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Soccer newsletter: U.S. women’s team and U.S. Soccer remain far apart on many issues

United States of America v Netherlands : Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France
Members of the U.S. women’s soccer team at last year’s World Cup.
(Richard Heathcote / Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with women’s soccer – or rather the finances of women’s soccer.

The two-time reigning World Cup champion women’s national team is suing U.S. Soccer, the ruling federation for the sport in this country, alleging gender discrimination in pay and other benefits. The trial is scheduled to begin May 5 in federal court in Los Angeles and last week the two sides staked out positions that couldn’t have been more apart.

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In its motion for summary judgment, lawyers representing the women’s national team said they are seeking $66.7 million in back pay plus punitive damages from U.S. Soccer. The federation responded by asking the court to dismiss the suit entirely. If the judge does not agree, the trial would begin about 2½ months before the soccer competition at the Tokyo Olympics kicks off.

The women’s team has tried to focus the public’s attention on a simple argument: the federation pays the women less than it pays the men’s national team despite the fact the women’s team is ranked No. 1 in the world while the men missed the last World Cup.

According to the separate collective bargain agreements between the federation and the men’s and women’s team, the Washington Post calculated women players would make $28,333 less than a similarly situated men’s team player if both played 20 international friendlies in a year. And while that’s significant, lawyers for the women had argued that gap could be as much as $164,000 – more than five times the real difference.

Either way those numbers are misleading for several reasons, beginning with the hypothetical schedule. To achieve a sizable pay disparity the men would have to play at least 20 international games in a calendar year, something they have done just twice in the last decade. Then there’s the difference in revenue. The federation said the men’s team lost $3.13 million over the last 11 years while the women, who averaged less than half what the men earned in gross per-game revenue since 2009, lost $27.6 million over that period. (But those numbers are changing rapidly; in 2019, the women played five times before domestic crowds larger than 30,000 while the men did so just twice, both times against Mexico.)

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However the women’s argument takes its biggest hit in U.S. Soccer’s most recent tax documents, reported earlier this month in the Post. The 2018 documents, the Post said, show U.S. Soccer paid full-time players on the women’s team about $170,000 in base salary for playing with both the national team and their club teams in the NWSL, which the federation subsidizes.

Those salaries are guaranteed to the 28 women in the national team pool whether they are called up and play for the national team or not.

Some players also made up to $146,000 more in appearance fees and performance bonuses with a federation spokesman say every player on the women’s team received at least $300,000 from U.S. Soccer in 2018. World Cup bonuses, which were not included in the tax records, could bring each player on last summer’s team an additional $110,000.

Men’s national players, on the other hand, receive their base salary from their club teams and are paid by the federation based only on the number of international games in which they play. As a result, no men’s player was paid anything close to $170,000 by U.S. Soccer in the last fiscal year.

Do the men receive more from the federation on a per-game basis? Yes. But that’s in part because the union representing the women’s players actually negotiated and agreed to the CBA they are now fighting in court, one that also guarantees them not only a salary but also health insurance, paid child care and pregnancy benefits, severance pay and access to a 401(k) retirement play. Men’s national team players get none of that from the federation.

The women, according to U.S. Soccer, were offered a pay-to-play CBA structure similar to the men’s – one with larger per-game paychecks but no guaranteed benefits – and they rejected it. Now they say they’re being discriminated against because they declined equal pay.

No one, least of all U.S. Soccer, is calling for the women to be paid less than the men. In fact, the federation’s own tax documents show it is paying the women significantly more – which is exactly what the women negotiated and won in the CBA they are now fighting.

Globally pay for women continue to lag well behind men, making the demand for gender equality that took center stage during last summer’s World Cup even more urgent. The prize money purse FIFA paid out at last summer’s tournament was just $30 million – total. And while that was double the previous record for a women’s competition, it was $8 million less than France alone took home from the 2018 men’s World Cup.

The prize money purse at the men’s event was $400 million. But both those purses are determined by FIFA, not U.S. Soccer.

Women’s teams have made great progress toward parity in places like Norway and Australia, where national federations have struck historic agreements calling for equal pay for men and women players. Yet in the vast majority of countries, women lag well behind.

Jamaica’s women made it to last summer’s World Cup only because of a fund-raising campaign led by the daughter of the late reggae singer Bob Marley. Since that tournament, the Jamaican federation has refused to pay players the stipends it promised in a new contract.

