Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
Today is Equal Pay Day, a symbolic event dedicated to raising awareness about the gender pay gap. And the women’s national team, which is taking its federation to court to raise awareness of that gap in U.S. soccer, moved a big step closer to equality in one measurement when a corporate sponsor promised to make up the difference between World Cup bonuses paid to men’s and women’s players.
LUNA Bar, a nutrition bar marketed to women, said Tuesday it will give each of the 23 players on the U.S. team this summer $31,250, which the women say is the difference between bonuses paid by the federation to players on the men’s and women’s World Cup rosters.
“Unfortunately U.S. Soccer hasn’t closed that gap,” said forward Megan Rapinoe, who hopes to play in her third World Cup this summer in France. “But the market is there. The appetite is there.”
“They believe in us,” she continued, pointing to corporate sponsors such as LUNA Bar and Adidas, who announced last month that the bonuses it will pay Adidas-sponsored players on the winning team in the Women’s World Cup will be equal to what it paid players on France’s world championship men’s team last year. “They believe in the bigger fight.”
The 28 players in the national team pool filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles last month saying U.S. Soccer slights the women in pay, bonuses and per diems as well as travel and other accommodations.
The federation has pushed back claiming – correctly – that U.S. Soccer has spent millions of dollars to subsidize the National Women’s Soccer League, pay the guaranteed club salaries for national team players and provide insurance and other benefits it doesn’t offer the men.
Now Congress is involved, with 34 senators -- including Californians Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris -- last week sending a letter to U.S. Soccer Federation president Carlos Cordeiro urging him to address the issue of pay disparity.
Cordeiro has already pledged to do that in his own letter, writing that he is “committed to working with our USWNT players and understanding specifically where they believe improvement is needed.”
Meanwhile other countries are making progress of their own. Last week Canada Soccer reached a two-year compensation agreement with its women’s team that general secretary Peter Montopoli says will subsidize the club salaries of select players and pay per diems equal to that given the men’s team. And last year, after the men’s players transferred some of their money to the women’s program, Norway’s federation agreed to equal pay for both national teams.
(It should be noted the teams aren’t really equal. The Norwegian men, who have won just one World Cup game since World War II, are ranked 48th in the world by FIFA while the women, who have won world and Olympic championships, are 12th.)
“As the game progresses internationally, everybody wins. That’s the cool thing,” said U.S. forward Alex Morgan. “There has been a lot of development in European soccer on the women’s side. And that’s fantastic for us. We take pride in pushing things forward.
“This country and this team have always been looked at as a leader in what we’re doing for women and girls. And it will continue to be that way.”
Is Canadian soccer putting hockey on ice?
Hockey and soccer are pretty similar when it comes to the objectives of the games but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the success Canada has had with the two sports. Many of the best hockey players in the world come from the Great White North while the country’s men’s soccer team has mostly been an afterthought --- if that.
Canada has played in one World Cup, losing all three games and failing to score a goal in 1986. And it’s made it past the group stage in the CONCACAF Gold Cup just once in the last four tournaments.
But LAFC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye, who helped Canada qualify for this summer’s Gold Cup with a 4-1 win over French Guiana last month, said the country’s soccer fortunes are looking up.
“We’re going in the right direction,” said Kaye, a Toronto native who has seven caps with Canada. “There’s been a lot of turnover within the CFA. So it’s been hard to create a consistency from top to bottom. But I think now with John Herdman as our head coach and the staff he has underneath him, there’s a real sense of where we want to be as a country and as a team going forward.
“Even this Gold Cup, we’re going there to win it. I think in other years it’s been ‘OK, let’s get out of our group and see how it goes from there.’ But we have a real sense of urgency to do well.”
Herdman, a Brit, guided the Canadian women’s team to a gold medal in the Pan Am Games, bronze medals in the last two Olympics and to the quarterfinals of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, to which Canada played host. And since moving the men’s side he’s won all five games he’s managed, with his team outscoring opponents 19-2.
