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For U.S. Women's Soccer, Winning The Game Isn't The Toughest Fight

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is the opening weekend of the Women's World Cup in France. Team USA as defending champions are largely favored to win again. But even as these athletes are getting ready to battle on the pitch, many are also in the middle of a battle in court against the sport's governing body, alleging gender discrimination. And it's actually just the latest fight for respect and equal treatment. Caitlin Murray tells the story in her new book "The National Team: The Inside Story Of The Women Who Changed Soccer." And she is with us now from France to tell us more. Caitlin Murray, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CAITLIN MURRAY: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about this year's competition before we talk about the book. Team USA has their first match against Thailand coming up on Tuesday. How are they looking in these preliminary rounds?

MURRAY: Well, the U.S. goes into this tournament as the favorite. Everyone is expecting them to do well. I think we saw in the opening match of the tournament France looks really good as well. They're also favorites. But Thailand is not really up to the USA's level. So this is going to be an opportunity for the U.S. to sort of ease into the tournament before they start facing some of those tougher teams.

MARTIN: And, you know, as you point out, Team USA has been formidable - three world championships, four gold medals under their belts. How does this year's team compare to past teams?

MURRAY: Yeah. I think what's really interesting is that when you look at the team that won four years ago, part of why they won was that they had a very strong defense. They went 540 minutes, several games without conceding a goal, whereas this U.S. team comes into this tournament having actually conceded a lot of goals when they play good competition.

So what the U.S. is doing right now is kind of focusing on the attack. They have a lot of really strong attacking pieces. Players like Alex Morgan can score a lot of goals. So I think that's kind of their game plan is just outscore their opponents even if they end up conceding some goals this time around.

MARTIN: And we mentioned that they're battling on a number of fronts, not just on the pitch, that this lawsuit against U.S. Soccer was filed three months ago. Can you tell us a little bit more about the underlying complaint? What is it that the players are alleging?

MURRAY: Yeah. So the players have filed a lawsuit alleging institutionalised gender discrimination. And there are sort of two pieces to it. The easiest piece to understand is the non-compensation issues. So it's things like the women alleging that U.S. Soccer has been flying the men's team to games on charter flights, whereas the women have had to fly on commercial flights - having the men play most of their - almost all of their games on natural grass, whereas the women have had to play a significant portion of their games on artificial turf. And players say that artificial turf is more harsh on their bodies, harder to recover from.

The other piece of it that's a little more complicated is the compensation and the allegations that U.S. Soccer hasn't been paying the women fairly or equally to the men's team. And one of the allegations in the lawsuit is that the women made $17 million in profit for U.S. Soccer one year when the federation was expecting a deficit of around $400,000. So there's a lot of monetary issues that come up in this lawsuit as well that kind of still needs to be hashed out.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things - you know, getting back to your book, "The National Team" - one of the things that your book makes clear and what some people frankly might find shocking is just how early these issues started for women's soccer. I mean, there's something almost like on every other page about this. I'll just read one one paragraph. (Reading) While each player on the men's team got a $10,000 bonus for qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, the women received only a couple of T-shirts for qualifying for the 1991 Women's World Cup. The shirts featured the logo of Budweiser, a U.S. Soccer sponsor. The players sarcastically call them their $5,000 T-shirts.

MURRAY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: OK. I just, you know - how has this been justified through the years?

MURRAY: You have to admire the sense of humor that the players had about it. You know, I think it would be unfair to sit here and say that it hasn't improved. But U.S. Soccer - the women's national team started in 1985. The players were given uniforms that were clearly, like, leftover men's uniforms. And? The players before the first ever U.S. Women's National Team game were up the night before sewing and cutting their uniforms so they would fit.

U.S. soccer didn't really know what to do with a women's team when it first started. I don't know if they had the vision for the sort of impact that a women's team would go on to eventually have. This team is beloved. They're setting records. They do bring in revenue for the federation. So I think we have seen things get better, and the conversation is shifting. But clearly there's still more work to do.

MARTIN: Well, look. Another point that comes across in your book is that, you know, facing these challenges in some ways made the women's national team stronger. I mean, there's the story about a player lockout over contract negotiations in 1999 where the senior players called the younger counterparts all the way down to the U16s and explained to them what was at stake. You know, but you also made the point that there are times when divisions on this team can be brutal.

MURRAY: Yeah. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of this team is that they sort of prioritize winning above all else. This is a team that, time and time again, whenever they have issues, whether it's in the locker rooms or in the board rooms, they find a way to kind of come together, move past it. That's why this team, still to this day, even as women's soccer gets more competitive, that's why the U.S. is still the top team in the world.

MARTIN: That is soccer journalist Caitlin Murray. Her book "The National Team: The Inside Story Of The Women Who Changed Soccer" is out now. And Caitlin was with us from France. We'll try to contain our envy.

MURRAY: And we hope that you have a great time. Keep us posted.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MURRAY: Will do. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.