Argentina, another World Cup team, suspended all funding for its women’s team for two years. In 2017 it finally agreed to pay $9 a day in training expenses – then even those meager checks didn’t always arrive on time. Thailand’s women’s team was supported financially by one of the country’s largest insurance companies, not its national federation.

In fact there are 55 countries that field FIFA-recognized men’s teams but fund no women’s program at all.

The point of all that is to say that yes there are unacceptable differences in the funding and support for women’s soccer versus men’s soccer, differences that need to be addressed and solved. It won’t happen overnight so the commitment for change must be unwavering and long term.

But based on the evidence released this month it appears as if U.S. Soccer is doing its part to lead the charge not to hold the women back.

LAFC fails first test of the season; make-up exam is Thursday

LAFC coach Bob Bradley has been talking all winter about his desire to test his team’s style of play internationally in the CONCACAF Champions League. But the first exam clearly didn’t go the way he had hoped, with Léon of Mexico’s Liga MX taking advantage of two mistakes to beat a sloppy LAFC 2-0 last week in Mexico.

That leaves LAFC with a big hill to climb in Thursday’s return leg at Banc of California Stadium. The winner, decided on aggregate goals, will advance to next month’s Champions League quarterfinals.

“Our overall ideas and our overall way of playing were all positive. I don’t think that we executed,” Bradley said. “We had one-on-one situations where we didn’t take advantage. We still had too many mistakes on using the right number of touches, making the right pass, the timing of the play.

“So I don’t think we had our sharpest day. But in terms of now having a good game against a excellent team away, that part still speaks well.”

Both Brian Rodriguez and Francisco Ginella pushed shots wide of an open net for LAFC, which forced Léon keeper Rodolfo Cota to make just three saves. On the other end Bradley’s team, which lost two starting defenders from last season, saw Tristan Blackman and Mohamed El-Munir each make mistakes that led to goals.

Those are the objective facts.

But there were also subjective facts. And they suggest there were a number of factors that worked against LAFC, which is still in its preseason while Léon is seven games and nearly two months into its Liga MX schedule.

Léon was also playing at home, more than a mile above sea level.

“We never make an excuse. That opportunity for Champions League happens to come before we play any league matches. That’s not ideal,” Bradley said. “But go and play Léon, a really good team, in their stadium at altitude and to make this kind of game is positive.”

On Thursday LAFC will be at home, at sea level and with one competitive game under it belts.

“It’s all about the mentality and the belief,” Bradley said. “The opportunity for a team at home to get the first goal, to put the other team under pressure, really be committed with the possibility of making a special night. You have to embrace those moments.

“The best teams, the best players are up for it. And I think we will be.”

Ready or not, Galaxy are heading to Houston

The Galaxy concluded their preseason last Saturday with a 1-1 draw against the Chicago Fire in game that was delayed by weather, then played on a rain-soaked field. Despite the conditions, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Cristian Pavón both went 90 minutes in their final tune-ups for the regular season while defender Emiliano Insúa played 78 minutes in his MLS debut.

Afterward, coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto welcomed the start of the regular season Feb. 29 in Houston. It’s the earliest start ever for an MLS schedule.

“I think we are ready,” he said. “Now we expect to play well and win. Everyone is ready, everyone is on their feet. So we need to have a good week and try to win in Houston.”

But the Galaxy still have a lot of questions to answer, beginning with the health of two key players, midfielder Jonathan dos Santos and defender Daniel Steres. Both players missed the team’s final three preseason games and their availability for the opener is uncertain.

Insúa was a physical presence against the Fire and looks to be a major step up from the departed Jorgen Skjelvik. But he’s still getting to know his teammates and the Galaxy defense hasn’t looked particularly strong this winter, conceding six goals in five games. General manager Dennis te Kloese continues to search for help, especially at center back where he appears close to acquiring Alan Franco from Argentine club Independiente. That deal appeared all but done late last week but now seems to have hit a snag that could delay Franco’s arrival a few weeks – if he comes at all.

Te Kloese may also need depth at left back after losing Danilo Acosta for at least seven months following surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee.

And though preseason games really don’t mean much, the Galaxy (3-1-1) won just one of their final three while Hernández, the team’s most important off-season signing, didn’t score in the final four matches.

Hernández’s scoring drought is more a result of bad luck and a still-developing chemistry with his teammates since he’s been active and shown a high work rate this winter. Of more concern is winger Aleksandar Katai, who came off Saturday after 65 minutes in which he lacked sharpness. Could that, plus the early exit, mean he’s dealing with an injury? Or is he just not ready?

