NEW YORK — As Vlatko Andonovski made his way through his first news conference as the U.S. women’s soccer team new head coach, he took just about every question with the same grace and intelligence he used to earn the job.
One of them, though, gave him just a brief moment’s pause.
What does he think of the U.S. players’ equal pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation?
It’s one of the trickiest questions to answer for whoever holds the highest-profile coaching job in American soccer. For no matter how much that person might want to back the players, the governing body signs their paycheck.
Andonovski’s predecessor, Jill Ellis, studiously avoided addressing the subject in public for most of her tenure. Only toward the end of her five years in charge did she finally open up.
Now here, it was on Andonovski’s first official day on the job. And seated with him on the podium were two of his bosses, U.S. women’s team general manager Kate Markgraf and Federation president Carlos Cordeiro.
Good luck, coach.
As it turned out, that brief pause turned out to be his only one. He backed the players’ efforts with a statement that is likely to satisfy players, fans, and bosses alike.
“I’m very respectful of the drive, of the push that the players have,” Andonovski said. “In fact, it’s something that’s positive for me, because it will translate to the field. I have no doubt once they step on the field that they’re going to be focused on what is important at the time. Once they put the jersey on, they can put everything else on the side and then focus on winning games.”
He concluded by noting: “They’ve proved that in the past, I have no doubt in my mind that they will do that in the future.”
That last line may seem innocuous, but the proof of why it isn’t is still fresh in the memory. The U.S. players filed their lawsuit in March, just a few months before heading to the World Cup. While in France, they took a cavalcade of questions from the world’s media on the subject, then went out on the field and won all seven games they played.
No one exemplified that more than Megan Rapinoe, who coincidentally played for Andonovski in his two years at the NWSL’s Reign FC. She demanded the spotlight this summer and lived up to it, picking the right moments to put politics above soccer and soccer above politics. And at the Americans’ World Cup victory parade, she endorsed Cordeiro after the crowd tried to drown his speech out with “Equal pay!” chants.
Rapinoe was one of many U.S. players who backed bringing Andonovski to the national team. It is fair to believe he will do his part to stay in their good graces when the lawsuit comes up.
The pressure on Cordeiro, however, won’t be going away. Mediation efforts between U.S. Soccer and the players fell apart in August, and a trial date looms in May — just two months before the Olympics.
“I was personally very disappointed that the mediation back in August wasn’t successful,” Cordeiro said. “A number of us on both sides spent a lot of time preparing for that, and at the meetings themselves. Notwithstanding that, I’d say we’re still very committed to resolving this, and in a fair way, but I think at the end of the day, you know, that requires that requires compromise.”
The Federation is taking a lot of heat these days, and for valid reasons. In addition to the women’s players’ lawsuit, the men’s team is sputtering on the field and is working under an expired CBA. Their agreement finished at the end of 2018, and 10 full months into 2019, there have been no public signs of progress.
Then there’s the search for a new CEO to replace Dan Flynn, who retired last month. There are multiple candidates for the job, but U.S. Soccer has been airtight about identifying them.
As such, the only known name is current chief commercial officer Jay Berhalter, who is widely unpopular among the public. There was also a revolt within the Federation’s walls this summer to try to stop him from getting the job.
When U.S. Soccer’s board met in early September, the word going around was that there might be a name on the table at the next board meeting, set for Dec. 6-7 in Chicago. (As U.S. Soccer is a registered non-profit, portions of their board meetings are open to the public.)
As of now, though, there are no signs that the process will get that far by then.
“The board and I spent an hour and a half on Saturday talking about some important, difficult decisions we have to make on investment for the next budget,” Cordeiro said. “And these are choices we have to make, notwithstanding that we want to pay our women and our men as much as we can."
Cordeiro said he “sincerely” hopes “we can put this behind us soon enough so that when they go on to the field to play for Vlatko and wear the crest, that’s where their entire focus will be.”
Then he added: “So I say give us some more time, but that’s where were hopefully headed, in that direction.”
If that sounds like he figured he wouldn’t get much sympathy, indeed, he did not. Molly Levinson, the players’ PR spokesperson on the lawsuit, gave a sharp response to Cordeiro in a statement emailed to The Inquirer.
“Mr. Cordeiro is responsible for a non-profit organization that has profited significantly from the success of the U.S. women’s national team — creating a substantial surplus of more than $100 million," she said, though it should be noted that surplus includes leftover revenues from the 2016 men’s Copa América Centenario.
“He is also responsible for ongoing, deliberate discrimination against players on the U.S. women’s national team simply because they are women,” Levinson continued. "If they were men, with their record, they would earn significantly more as employees of the U.S. Soccer Federation. The equal pay obligation to women players is a legal requirement that the USSF must adhere to. It is not a discretionary expense to be traded off against other USSF spending priorities.”