KANSAS CITY, Kan. — As the U.S. men’s soccer team makes its way through its summer set of games, it’s doing so with a new asset.
And when the U.S. women gather later this month to prepare for Concacaf’s upcoming World Cup and Olympics qualifying tournament, they will bring that asset to their work, too.
It’s not some fancy new piece of sports gear, or a futuristic computer program, or a savant of an assistant staffer. It’s labor peace, created by last month’s historic agreements of sweeping new collective bargaining agreements for the players unions for the men’s and women’s teams.
The women’s fight to be treated as four-time world title winners has been well-documented, thanks to the superstar players’ campaigns in mainstream and social media.
But their male counterparts’ labor issues have been out of the spotlight, including those players’ lack of a CBA at all for the last 3½ years. After the previous deal expired at the end of 2018, there was nothing formal in place until the new accord was signed.
Big decisions, big gains
Walker Zimmerman was the leader of the men’s union’s efforts, both at the bargaining table and within his own membership. He noted with some humor that it was difficult to organize Zoom calls with players spread from America’s West Coast to every major country in Europe — with an eight-hour time zone difference from California to Germany.
“You’ve got guys staying up maybe a little bit later than usual — 10, 11 o’clock over there [at night in Europe] — and people on the West Coast right after training, trying to hop on if they could,” Zimmerman said. “But, you know, when there were big decisions to be made, the group really came together and hopped on the calls, and got updated and made their voices heard.”
The details of the new deals extend far beyond the equal pay terms for players. There are provisions for staffing, travel resources, mental health, and other resources — including the first time men’s team players can access child care while in national team camp.
“I think for us, it’s a historic moment, right?” said Tyler Adams, one of the most prominent members of the European contingent, and a first-timer in labor matters at age 23.
“I mean, equal pay, how often do we talk about what equal pay means in different areas in the world, in our own country? And I think we can kind of be the milestone now for other people to look at and say, ‘You know, is this a possibility for other people?’”
Zimmerman said he might become the first men’s player to take advantage of the child care provision. He’d like to give his wife a few days off from caring for their 1-year-old son.
“I think having a strong, present dad that shows them that they love them, and it’s not just up to a woman to raise a kid — I think it’s an important message for all dads out there,” he said. “Would it be a challenge? Yeah, it sure would, but it’s my son and that’s something that I’m up for. And it’s a good bonding experience, too.”
Word of this got to Alex Morgan, the U.S. women’s team’s biggest star, who coincidentally was in Kansas City this weekend to play for the NWSL’s San Diego Wave against the hometown Current. As she spoke with The Inquirer after scoring two goals, Morgan held her 2-year-old daughter in her arms.
“That’s amazing,” Morgan said. “We were able to help the guys in that regard, and I think we worked together a lot in getting to where we are. … To have the men alongside with us, to have us cheering for each other and financially benefiting, also, from each other’s success, I think that’s a first.”
Morgan has 12 goals for the Wave this year, by the way. She has been passed over by national team coach Vlatko Andonovski for a few months so he can scout younger players, but he has said all along that NWSL form counts — and the proud Kansas City resident was in attendance this weekend. It will be a big headline if Morgan returns this month to the national team.
While Morgan was on the field for the Wave, Sam Mewis was watching from the sidelines. She’s dealing with a long-term knee injury, and told The Inquirer that she doesn’t expect to be back in action in time for the U.S. camp. But she was very active in contract talks as a member of the women’s bargaining committee.
“We collaborated well with the men,” said Mewis, a veteran of the U.S. midfield and the Current’s biggest star. “I know that our legal teams worked together very closely. And I think that coming together and really exemplifying this ‘One Nation, One Team’ slogan that’s been used for a long time [by U.S. Soccer], coming together on this deal was exactly that.”
Zimmerman and Adams both used the word “relief” in their reflections. They also showed a sense of having educated a group of men’s team players who are still pretty young, and largely in their first World Cup cycle as national team regulars.
Even Zimmerman is a relative newcomer in terms of national team experience, but he did get a small taste of the 2018 cycle. And at age 29, he has more life experience than many of his colleagues.
“I think it’s very important that we have people who are educated in the process — proud of the history of the men’s national team, the history of the women’s national team, and also excited about the future of it,” Zimmerman said. “Connecting these two generations where we do have a lot of young guys on our team, and not a ton of old guys. And so, realizing that, OK, even though maybe we aren’t as old as some of the people who were playing before us, we have to kind of step up into that role.”
And what about having the two national teams in the same place at the same time someday, perhaps for joint practices or a destination weekend of games for fans? Mewis would like to see that and more.
“I think fans would love to see us working together on projects in communities, working together on brand deals,” she said. “I think it opens up a whole new door where we’re really all wanting the same thing, which is kind of a first — our incentives are all aligned now.”
Adams also likes the idea.
“I don’t have an amazing relationship with any of the [women’s] players or anything like that, just because we’ve never really had the opportunity to be around them or know who they are, and them get to know us,” he said. “So I think this is an opportunity now, after what we’ve done, to create a closer relationship than what we’ve had.”