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In Fight for Equality, U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Leads the Way

HARRISON, N.J. — Two years after they began a public fight for equal pay, and a year after they signed a new collective bargaining agreement, members of the United States women’s soccer team have emerged as a new kind of role model, and a surprisingly valuable resource, for women’s teams from around the world.

Canada’s soccer team asked for advice on how to get maternity coverage into contracts. W.N.B.A. players did the same when they had questions about how best to press their owners for leaguewide standards on issues like hotels, travel and trainers. And last fall, a player from the United States women’s hockey team reached out.

Only months before the Pyeongchang Olympics, the player said, U.S.A. Hockey was still dragging its feet about marketing promises that had been made when the players used strike threats to win a major pay increase in March 2017. The team, a gold medal contender, still didn’t even have its own social media accounts. Could the soccer team’s union recommend a marketing consultant who could do what the hockey federation apparently would not?

“I think right now there’s really a women’s coming-together movement, and it’s happening in sport and outside of sport,” United States midfielder Christen Press said. “And I think people all around the world are realizing how important it is to make these connections with people on the same journey as you.”

So when the American soccer players embraced the American hockey players on the sideline before playing a 1-1 tie against France at Red Bull Arena — the reigning Women’s World Cup champions meeting the newly crowned Olympic gold medalists — the hugs seemed more genuine, more heartfelt, more personal than usual.

But little by little, other female athletes around the world have started finding their voices, too.

Spain’s national team rose up to demand the ouster of its coach after the last World Cup, and several prominent members of Brazil’s squad quit their team last year to protest the ouster of a popular female coach in favor of a man. Nigeria’s players held a sit-in at their hotel to demand unpaid salaries and bonuses after winning the African championship. Ireland’s teamthreatened to strike. Australia’s did. And in October, Norway’s players demanded — and won — equal pay with their men’s counterparts.

“This really feels like a tipping point,” said the ESPN commentator Julie Foudy, a veteran of similar gender-equity fights a generation ago after she won a Women’s World Cup.

Foudy praised the union’s new executive director, Becca Roux, for empowering the United States players to do much of the hard work themselves, both as they negotiated an improved collective bargaining agreement and in the months since it was signed. Most members of the team serve on one union subcommittee or another, and they hold elections to pick representatives. Regular meetings are held with U.S. Soccer to ensure promises are being kept.

“I think that’s probably the most gratifying part of it,” Foudy said of the women’s team’s growth as an off-field force for its own interests. “It’s that they realized and started to pay more attention to: What’s going on? Where do we want to take this? Where do we want the league to go? That’s a hugely healthy exercise.”

Their progress has not been lost on other teams, which have used the soccer team as a sounding board for their own fights. Last spring, the hockey players were among the most prominent teams to reach out — before, after, and during their battle with U.S.A. Hockey for improved pay and working conditions. The hockey players went further than their soccer counterparts — they threatened to boycott the world championships if they did not get their demands met — and they eventually prevailed.

“It’s always great when women support women,” the three-time hockey Olympian Gigi Marvin said. “But I think just as people you support one another, you support what’s right. You support what’s just and fair.”

“I’m not going to reap the benefits of what we were able to accomplish,” she added, “but my little niece is going to. My cousins playing peewee tournaments will.”

For all the teams, though, their own careers and championship ambitions remain the priority. Sunday’s soccer game was yet another chance for a swelling group of national team players to catch the eye of Coach Jill Ellis as she looks ahead to the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

Ellis has called 58 players into national team training camps since the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, including 27 who were invited for the first time. Sunday’s starting lineup included not only beloved regulars like Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Mallory Pugh, but also the 19-year-old Stanford defender Tierna Davidson and the 22-year-old midfielder Andi Sullivan, the top pick in this year’s National Women’s Soccer League draft.

The big plays still come from the most familiar faces — the Americans’ goal began with Kelley O’Hara winning a foul and Rapinoe whipping in a free kick before Pugh slammed in a rebound — but tests like France on Sunday, Germany last week and England on Wednesday in Orlando, Fla., are good for everyone.

“We get tested, we get vetted, we get to feel the ebb and flow of being up and being down,” Ellis said. “That’s why we bring these teams in, to experience that.”

Off the field, the work continues, too. The national team recently chose O’Hara to join Press and Becky Sauerbrunn as part of its three-member executive committee, and Rapinoe and Meghan Klingenberg have taken leading roles as the team continues to pursue new streams of licensing revenue outside U.S. Soccer through a group marketing firm it created with the unions representing N.F.L. and W.N.B.A. players.

But they all know the calls and messages from other athletes, on other national teams, and even in other sports, will continue. And they know many of them have much further to go.

Ireland’s women’s soccer team threatened to skip games last year because, among other things, the players were tired of sharing track suits with the country’s age-group national teams. And in September, an Argentine player revealed that she and her national teammates were paid as little as 150 pesos (about $8.50) for each training session.

“A lot of the work you do for our union, it’s for ourselves,” Press said. “But there’s always the contextualization of hoping that when you’re standing up for yourself, you’re setting a good example.

“You want to think that they’re inspired by us, we’re inspired by them, and that makes us all more powerful.”


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