poured cucumber water from glass vats and discussed where to lunch. The whole place smelled like expensive candles. “No more Marriott Residence Inn for us,” Rapinoe said with a grin after settling into an overstuffed love seat next to a stunning bouquet of flowers.

About an hour earlier, the 28 athletes who were in contention for the World Cup team (23 would make the cut) finished practice. As some traipsed through the lobby, sweaty and joking with one another, a few sang the chorus to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” (“Can’t nobody tell me nothin’/You can’t tell me nothin’ ”), which had been a fixture in camp. Soon they would shower and have group lunch. The day before, the players also had morning training followed by lunch, then a meeting with the team’s sports psychologist before group dinner. After training, there are ice baths and other recovery work. This is how the players’ lives are programmed: Eat, train, recover, eat, sleep, repeat. “Soccer is like ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” Rapinoe says. “It’s great, it’s fine, but it’s not that exciting all the time.”

“We know the sacrifices we make; it’s no different than what men make,” Carli Lloyd says. “We’re away from our families. We’re away from our friends. We’re spending every waking hour dedicating ourselves to this.” If an international squad is a collection of roles filled by a rotating cast of actual human beings, Lloyd is currently in the “seasoned veteran in the twilight of her career” spot, the one Wambach was in during the last World Cup. A two-time FIFA player of the year, Lloyd scored a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the 2015 final against Japan, topping off an already remarkable run of play. Lloyd is 36 now. She feels as sharp as ever, she says, and has been playing largely as a second-half substitute in these recent friendlies, scoring thrilling clutch goals. But she is not likely to get a ton of playing time in France, and even if she does, this is almost certainly her last World Cup.

When I joked about how it would be amusing to try to train with her, she snickered and told me about one reporter who tried that and tore her A.C.L. — “You could hear the pop” — and another who broke her wrist trying to block a Lloyd shot. But Lloyd turned wistful when she shared that she and her husband are planning to start a family in the next few years, but in looking at their bank account she realized: “I can’t just say, ‘O.K., this is my last game, and I’ve made tens of millions of dollars and it’s stashed away and we’re good.’ ” For the moment, Lloyd has no interest in retiring. She remains committed to the lawsuit — though she acknowledges she “may be done playing by the time this gets resolved” — and to winning in France. She also deeply enjoys the rigorous two-a-day training sessions she does when home in New Jersey. This is all part of what Lloyd calls her eternal addiction to “chasing something I need to improve on.”

They all talk like this, about a state of permanent dissatisfaction and a pleasure taken in pursuing the very perfection they know is unattainable. The one thing every of them has is this superhuman drive. “Players come in all the time, great players, sometimes more talented players,” says the forward Christen Press, the squad’s resident “What does it all mean?” existential philosopher, who first played on the team in 2012. “The players that survive here are the most competitive ones. No one on this team has been here for more than two years and not felt like they had their face planted on the ground. Many just don’t get up. The people that last here get up.” She continues: “It’s such a small, elite group that you’re filtered out if you don’t have that.”

If Lloyd represents one role in the life cycle of a national team player, Lindsey Horan represents its opposite: the young-gun rising star and one of the picks to emerge from this World Cup a newly minted superstar. Her path is itself a testament to the progress that has been made in opportunities for American women who love to play soccer. When Lloyd made her debut on the team in 2005, there was still no viable professional league in the United States. Lloyd played all four years at Rutgers, then came to the national team “right when they were negotiating stable salaries and contracts,” she remembers. Horan, on the other hand, went straight to the pros from high school. This is a controversial move. Press calls it “crazy” for most players, laughing and shaking her head. “The league is not stable enough,” she explains. “If you’re playing in the N.B.A., you can make two years of your salary and pay for your college anytime you want to go back. But that’s not the case with the N.W.S.L.”

