The failure of the men’s national team has brought an urgency to calls for change at the federation level while longstanding issues faced by US women’s soccer continue to go overlooked
The current messy state of American soccer comes courtesy of the men’s national team. Of course, the mess existed long before they failed to qualify for the World Cup, and much of it has little to do with the specific people at Ato Boldon Stadium on October 10, 2017. Regardless, if it was not for the US men’s 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago two months ago, the future of US Soccer would not have as many question marks surrounding it. The chaos has resulted in, among other things, the first contested election for US Soccer Federation president in 20 years, with eight candidates currently in the running. That being said, the whole situation is not just about the US men’s national team.
With possibly dramatic changes coming to US Soccer this year, no matter who the next president is, everyone under the US Soccer umbrella will be impacted. Yet, as the conversation of what needs to change takes center stage in the American soccer community, the focus seems to be solely on the men’s national team. Left out almost entirely is the women’s national team.
The US women’s national team, so far, have only existed in the context of what has been called “the women’s issue” by Forbes’ Filip Bondy, their fight for equal pay. At this point, every candidate has said they support the players’ attempt to finally receive equal pay to their male counterparts, though they have not specified what exactly equal pay means. Hope Solo, one of the two women running for the office, expanded the topic to include all employees of US Soccer when she announced her candidacy. She also wants more women in the higher ranking positions of the federation. Other than that, no one has elaborated much on how they plan on accomplishing equal pay. The fact that the women’s and men’s national team players have different payment structures is hardly a topic of discussion, making it seem like an easy problem to solve for the next president of the US Soccer Federation.
This lack of thought for the women in US Soccer has carried over into how the two female candidates are perceived. Bondy also wrote in his Forbes piece that Solo is getting in the way of her own desires for US Soccer as an organization. As he writes, “If Solo wants women represented at the highest levels of US Soccer, then she really should be endorsing Carter’s candidacy to replace Gulati. A woman at the top of the organization chart would be the greatest possible message to all concerned.” This statement misinterprets Solo’s candidacy entirely, characterizing her as a candidate for women by virtue of being a woman. The same goes for Carter, who, by this description, is the other women’s candidate, again, by virtue of being a woman.
This characterization of Carter and Solo ignores their actual words as candidates and accomplishments before announcing their candidacies and lumps together all women as desiring the same outcomes in this election. To some, Carter is nothing but a “girl,” as Sal Rapaglia, the president of the Eastern New York State Soccer Association called her on multiple occasions. However, she should probably be more aligned with her work as the president of Soccer United Marketing. Her candidacy has been surrounded by questions of backing from the under fire president of US Soccer, Sunil Gulati, and MLS commissioner Don Garber, with fair questions heading her way as to whether or not she would usher dramatic change to American soccer.
Solo, meanwhile, represents something very different, as her statement announcing her candidacy indicates. The majority of her statement revolved around her experience as a youth player in Washington state, and how the structure shuts out youth players from lower income families. Solo detailed the times her parents were forced into turning down opportunities for her to grow as a player because the family could not afford it. She discussed the times she asked for money from neighbors to achieve her dreams. If anything, Solo’s candidacy is primarily about fixing the youth system, an important issue for many in the US Soccer community.
Yet, that topic does not receive much attention when it comes to its impact on the women’s national team. Many have wondered “how many [Tim] Howards and [Clint] Dempseys” the United States is losing to pay to play, but not how many Solos the nation is losing. Though the likes of Howard and Dempsey, along with others, managed to become professionals despite financial challenges as youth players, there are fewer similar stories of women’s national team players. Additionally, Doug Andreassen, former the chairman of the disbanded US Soccer diversity task force, told The Guardian that “[t]he system is not working for the underserved community. It’s working for the white kids,” something that is possibly more evident on the women’s team than it is on the men’s team. While the men’s team has had many players of color, raised domestically and abroad, over the years, the same cannot be said for the women’s team, a historically very white team. Though the USWNT’s most recent rosters are more diverse than they have been in the past, only 15 women of color have ever represented the US at the World Cup or the Olympics.
Coaching development has also been a popular matter in the months since the USMNT’s failure to qualify for Russia. The extremely high prices are keeping coaches out of getting certification, but again, this has been framed on the progression of the men’s national team. Lost in these conversations is that, of the 20 people to have received a US Soccer Pro License, only one is a woman; women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis received her certification in December as part of the second class of graduates from the course.
While women players in the US share some issues with their male counterparts, they also have issues of their own that need sorting. A pressing issue for the US women’s national team is the improvement of women’s national teams around the world, meaning the gap between the US and everyone else is closing, a point many emphasized after the team’s elimination from the 2016 Olympics in the quarterfinals. Some could argue that the USWNT handled that well in 2017 by facing as many teams in the top 20 of the FIFA rankings as they could, but it will be a constant concern for the team in the years to come. Youth development and coaching development, as mentioned earlier, can aid the process.
Additionally, The National Women’s Soccer League has also been ignored as the presidential race continues, though it has room for improvement. Thankfully, the league’s viability is not a pressing matter in the sense that it was for its predecessors, the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer. Yet, the candidates, even when prompted to “address the state of the NWSL” in the US Soccer Athlete Council survey, had little to add to the conversation. Comments other than investing further in the league financially—an important and necessary action to improve the league, though one lacking intense critical thought—were hard to find. Just because it has outlived its predecessors, though, does not make the league easy to deal with, like the equal pay issue.
US Soccer, which partly funds the league, can aid the league and try to make professional soccer a comfortable career for female players, much as it has become for a majority of MLS players. Steve Gans plans to spend part of the federation’s surplus on making sure NWSL players can live comfortably in a financial sense, while Kyle Martino proposes a profit sharing scheme between MLS and the NWSL, but other than one sentence from Carter that seem like a passing thought, the other candidates have given little indication that this issue is on their minds.
However, there is one candidate who has given thought to women’s soccer in the US beyond the issue of equal pay. The rather silent Paul Caligiuri recently penned an open letter in response to the North American Soccer League’s open letter, which stated that, among other things, the NWSL has only 18.05% of the proposed vote from US Soccer’s Professional Council. Caligiuri criticized this allocation of votes, saying that this allocation, compared to male counterpart MLS holding 57.14% of the vote, “defies both logic and fairness.”
Additionally, in his response to the Athlete Council survey, Caligiuri shared his plan to align the NWSL with the Women’s Premier Soccer League and United Women’s Soccer, two lower division leagues in a plan to ensure that “they are guaranteed financial support from US Soccer.” He would also like to create a women’s futsal league and “lobby FIFA to start an Official FIFA Women’s Futsal World Cup;” Martino has also shared a plan to create a women’s national futsal team in his plan. Finer points have yet to be shared, though this bold plan has hardly become a common topic of discussion in the weeks leading up to the election.
The US women are easy to overlook when it seems like the men’s team is a dumpster fire still burning and the women are just the reigning world champions who continue to win matches relatively comfortably. Regardless of which team is more in crisis, by doing this, it continues to set a precedent in which the success and failures of a federation are dictated solely by the success and failures of the men’s national team, leaving a sizable percentage of people who will be impacted by the impending change atop the USSF to be ignored. Undermining the women’s program would certainly not make for the improved US Soccer Federation many are looking for.
Follow Pardeep on Twitter @pcattry.