A Long Year: From New Fan to New Media

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I’ve written before about my introduction to soccer, how I’ve only been a fan a little more than a year. I actually celebrated my soccer anniversary on June 8th this past summer, buying and kicking around a soccer ball on the thin strip of grass between my apartment building and the next. That was the night I discovered that headers can be fun, but will also leave you wondering if you’ve permanently damaged your forehead.

But, as much as I fell in love with the game as I watched the US Women’s National Team progress through the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, the months since haven’t exactly been an easy road as a new fan.

The first changes after the WWC were not as traumatic for me as they were for longtime devotees of the team. I was not particularly attached to Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx, or Abby Wambach. And having watched Christie Rampone sit on the bench for just about the entirety of the tournament, I was unaware of why soccer fans say her name with more than just a hint of awe in their voices. So as everyone began discussing the 18-player Olympic roster, I was one of the few people who always left her off my list.

I read articles about the sport and players, about the team. I learned why Christie Rampone is our beloved Captain America, I learned about the previous attempts to form a women’s professional league in the United States, how none had ever made it past the third year. I began to understand why the loss of both Cheney and Boxx triggered such strong responses from fans – what would our midfield look like without them?

Still, all too soon, the excitement of the WWC win faded, overtaken by the issue of equal pay and equal access to the best playing conditions possible. Article after article appeared about the difference in compensation, highlighting the huge disparity in earnings for the members of the USWNT when compared to the Men’s National Team, a difference that seemed absurd even to the newest of fans considering the lack of success the men have had compared to the women. The WWC final had been the most watched US Soccer game ever, men’s or women’s, and in the immediate aftermath it was revealed that the men received more compensation for getting knocked out than the women would for winning the whole tournament.

What a way to sour the taste of victory.

Still, things got worse from there, despite the Victory Tour and the end of the NWSL season. I watched every game of the tour, of course, and as many as I could from the league, but the growing concerns about field safety, unequal compensation, and news of lawsuits in both directions left the matches feeling hollow. The biggest disappointment, of course, was the cancellation of the December match against Trinidad and Tobago in Hawaii. The conditions of the fields upon which the team was to train and then play the match were deemed unacceptable, with Megan Rapinoe suffering a torn ACL at a pre-game practice and Hope Solo publicizing the issue by sharing a photo of the turf coming up on the game field itself.

In early 2016, just a few short months after the high of winning the World Cup, there was talk of the team striking before the Olympics in order to bring attention to their fight against wage discrimination. And though most reports were written off with “they can’t and won’t do that”-type responses, it was still an unpleasant possibility to consider. The Olympic Qualifiers in Texas in February and the She Believes tournament in the Southern US in March provided us with soccer to watch – and exciting soccer at that, whether due to high-scoring games against some of the teams with less experience or high-pressure games against some of FIFA’s top-ranked women’s teams – but there was also a growing sense of dread. The announcement of two players unable to play due to pregnancy was good news – congratulations to Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux on the births of their sons – but this too created anxiety about the ever-shrinking pool of experienced players to fill the 18 spots on the Rio roster.

The first lawsuit came from the USSF in February, suing the US Women’s National Team Player’s Association over the collective bargaining agreement, over fears that the Women’s team would strike. The union had been attempting to determine whether or not the CBA that had been in place – signed in 2005 and expired in 2012 – was still valid under the memorandum of understanding that extended its terms through the end of 2016. Understandably upset at the lack of progress the Federation had made at addressing their concerns, they were searching for legal justification to void the memorandum and force the USSF to negotiate new terms, because by invalidating the previous CBA and the memorandum, the players’ union would have the ability to strike if the Federation continued to ignore them.

This lawsuit was not resolved until June, which meant that all the months leading up to the Olympics in August, the knowledge that the players had striking on their mind was well-known. Would there even be a USWNT Olympic team? If the players did strike, would they be replaced with one of the U-teams? The US Men’s U-23 team couldn’t even qualify for Rio; would the Women’s U-23 find success if they were called up to compete in place of the Senior team? Ultimately, a judge ruled that the USWNT could not strike, and that they were still bound to the terms of the 2005 CBA, at least through December 31st. But the fact remained – the women seemed to feel that a drastic action was necessary in order to call attention to the disparities in their treatment.

Then in March, the five members of the USWNT – Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo – filed a suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, detailing the ways in which the Women’s team is discriminated against by the Federation. The players declared they were fighting for “equal pay for equal work” as well as parity in the way the contracts for both teams address non-monetary aspects of their training and performance. Hope Solo made an excellent point – and a perfect soundbite for the team’s position – when she noted that the men “get paid more to show up than [the women] get paid to win.”

In response, the Federation was quick to release a statement about their disappointment in the team, for whom they feel they’ve done more than enough. The impression the USSF’s statement gave was that the women should be grateful for what they’ve received, because their situation could be so much worse. After all, the USSF seems to suggest, or even threaten, haven’t we done enough by backing this latest attempt at a professional women’s league, underwriting and subsidizing the NWSL for the first four years?

The USSF did file a motion for the EEOC to dismiss the players’ complaint May, but as of today, approaching the six-month minimum that the New York Times estimated the investigation might take, there has been no ruling either way in the case.

Then there was the run-up to the Olympics, the concerns over Zika which, thankfully, proved to be over-exaggerated and the Games themselves.

