The U.S. women’s national team is in the middle of the 2017 SheBelieves Cup, a three-game tournament held in the U.S., and the team’s only major international competition of the year. They beat Germany 1-0 on Wednesday in Pennsylvania, play England on Saturday in New Jersey, and face France in Tuesday’s finale in Washington, D.C.
But after these games, the immediate future of women’s soccer in the U.S. gets a whole lot murkier, thanks to the current black box of contract negotiations between the USWNT and the U.S. Soccer Federation. Will they reach a collective bargaining agreement? The National Women’s Soccer League season, subsidized by U.S. Soccer, is looming. Could the USWNT members strike, depriving the NWSL of its best players and biggest draws? They have flirted with the idea before (notably before the Olympics), but now—with the added attention of the SheBelieves Cup and the upcoming NWSL season—a strike threat might be the best leverage they have.
In late December 2016, days before the existing collective bargaining agreement was set to expire, the union fired its executive director Rich Nichols, who also represented five U.S. players in their Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against U.S. soccer that was filed last March. The complaint alleged “gross disparity of wages,” which U.S. Soccer attributed to the fact that the USMNT is compensated on a pay-for-play model and that the men’s team brings in more money than the USWNT. (The USWNT has also beefed with U.S. Soccer over having to pay on artificial turf, a subpar, potentially dangerous surface that their male counterparts do not play on.)
On firing their union head, the team said:
Rich Nichols will no longer serve as counsel to the U.S.W.N.T. Players Association. ... We are focused on productive conversations with U.S. Soccer regarding our future. We are also grateful for the tremendous ongoing support for women’s soccer from all of our beloved fans worldwide, and look forward to seeing everyone over the course of the NWSL season, as well as at the 2017 SheBelieves Cup in March.
With no new agreement in place, both the team and the federation have continued operating under the terms of the expired CBA, which can only be ended with 60 days’ notification from either side.
Then in mid-January, with no reports of contract talks, Alex Morgan told the Guardian that a player strike wasn’t out of the question.
“It’s necessary for change sometimes,” Morgan says of a possible strike. “It wouldn’t be the first time women decided to strike. Colombia and a couple of other countries might do the same. And Australia didn’t play us a year ago because of the same battle. We were supposed to play them in a few weeks and they decided not to get on the flight because they weren’t getting paid what they were worth – or anywhere close.
“To force a change sometimes you need to stand up. You know what you’re worth – rather than what your employer is paying you. We’re not scared. To move the women’s game ahead we need to do what’s necessary. I feel other national teams are looking at us for that guidance.”
She also said:
“We don’t have a World Cup or Olympics to use as leverage while we negotiate a new contract. But we have an important tournament coming up [in March]. The SheBelieves Cup brings France, England and Germany to the US. Before we play those matches we want to get a deal done so we can move on.”
But even though a deal didn’t get done, the USWNT was evidently unwilling to miss its only international tournament of the year by going on strike.
A month after firing Nichols, the USWNT restructured its players’ union, electing Becky Sauerbrunn, Christen Press and Meghan Klingenberg to leadership roles and hiring a new union executive director, Becca Roux. Talks resumed and U.S. soccer President Sunil Gulati said the tone of the negotiations had changed, which he called a “positive.”
But since then, there has been nary a peep from either side about what a potential contract agreement might be. If there was ever a time to apply the type of pressure Morgan described, it could be now, under the relative spotlight of the SheBelieves Cup, and before NWSL preseason training camps begin on March 13.
In an apparently unrelated move, NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush announced Thursday that he is stepping down “to pursue new opportunities.
U.S. Soccer subsidizes players’ salaries for the 10-team NWSL, which is entering its fifth season. And after two other failed U.S. women’s leagues, it’s committed to this one’s success—It would be a huge embarrassment if the reigning World Cup champion nation couldn’t keep any of its best players on domestic rosters. (As it is, some national team players are already fleeing to Europe amid the contract uncertainty, a bruise for the league). The NWSL also just inked a three-year television deal with A&E, making it even more important that matches are as competitive and entertaining as possible.
Sauerbrunn told the Associated Press in February that the players would not publicly discuss the negotiations.
“Hopefully, the next time we talk to the public about it, we’ll have the CBA signed and done and we can talk more about the specifics at that time,” she said.
She’s stuck to her promise so far, and it’s unclear what’s happening with the negotiations. Maybe they’re going great; maybe they aren’t. But if it’s the latter, there won’t be a better time than now for the players to play their last card and announce an NWSL season strike.