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

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.”

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