NEW YORK —The U.S. women’s national soccer team is gearing up for the Women’s World Cup, which begins in just two weeks. But the players are also busy with send-off matches, mural unveilings, and an appearance on “Good Morning America.”
They are here not only to drum up enthusiasm ahead of the sport’s quadrennial spectacle; they aim to raise issues of equality within both U.S. circles and the soccer world.
“There is so much potential, so much untapped potential,” said Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder. “I don’t really understand why there is such a resistance toward going all in on women. It’s pretty clear women in sport have not been treated with the same care and financing as men’s sports have. No one is really arguing about that anymore. I don’t understand why the action step is not there with it.”
As the Group F opener against Thailand on June 11 in Reims approaches, the Americans will turn full attention to on-field matters, such as tactics and formations. The long runway to the tournament, however, has provided opportunity to discuss fairness and the future.
Issues between the women’s program and the U.S. Soccer Federation have simmered for years and periodically rise to the surface. The latest shot came in March when the women filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the Chicago-based governing body.
With the Women’s World Cup near — and the most attention on the sport since 2015, when the United States won its third title before the largest TV audience (23 million) in U.S. soccer history — the timing of the lawsuit was no coincidence. The players are taking their grievances to an increasingly attentive public.
A fear among fans is that the legal action will threaten to distract from the team’s on-field mission.
On Friday, Coach Jill Ellis allayed such concerns.
“It doesn’t enter the locker room. It doesn’t enter the meeting space,” she said. “Part of it is we are working together and making this work. Yeah, I understand. I am a woman. I have a young daughter. I understand a lot of the bigger, social issues out there, but I also know right now the job is to get the team focused — and they are focused.”
Ellis is caught in the middle of the dispute: a USSF employee who, over five years, has built strong bonds with the core of players.
“I am really fortunate to have an incredibly professional group of women,” Ellis said. “Players understand we support them, we have their backs, on and off the field. We have to be this way.”
Beyond the players’ complaints with the USSF, they are also fighting for women’s soccer worldwide. FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, is starting to come around after dragging its feet on the female game, and many national federations have underfunded their women’s programs.
“Strides have been made, but in terms of [FIFA’s] capacity for change and their ability to change — obviously they have essentially unlimited resources — I don’t think it’s really been a huge change at all,” Rapinoe said.
FIFA has doubled the pool of Women’s World Cup winnings to $30 million, but at the same time, the gap between men and women continues to widen. The men’s pool has reached $400 million, from $358 million.
Attention on women’s soccer globally, though, is growing. For instance, the Women’s FA Cup in England has drawn more than 43,000 fans in each of the past two seasons and club matches from Italy to Mexico are setting records.
“We’ve seen the women’s game grow tremendously on the pitch. We’ve also seen it grow off the pitch,” veteran forward Carli Lloyd said. “You are seeing other federations support their teams more and more. It’s massive. It’s growing and growing, and that’s what we want to see.”
Still, battles remain.
On the biggest day in women’s soccer — July 7, the World Cup final in Lyon — international officials also scheduled championship games of two men’s tournaments: Copa America (in South America) and Gold Cup (contested by teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean).