There’s no doubt about it. Friday’s far-from-friendly, friendly between the United States women’s national soccer team and the Lionesses from England is the biggest glorified exhibition in American soccer history, regardless of gender. It’s the first women’s soccer match — non-World Cup edition — to be broadcast on a major national network, with a 3 p.m. kickoff on FOX. What a spectacle for the sport it should be by itself, with more than 80,000 fans expected to attend Friday afternoon at London’s Wembley Stadium. Except that won’t be the case after more damning abuse has come to light from within the National Women’s Soccer League.
It’s far beyond an isolated catastrophe at this point, but Monday’s revelations from an investigation into the U.S. Soccer Federation about allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer found the NWSL and the USSF failed to protect players from severe mistreatment, setting up a self-serving cycle for abusers to continue their awful behavior.
For example, per the 319-page report led by former United States Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, the Portland Thorns didn’t shield its roster from unwanted sexual advances from former head coach Paul Riley. Those horrible actions included Riley benching Meleana Shim after she denied multiple advances. Shim filed a complaint with the Thorns against Riley in 2015, leading to his departure from the team, covered up by a subpar record. Riley’s behavior didn’t blackball him from coaching. In fact, he coached the Western New York Flash the next year, before starting a five-year tenure at the helm of the North Carolina Courage.
At Thursday’s pre-match press conference in London, USWNT mainstay and OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe said she was “emotionally exhausted” after hearing about the investigation’s findings. Instead of focusing on the tremendous challenge that England presents — as the Americans can use it as vital preparation for the 2023 World Cup — the need to address the largely swept-under-the-rug abuse is paramount. It’s another issue on a growing list for the USWNT in the journey for equal pay and treatment as their male counterparts.
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“As sick as this sounds, I feel like we’re used to having to take on so much more than game plan and tactics,” Rapinoe said. “I feel like we have an incredible ability to shoulder so much.”
The USWNT has been unapologetic about putting its brand into the ether. Rapinoe doubled and tripled down when attacks from then-President Donald Trump could’ve derailed her phenomenal form during the 2019 World Cup, where the Americans repeated as champions. Rapinoe won the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards at the tournament, the event’s top goalscorer and MVP honors, while being attacked by the former Commander in Chief for declining a White House visit in lieu of lifting the World Cup.
Fighting for equal pay has long been part of the USWNT’s creed, and a new collective bargaining agreement guaranteeing the American men’s and women’s teams the same compensation for all competitions was signed after a win against Nigeria last month. Now, the reality of those fights for justice feels unfortunately much more complete. On the USWNT’s way to equality, its roster had to navigate challenges Christian Pulisic never had to stare down.
While the traumatic transgressions inside the NWSL are beyond loathsome, mistreating women in soccer is far from an exclusively American issue. Last month, 15 members of the Spanish women’s national team, which has also qualified for next year’s World Cup, sent a letter to their country’s footballing federation stating they’d never play for the national team again unless head coach Jorge Vilda was fired. The Spaniards cited concerns with several facets of Vilda’s coaching style, but the Spanish Football Federation said they wouldn’t fire him. In addition, the federation demanded the now-exiled 15 players must apologize for the letter before being allowed to play for Spain again. Last year, players from the Brazilian women’s national team protested against sexual harassment soon after still-Brazilian Football Confederation President Rogerio Caboclo was suspended for allegations of the same nature. Caboclo is still in power after serving a 30-day suspension.
I’d be shocked if there wasn’t a pregame ceremony where the English and American squads come together and silently protest against abusers still in power. The audience for the game will be huge, as soccer fans will be drawn in on credentials alone — it’s the reigning world champs against the newly crowned European queens, a crown that was England’s first major footballing trophy since 1966 for either gender. It’d be the right move and a powerful gesture to state how much women’s soccer, and women’s sports as a whole, have grown inside an athletic cathedral-like Wembley, which has hosted countless important games. It’d also be a wrong move to play the friendly and not recognize the current trajectory of the NWSL. It’d be the biggest elephant in the stadium. There’s no doubt about it.