The young talent pool Herdman can draw on may be the deepest in Canada’s history, including teenage midfielder Alphonso Davies, who plays for Bayern Munich; 19-year-old forward Jonathan David of Belgium’s Gent, who has four goals in as many international games; and forward Lucas Cavallini, 26, who plays in Mexico with Puebla.
Yet Canada is ranked 79th in the world, five spots behind the Cape Verde Island and two places ahead of Curacao
“We haven’t really gotten the respect that we deserve yet. And that’s fair,” said Kaye, 24. “You need to beat top-tier opponents in order to get that.”
Canada will get that chance this fall in the Nations League, where it has been drawn into a three-team group with the U.S. and Cuba, meaning it will get a home-and-home series with the Americans, a team Canada has played just once since 2013.
“We always want to test ourselves against top opponents. The fact that we’re in the group with the U.S. is good. It’s right there,” Kaye said. “There’s no excuses anymore.”
If they succeed, Kaye said that will accelerate a trend that could have soccer challenging hockey for sporting supremacy in Canada.
“I think it already has,” said Kaye, who admits he was a poor skater as a kid despite the fact the skill was mandatory in winter gym class. “It depends on what you’re grading it on. If you’re grading it on world power, then obviously hockey is going to win. But I think when it comes to the amount of kids playing the sport, soccer has already passed hockey in that sense.
“It’s cheaper. It’s easy to set up. It’s easier on the parents. Hockey was more of a rich players sport when I was growing up. All my friends played hockey because they had money. I didn’t have money.”
Viva Mexico (and its Argentine coach)
The Tata Martino era in Mexico is off to a far more successful start than even the coach anticipated, with El Tri rolling to impressive exhibition wins over Chile and Paraguay last month in California.
And just think how good they’ll be when Martino calls up Carlos Vela, who scored three goals for LAFC in Saturday’s 5-0 rout of San Jose, giving him an MLS-best six in five games this season.
(Watch Vela’s first MLS hat trick here.)
More important than the wins, though, is the fact the Argentine coach and his staff got to use 27 of the 28 players on their roster -- only third-choice goalkeeper Hugo Gonzalez didn’t get into a game – and made noticeable progress implementing their complicated attacking, pressing game plan.
"I’m pleased to see something that I can’t say I didn’t expect, which is the disposition of the players,” Martino said after watching his team score seven times in the two games. “Also the fact that they’ve incorporated so quickly an idea how we want to play.”
Martino isn’t exactly starting from scratch since 11 of the 28 players he called up were on last summer’s World Cup team. But he is starting over since six of those holdovers will be at least 32 by the next World Cup.
“Every one of them understands this is a four-year process,” Martino said.
A process that started with the players and coaches staying in dorm rooms at the former Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista to facilitate team bonding during their first training camp, much as the U.S. team did when its new coach, Gregg Berhalter, housed it there in January.
It’s also why Martino, in a break from a tradition practiced by many national teams, refused to let players return to their clubs between the two March exhibitions.
Martino has demanded complete commitment and a complete focus. He is, after all, implementing not just a new playing style but a new ambiance around the team, part of a mission he says is designed to win back respect.
Among the newcomers who have shone brightest are midfielders Diego Lainez, 18, and Roberto Alvarado, 20. Both said they enjoyed the challenge of Martino’s system.
“We learned a lot from the coach and understood a little of what he wants," Lainez told reporters.
Alvarado, who got his first call-up to the senior team under interim coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti last summer, said the atmosphere under Martino was more intense, featuring twice-daily training sessions.
“He wants us to be disciplined. That will help us to do things correctly,” he said. “We have only been together a few days but, yes, we’ve understood the manager’s style. Everyone worked really hard and did things as good as possible.
“That’s what the manager is really asking for.”