Schelotto, focusing on Hernández, appears unworried.

“He’s a player with a lot of qualities that is going to give us a lot of goals,” the coach said. “He’s always getting involved in plays. He had his chances in the first half; we have to try to find him more often. We have to try and take advantage of his quality when he’s inside the box. But I see that little by little he’s building chemistry with his teammates, and I see him in good form.

“We’re not worried. We need to focus on the performance, attitude, and the results that the team produces more than individual performances.”

And now, a word from our sponsors

The battle between LAFC’s Carlos Vela and the Galaxy’s Hernández for the hearts and minds of people in Southern California won’t be limited to the playing field. Both are handsome, bilingual superstars who have played in multiple World Cups for the Mexican national team, which make them dream pitchmen for advertisers looking to break through in the largest Hispanic market in the U.S.

“They tick many of the boxes,” said David Carter, an associate professor of Sports Business at the USC Marshall School of Business. But, he added, in some ways they may be bigger than their sport in a local sports landscape crowded with superstars.

“There’s still a very large percentage of people in Southern California that would not be able to tell you who the star players on either team were. Or identify what team they’re even on,” he said of Southern California’s two MLS teams. “So there’s still a lot of work to be done in this very crowded market.”

Vela, who did promotional campaigns with Heineken and Kaiser Permanente, among others, in his first two years with LAFC, signed on with BODYARMOR earlier this month. The reigning league MVP will be featured in TV ads, in both English and Spanish, as a centerpiece of the sports drink’s MLS marketing.

“I’m trying something good for BODYARMOR, for me, for the league,“ said Vela, who joins a BODYARMOR roster that includes the Angels’ Mike Trout, the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and women’s World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe.

“I’m really excited to be part of this family. They are doing a great job,” he added. “The most important is trying to show the people how to be more healthy, how to take care of their body with hydration. “

Carter said the ability of Vela – and Hernández – to endorse products in both English and Spanish make them extra appealing to advertisers.

“Consumers and sports fans want authenticity. They want credibility,” he said. “To have athletes that can cross over and have that appeal and do it in a way that people find very legitimate is vitally important to their marketing.

”If Chicharito and Vela have the opportunity to not just be bilingual and have all the other personal attributes, but are able to captivate that audience, that’s really going to help their corporate partners.”

Hernández, who signed with the Galaxy just six weeks ago, has yet to launch his own sponsorship deal but he’s already having an impact on the team’s ticket sales, which declined 5% last season when Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 30 goals led the team back to the playoffs. Since Hernández’s arrival the Galaxy said they have sold 1,000 season-ticket packages, a nearly 10% increase from 2019.

Hernández also appeared at team charity event where 30 people paid $500 a head for the chance to meet him and have a picture taken.

“These guys together are going to help soccer break through the clutter in Southern California. And given the ability to do that, their notoriety on a national stage, beyond soccer, should be able to grow,” Carter said. “If they can work together to stoke interest in this emerging rivalry between the Galaxy and LAFC, that also elevates them.

“There are some things that need to get done for them to break through, but you’ve got to believe they’re poised to do that.”

So what are the odds?

Strictly for entertainment purposes only, here are the odds from FanDuel Sportsbook on who will win the MLS Cup this season.

LAFC +370

Atlanta +600

Seattle +800

NYCFC +900

Galaxy +1100

Toronto +1100

Philadelphia +1700

NY Red Bulls +1700

Real Salt Lake +2300

Montreal +2400

Minnesota +2500

Portland +2900

Inter Miami +3200

Chicago +3400

DC United +3400

Dallas +3400

New England +3400

San Jose +3800

Columbus +4400

Kansas City +4400

Colorado +5500

Houston +8000

Nashville +8000

Orlando +9500

Vancouver +9500

Cincinnati +10000

If you want to read anything into these odds, expect the Galaxy to get off to a fast start – four of their first five games are against teams ranked in the bottom seven by the oddsmakers. Three of LAFC’s first five games, on the other hand, are against teams ranked in the top half of the league.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

Quotebook

“I tell people that I feel old; they’re like, ‘what are you talking about?” In this roster and in soccer and professional sports, I’m getting up there.”

Defender Jordan Harvey, 36, the oldest player on an LAFC roster that averages 25 years of age

Until next time...
Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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