Advisable or not, by 2012, when Horan got on the plane to France to begin her time at Paris Saint-Germain, professional women’s leagues were prominent enough, in the States and in Europe, that such a move was possible. It was her dream, so she went for it. Horan is not much for keeping her cards close to her chest. Getting called up, training, playing well in international tournaments, then focusing on showing her best game in camp these last months has been enough of a challenge, she says, without the added pressure to become a civil rights activist overnight. “It has been very hard,” Horan says. “I’ve always just been like: Oh, I love soccer. I love being here. I’m so happy to be a part of this team.” But lately, that has shifted. “I’ve always wanted to just stay out of that and focus on the game, but now I think that is almost selfish, because we do have a voice, and so many people watch us, and we’re their inspirations, and we’re their idols, and us speaking up is huge.”

The “four or five girls that are very vocal” who Horan says helped her reach this conclusion — the team leaders when it comes to advocacy — have a knack for instilling a sense of social responsibility in others. “We try, first of all, education,” Rapinoe says. “We break down the inequities. We tell them: This is why we are choosing to take this stance, for these reasons. We try to show specifically how it affects each individual player, but then also the team as a whole.” Could someone have declined to join the lawsuit if she wanted to? “Yeah,” says Rapinoe, slowly. “It’s always possible, and we had some players that took longer.” But, she says, “If you want the door open, you have to open it.”

On a welcome bright April day after a very wet stretch in Denver, 10-year-old Lilli and her 9-year-old friend, Reese, sat in their soccer kits, legs dangling off white folding chairs, in front of City Hall. This was a school day, but Reese’s mother brought them to watch two of their heroes, Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh, receive an honorary street sign and a “challenge coin,” the equivalent of a key to the city. Pugh and Horan are both Denver-area natives, and both came up through the hypercompetitive ranks of Colorado youth soccer. They are models for what Lilli and Reese plan to become when they grow up: pro soccer players. “It’s educational!” Lilli insisted of this field trip for two. Then she showed off the ball, shoes, shin guards and backpack she had brought to have signed. By which player? “Both of them!” Lilli plays offense, and this kind of game-day aggressiveness will come in handy for her on the field, for sure, but it may be even more important off the field if she’s serious about a career in professional soccer.

Watching Horan and Pugh stand only somewhat awkwardly next to the mayor, with their parents snapping pictures and a local news crew on hand to document the quaint pageantry, felt like watching the opening scene in a biopic. Each is already a groundbreaker: Pugh is the youngest American player, at 17, ever to play in an Olympic-qualifying match, and Horan is the first American woman to go straight from high school to the pros. They now play for top teams in the N.W.S.L. — Pugh for the Washington Spirit, Horan for the Portland Thorns — and they have high-profile endorsement deals (Pugh with Nike, Horan with Adidas). Pugh and Horan didn’t know this yet, but they would each make the World Cup squad — another milestone reached. But the question remains: Will one or both of these players break the record so many of her predecessors could not and become the first in women’s soccer history to retire without having to worry about her next paycheck? And if not Pugh or Horan, how about by the time we get to Lilli or Reese?

The 28 women suing U.S. Soccer have, in some cases, very little in common other than their sport. Avowed Christians and atheists, gay and straight, politically active and not, they have nonetheless rallied behind this collective cause. “You really do need everyone,” Rapinoe says. “It’s a crazy intimate environment. We’re not all really, really close, but we’re extremely intimate.” At the hotel in Santa Barbara, she brought up the concept of “the double earn,” a reference to the unpaid labor taken on by women, especially at home, that goes largely unacknowledged; Rapinoe was drawing a parallel between that work and the work that she and her teammates are having to do to secure equal rights that should already be theirs. The soccer players, differences aside, have something powerful in common besides competitive drive: They are, every one of them, from 20-year-old defender Tierna Davidson to 36-year-old Carli Lloyd, pulling a double shift. “We really don’t want to be doing all of this all of the time,” Rapinoe says. “We’d much prefer to not be engaging in litigations. We’d much prefer not to have to be the nag in the room. We’d prefer to be thought partners and business partners.” Rapinoe sat up a little straighter in her seat. “But obviously that’s not the case.”

Lizzy Goodman is a journalist and the author of “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” an oral history of music in New York City from 2001-11. She last wrote about the musician Kacey Musgraves.

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