If Martino came away pleased from the eight-day camp, he wasn’t satisfied. He has two more friendlies – with Venezuela and Ecuador – in early June to get ready for this summer’s Gold Cup and his first competitive matches with Mexico.
“There are many ways we can get better,” he said after the Paraguay game. “It is impossible to have a very fluid performance when we have so few training sessions and so few games. We can get better, obviously, in every aspect. In passing, in the final third. We can get better at pressing.“
Going where the money is
Mexico’s California friendlies, played before nearly 100,000 fans in San Diego and Santa Clara respectively, are two of five games the team is required to play in the U.S. under its contract with Soccer United Marketing (SUM).
Mexico could draw big crowds at home, too, but it couldn’t charge the same for tickets or sponsorships and the SUM tours, now in their 17th year, provide a sizable portion of the national team’s budget. The 2018 U.S. tour had 15 corporate sponsors and while SUM, a closely held company under the MLS umbrella, does not discuss finances, the last four-year contract it signed with the Mexican federation guaranteed El Tri $2 million a game.
Mexico could play an additional six games in the U.S. during this year’s Gold Cup -- including a June 15 date at the Rose Bowl -- which isn’t part of the SUM contract.
And speaking of big crowds, Mexico’s game with Paraguay on Tuesday drew a TV audience of 1.7 million viewers and its game with Chile five days earlier got 1.6 million, making them the two highest-rated soccer telecasts of the year on any network, regardless of language, according to Soccer America. The average of 1.65 million viewers on UniMas/UDN is more than three times the average TV audience for a U.S. national team match this year.
Here are the Soccer America numbers for the U.S. men’s and women’s games, English language only in 2019:
vs. Costa Rica (Feb. 2), Fox, 652,000
vs Chile (March 6), ESPN2, 552,000
vs. Panama (Jan. 27), ESPN2, 545,000
vs. Ecuador (March 21), ESPN2, 419,000
vs. England, (March 2), Fox, 758,000
vs. Japan (Feb. 27), FS1, 283,000
vs. Brazil (March 5), FS1, 278,000
vs. France (Jan. 19), FS1, 214,000
vs. Spain (Jan. 22), ESPN2, 200,000.
Counting the house
KORE Software, a New York-based company that helps professional and collegiate teams with marketing and fan engagement, recently took a look at some of the MLS attendance figures over the league’s first 23 seasons. And in a report released last week, KORE says the league has averaged 21,181 fans a game over its lifetime, trailing only the NFL, MLB and CFL among professional leagues in the U.S. and Canada.
--According to KORE, the league's average attendance in 1996, its inaugural season, was 18,063 per game. League figures showed that dropped below 14,000 a game, a record low, by 2000. Since then, according to the report, average attendance has grown around 50%, hitting 22,106 in 2017 and 21,875 in 2018.
--Atlanta United FC has averaged more than 48,000 fans a game in its first two seasons, outdrawing even the Super Bowl – played in the same stadium – for last year’s MLS Cup final. But the team will have to go some to match the Seattle Sounders, who have topped 40,000 a match for seven consecutive seasons.
--MLS attendance as a percentage of total capacity has consistently grown since 2009, holding steady at more than 90% for the last four seasons.
--The addition of a second MLS club in Southern California didn’t hurt the Galaxy, who last year reported a 10% attendance rise, to 24,444 a game. LAFC, meanwhile, sold out every game it played at its new 22,000-seat stadium.
Russell Scibetti, the president of Planning and Insights at KORE Software, says the size of MLS crowds already rivals that of Italy’s Serie A – average: 24,967 -- which was nearly a century old when MLS was born.
Check out this link from the KORE survey that lets you compare attendance figures by team, by season and by stadium capacity:
(Keep in mind that MLS attendance figures are based on tickets distributed, not tickets sold or an actual turnstile count and a 2016 study by the Los Angeles Times found that, in the case of Orlando City, the difference between the announced attendance and the turnstile count was off by nearly 9,000 a game.)
Until next time