Winning the gold in Rio was never a guarantee, of course. But it never felt like last summer, as I, a new fan, watched the team outdo themselves with each successive match. And as we struggled through the Group stage in Rio – doubts over the roster, over the lineups, aside – I know I wondered if the Federation’s lack of respect for the team, the struggle for equal pay and treatment, had affected the mental readiness of the players, their confidence.

In the end, the team lost in the knock-out stage. And as disappointing as that might have been – as disappointing as that was – losses happen. Teams lose. They’re outplayed, out-coached, out-trained, whatever. It happens.

But after all the months of controversy regarding field conditions, player safety, equal pay, and everything else, it was what happened after the Olympics that really, truly, has me wondering why I put all that time and money into learning everything I could about soccer over the past year. Into purchasing jerseys and official gear. Into buying tickets to see games, including NCAA, NSWL, and USWNT matches.

Because it’s not the outcome that has me feeling depressed about the sport lately. It’s not the players that have me more anxious than excited about the upcoming friendlies and whatever lay ahead for the team.

It’s what happened to Hope Solo, being suspended for six months and having her contract terminated for reasons that are murky at best and sinister at worst. One of the loudest players on the team when it comes to speaking up about issues of fair play and gender issues, Solo’s punishment effectively prevents her from playing a leading role in the EEOC lawsuit or the upcoming CBA negotiations, and smacks of retribution. Call it the “sum total of actions” all you want, but from the outside? It looks like one of two options. Either you tolerated her “off-the-field distractions” as long as you needed her in goal and then tossed her at the first opportunity, with no majors in the near future, or you saw the chance to get rid of one of the most vocal leaders behind the equal pay lawsuit against you, and you took it.

Or maybe it’s both. But no matter what, it doesn’t make the Federation look good. It doesn’t make US Soccer look good. And it leaves me personally with a dirty taste in my mouth.

More, it what’s happening to Megan Rapinoe, right now. Rapinoe, who has decided to ally herself with the movement begun by Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, by kneeling during the National Anthem. Though she’s knelt in one NWSL game, been prevented from doing so in another, and choose to link arms with her teammates on the anniversary of 9/11 – and the Seattle Reign put out a statement supporting her right to do so – US Soccer seems to have taken a different approach. Before the match against Thailand, Grant Wahl reported that the Federation was pressuring Rapinoe to reconsider her protests, claiming, among other things, that it was “disrespectful.”

Rapinoe ended up kneeling in that match as well as the one that followed, against the Netherlands a few days later, and the USSF released a statement declaring that “we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.”  The Federation has claimed that they will not punish Rapinoe for continuing to kneel while the National Anthem is played, but as we just saw with Hope Solo a few weeks before this, when US Soccer wants to punish a player for their actions off the field, they’ll find a way.

So, no. My feelings of almost-dread about the USWNT lately are not due to their loss – I’m not a bandwagon fan. They’re not due to a favorite player leaving, a retirement, a disagreement with another’s political protest – on the field, they play excellent soccer, and that’s why I love them.

It’s the fact that a 2017 USWNT strike is a serious possibility, because the USSF has put forth no transparent show of good faith that they intend to be amenable toward what the players and the team are asking for in their CBA re-negotiations. Two of the players who signed the EEOC complaint have recently been very publicly censured by US Soccer, making it not only harder but damned near impossible for others to step forward and raise their voices in the future.

It’s the Federation. It’s US Soccer. The institution that at every step seems to be intent on silencing the voices of the team. Whether it’s by a lawsuit, a motion to dismiss, a threat that the US might not even send their women’s team to the Olympics if talk of a boycott continues. More recently, whether it’s by suspending and terminating the contract of a player for ambiguous reasons, or releasing an empty joke of a statement after another makes a social justice statement by kneeling during the National Anthem.

This is what has me frustrated and angry and despondent about the state of soccer lately. The lengths the Federation goes to, to alienate players and fans alike. To perpetuate the inequality of the status quo. To treat the best team in the world as second-rate, as inconsequential.

The events of the past year have not affected my love of soccer, new though it may be. It has not affected my affection and respect for the players of the sport at every level, or dampened my desire to watch matches, to cheer on my favorite teams and players, to proudly wear and display my passion as I try to bring more people into the fold.

But what it has done is left me with a deep and abiding distrust of the USSF and its leadership. It’s made me a cynic of the Federation’s motives, their commitment to the growth of both women’s and men’s soccer, and every word that is issued forth from their mouthpiece.

Some people, I know, have sworn off allegiance to the USSF, have declared that they won’t give any more money to the Federation in ticket sales or merchandise. And I can certainly understand that. The Federation has disappointed us.

I, for one, won’t stop watching the games, going to the senior-level matches I can attend, or supporting the USWNT. They’re my team, and I love the hell out of them.

But I’m also going to increase the number of NWSL games I go to, the local NCAA games. I’m going to invest in these levels of soccer over the USWNT because what is important to me is the game and the players.

That’s what I love.

That’s what first inspired me to watch, to become a fan. That’s what inspired me to learn and study and build knowledge not only about the sport itself, but also about the complex issues that surround it. And it’s what has inspired me as I’ve slowly made the journey from the fan in the stands to a member of the media, writing and discussing the sport that I love, sharing it with other people, and hopefully doing my part to grow the game.

I love soccer, I love the USWNT, the NWSL, my university team. They’re what keep me coming back.

As for the USSF, I didn’t spend the past year and a half learning everything I could about soccer for dodgy suspensions, unequal pay, and the possibility of a strike to get in the way of this beautiful game.

Do better.

We all know that you can.