Change is inevitable, that’s a tenant as old as….tenants, and although the USWNT has been among the rare institutions in sports that has resisted change without sacrificing its competitive edge on the field, change is coming to the USWNT. And that change is coming now.
The change started after the 2015 Women’s World Cup victory that saw a slew of retirements including Shannon Box, Lori Chalupny, Lauren Holiday, and, most importantly, Abby Wambach. For over a decade Wambach had been the focal point of the team’s offensive attack and their highest profile player in the media. And then she left. 2016 has seen another round of retirements - whether forced or chosen by players. Heather O’Reilly and her 231 caps walked away gracefully, perhaps she saw the writing on the wall. Whitney Engen had her contract terminated because she didn’t appear likely to assume a starting position. Hope Solo’s contract was terminated for the latest infraction in a career as defined by off field mistakes as it was on field successes.
Perhaps the greatest harbinger of change in 2016 came in the form of the WNT player’s fight against the federation over equal pay. No matter how you slice the numbers, and both sides slice them uniquely, the women, as a whole, make less money than the men. Assuming the pay structures for the women, which includes salaries and benefits, versus the men’s, which are pay per appearance, stay the same it will be difficult to bridge the gap between the two sides. US Soccer's investment in the NWSL is both noteworthy in design and necessary for the future of the USWNT. Their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) ends in December, however, which opens the door for a change in the structure of the CBA. A change that Head Coach Jill Ellis seems to be planning for, if not out right supporting.
In recent comments to the media Ellis has gone on record saying that any future players getting to 200 caps would signify a failure on the part of US Soccer to develop younger players. And while it is difficult to see players such as Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath not get to 200 caps, injuries or pregnancies aside, Ellis was talking specifically about 18 year old Mallory Pugh. This suggests that either Pugh won’t play on the team for a full decade or that she will get far fewer than the 20+ caps that the women on the team have come to expect each season. In fact Pugh has 17 this year, as does Hope Solo, and about 8 players will have 20 caps in the 25 games. That number would be closer to 12 were it not for Solo’s suspension and Ellis’s desire to look at new faces in the fall camps.
Ellis has also alerted the team to her future plans in a letter sent out earlier this fall. Moving forward the roster will be determined by execution on the field, not experience. It’s difficult to see many of the veterans getting replaced based on performance. Becky Sauerbrunn and Carli Lloyd are not only captains, they are among the best players at their positions in the world. Tobin Heath is starting to look like the best player on the pitch, whenever she is on the pitch, Kelley O’Hara, Meghan Klingenberg, Morgan Brian, and Julie Johnston are also capable of making claims to being among the best players at their positions in the world, not just the US. Pugh, Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, Emily Sonnett, and Lindsey Horan also appear to be just scratching the surface of what they are capable of.
Still, Ellis has made a point of saying that the team will be more dependent on the NWSL moving forward. Certainly in the long term that should be the case, although Ellis’ comments suggest the timing is a little more pressing. That the rebuilding of the roster for 2019 will commence immediately with talent honed in the professional league.
Which leads us back to the CBA. Perhaps the best case scenario for both the federation and the players is to move towards a per game payout structure and leave the salary system behind. It certainly does not appear that will be the best scenario for the NWSL which will remain dependent on the federation paying the salaries of their full time players, at least until the NWSL begins to create enough revenue to expand the salary cap so that all players will receive livable wages - at a minimum.
The USWNT plays Switzerland on Wednesday night, their first of two games, before hosting Romania for two games in November. The rosters for the team will have changed drastically from the victory tour taking place this time last year. It sounds as if they will change drastically again next year, and every year moving forward. It is, after all, inevitable.