I was nine years old when Brandi Chastain slammed home the winning penalty kick at the 1999 World Cup, tore off her jersey, and made the U.S. women’s national team the talk of the soccer and sporting world.
Like so many other young girls who saw the ‘99ers play, I promised myself then and there that I would become a professional athlete, just like them. I didn’t know there wasn’t even a league for me to join at the time, but the next year I still stood up in front of the entire fifth grade at my school and, wearing a Mia Hamm jersey, announced my intention to grow up and become a professional soccer player.
Fast forward to my fifth year at the University of Michigan, and, after watching multiple leagues rise and fall over the previous 13 years, there was once again no professional women’s soccer league operating in the US. I was prepared to move on to life after soccer when the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) formed.
I retired last year after spending seven years as a goalkeeper in the NWSL (and three offseasons playing abroad). And though I and so many teammates managed to fulfill our childhood dreams of playing professional soccer, I can’t help but look back and think that while my generation may have followed in the ‘99ers footsteps, it’s unclear if we made it that much further down the path.
What A Day
As everyone knows, the USWNT is currently locked in a fairly contentious fight with U.S. Soccer over accusations of gender discrimination and unequal pay. In December, the two sides reached a settlement on all non-pay related issues, with the women now set to receive improved accommodations, travel arrangements, and training support, bringing them on par with the men’s side.
It’s a victory, yes, but it also shouldn’t have been a fight. And frankly, it’s tough to celebrate something that everyone should take for granted.
The hope for leaguers like myself was always that any benefits the USWNT secured would trickle down to those of us playing in the NWSL. (While most national team players also play for NWSL clubs, their contracts are paid for by U.S. Soccer.) A win for the USWNT meant a win for women’s soccer.
But if the benefits trickled down, so too did the headaches and hurdles. And while equal pay gets all the attention, players have often considered the discrepancy in work conditions to be a more flagrant insult from the powers that be.
One of my worst professional memories is of playing on a minor-league baseball outfield against Western New York because their stadium had been booked for a TLC concert. The field wasn’t even a rectangle, and I’m not even sure all the lines were straight. Because of this, Jess McDonald could basically use a throw-in to land the ball in the six yard box from just about anywhere in her offensive half. Her arm strength, the field’s shape, and the fact that there’s no offsides on a throw-in meant that Western New York could post up inside the goal mouth during every throw. Running to try and catch one, I stepped on my own player, blew out my ankle, and Western New York scored.
Our hosts didn’t have the proper medical equipment on hand to get me off the field and en route to the hospital. They eventually called an ambulance, but only after first trying to load me into the back of a landscaping vehicle that still had dirt in its bed. You can’t make this shit up.
And then there’s the issue of turf.
All soccer insiders know that turf causes more injuries than grass. When Zlatan Ibrahimović played for the L.A. Galaxy, he refused to suit up on artificial turf unless it was “life or death” (which is Zlatan-speak for playoffs). Because some MLS teams have been forced to adopt turf due to circumstance or climate, it’s long been the norm for elite players like Nani or Wayne Rooney to skip matches on turf fields with minor (and convenient) injuries, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where turf is the norm.
I played on turf for five years in Seattle. Bad turf. I was backing up Hope Solo at the time, and I remember her asking the grounds crew at an away match before a game to smooth out a rough area in front of the goal. They laughed and waved her off. A few minutes into the game, an opposing player tore her ACL after slipping on that very spot.
While Zlatan is allowed to publicly declare he won’t play on turf, Hope Solo (a World Cup champ, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and probably the greatest women’s keeper to ever play the game) can’t even get a field properly raked.
Thanks to their recent settlement, the USWNT will no longer have to play on turf. That’s great! Of course, the team never should have had to play on the surface in the first place. Then again, it’s not like FIFA set such a sterling precedent for U.S. Soccer to follow: the 2015 Women’s World Cup was played on turf in Canada, an affront the men’s side has never had to endure.
Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and several other international players sued FIFA ahead of time, but to no avail. During the tournament, temperatures on the field exceeded 120 degrees, and players complained of long recovery times, excessive blisters, and having to adjust their game to the unusual bounce and roll caused by a plastic pitch.
But the turf issue is just the tip of the iceberg. The USWNT has for years been forced to put up with inferior conditions across the board, has still outperformed its male counterparts, and yet all along, U.S. Soccer has paid the women less. They’ve also had to put up with inferior travel arrangements (i.e. commercial flights around the world), training support, and even hotel choices. Imagine an office space where the women must use dial-up internet while the men get high-speed wireless. And now imagine this persisting for 20 years, despite the women consistently distinguishing themselves as the best in the world.
“I’m exhausted talking about this,” Brandi Chastain said in 2019. And it’s easy to see why: the ‘99ers themselves staged a boycott of U.S. Soccer in 2000 over unequal pay. Now here we are 20 years later, and the advances for USWNT players amount to little more than fewer turf burns and less jet lag.
And look, I get it. The equal pay stuff is complicated. I’m not a lawyer, and I frankly have no idea how negotiators will resolve issues like back pay and bonuses, or what we should think about the fact that the USWNT agreed to the collective-bargaining agreement they are now fighting against (the team says it wasn’t given any better options). But it’s easy to get lost in the legal details and ignore what’s been plainly obvious to those of us who have lived in this space for years: U.S. Soccer has continually underinvested in its women’s national team. Last February, the federation showed its true colors in a blatantly misogynistic legal filing which argued that women were inherently inferior to men, and that the men’s national team, which didn’t even qualify for the last World Cup, has “more responsibility” than the women’s team. The backlash to the filing eventually led then-U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro to resign.
I don’t want to say things haven’t gotten better over time. They have. The settlement, while long overdue, is an improvement, and it now sets the players up to focus exclusively on pay during their next CBA negotiations, which will begin at the end of this year.
At the international level, FIFA has doubled the prize money for the next Women’s World Cup (to a sum that’s still much smaller than the men’s prize). And while we still haven’t achieved equal pay in the U.S., the team’s efforts have inspired other countries to answer the call: Norway, Brazil, and Australia have all announced that their women will be offered the same pay structures as their men.
Domestically, the NWSL looks poised for explosive growth. Viewership soared by 500 percent in 2020, and a group of high profile investors will bring a new team to Los Angeles in 2022. The league has clearly improved from a player’s perspective, as well. Minimum and maximum salaries have increased, and the standards for fields, housing, and general support have drastically improved.
After Cordeiro resigned, he was replaced by Cindy Parlow Cone, a member of that famed ‘99ers squad and the first woman to hold the U.S. Soccer presidency. Parlow Cone has promised to remake U.S. Soccer, and after apologizing to players for the federation’s “anti-kneeling” national-anthem policy, negotiating this latest settlement, and promising to pursue equal pay, she’s up for re-election in February.
Just as in 1999, when Parlow Cone was a player, we’ve reached a pivotal moment for women’s soccer. Continuing in the right direction isn’t enough. We can’t afford for the next 20 years to progress as slowly as the last 20 did.
I loved playing soccer professionally. Despite all the growing pains, I would have played until I was 80 if my body and the money had allowed it. Passion mattered more than any paycheck, yet throughout my career, I watched so many of my friends retire early because they couldn’t afford to continue pursuing their dreams.
Equal pay for the USWNT won’t bring them back to the game, but it could mark a new era in the history of the sport, one that has always been defined by the passion, grit, and sheer determination of its players. The dawn of that era might have taken a little longer than expected to arrive, but as we enter 2021, it feels closer than ever before.
Haley Kopmeyer played seven seasons in the NWSL for Seattle Reign FC and the Orlando Pride. She now does social and athlete outreach for Just Women’s Sports.